Indian State, Society and ‘Public’ Through the Lens of Panchkula Killings

Nearly forty people were killed last Friday (25th August) during public disturbances at Panchkula in Haryana after the CBI court verdict in the rape case of Gurmeet Ram-Rahim. Surprisingly, even though these people died in public, till Tuesday, little information was available on how were they killed. The burning, arson and assault by followers of Ram-Rahim hogged the attention of media, state administration and judiciary. Yet, a deafening silence reined on the cause of death of forty people! It is as if the media, state administration, and judiciary, had implicitly assumed that people  indulging in arson after conviction of a rapist deserve to be killed any way.

panchkula Violence
Image: Hindustan Times

According to a newsreport on 28th August, autopsies done on the people killed on 25th August give bullet injuries to head and chest as the main cause of death. Hence, it is clear that most of the deaths during public rioting in Panchkula resulted from state police and para-military firing. It is not that public arson and violence are rare events in India, or that perpetrators of such actions face state action, and public wrath at the scale faced by perpetrators of arson at Panchkula. The biggest public act of ‘goondagardi‘ in independent India was the destruction of Babri Mosque in Ayodhya by Hindutva supporters. Twenty five years later, Indian courts are still deciding whom to punish for that dastardadly act. Communal pogroms in public view in 1984 and 2002 are among the darkest spots of the post independence Indian history. Backers of both of these mass killings gained unparalleled political successes afterwards. Haryana itself witnessed widespread public vandalism and violence during the agitation for Jat reservation last year. Dalit homes have been burnt down by organised mobs in Mirchpur and Gohana. Armed gau-rakshaks roam its countryside, terrorising Muslims. Yet state and media responses to these cases of public violence have been remarkably mild in comparison.

The question is not whether a rapist should go unpunished, or whether public areas should not be safe from arson (the answer to both these is an obvious No), but why are Indian state and ‘public opinion’ so selective in responding to acts of public violence? Also, what kind of ‘public’ exists in India, that does not bat an eyelid when upto forty people are killed in shooting by state armed forces during one hour of arson in a relatively small town? Answer to the selective response to public violence lies in the class and caste nature of the social and state power in India.

The politics of liberal governance, the fact that the vote of a dalit and a worker, (Muslims have been calculated out in the electoral calculus) counts for as much as a rich privileged caste’s vote, gives the impression that power in India is only a matter of  suitable maneuvering and negotiation. It is widely known that the Dera Sacha Sauda chief, whose followers are mainly from the Dalit (ex-untouchable) castes of the Malwa region of Punjab, and Haryana’s border districts with it, has indulged in negotiations with all major parties. There are media reports attributed to his adopted daughter that the support to BJP in last elections was given in return for a promise of the withdrawal of rape cases against him. Such underhand deals can never be proven. However, even if clinching evidence emerges, it is highly unlikely that privileged caste Hindus which form the core support base of the BJP, and who routinely cry hoarse against corruption of a Lalu Yadav or a Mayawati, are going to shift their loyalty to any other party. Actually, a sinister discourse of ‘vote bank’ politics routinely accompanies political maneuvering by oppressed castes and minorities. Privileged caste Punjabi Hindus, and Bania castes in Northern India have been voting for the right wing Hindu party, BJP since nineteen eighties, and Jansangh before that, ever since independence. Right till the end of Indira Gandhi, Brahmins all over India voted for the Congress. Yet these groups are never counted as a ‘vote bank’.

Even though the negotiated nature of electoral politics permits some flexibility, there are clear limits to what Indian state is ready to tolerate. Houses of Dalits can be burnt in villages, minorities can be attacked on highways and in trains; street thuggery in mofussil Sirsa can yield handsome returns to minions of Dera Sacha Sauda, however arson and looting in the enclaves of the socially powerful and rich is a clear no. Panchkula enjoys highest property prices in Haryana. The bureaucratic, political, and professional elites of the state live there. It is an enclave, where the hoi polloi of society can enter only to work, and then have to leave. Arson inside this enclave is a clear challenge to fortifications of class privileges in India. It is the class hatred of the privileged, inflamed by fear, that lies behind the silence on Panchkula killings.

Actions of the Indian state administration before public arson by Dera Sacha Sauda followers highlight another character of the Indian state. The crowd at Panchkula hardly looked like one organised for physical assault. Old men, women and children carrying clothes and food on their head formed a good part of it. They virtually lived in the open for  two days. It was not at all like the mass of kar sevaks that destroyed Babri Mosque, gangs that killed minorities on streets of Delhi and Ahmedabad, or more recent gangs of gau rakshaks. Any responsible administrator could have managed a crowd like that without much force. Yet the bureaucratic elite, that manages the city, and lives in it, showed criminal incompetence. Opportunism of the political class is often cited as the reason for administrative degeneration. However, much more is happening here. The bureaucratic elite which actually mans the state administration, not only shares the contempt for the marginalised common to all privileged, it is also professionally incompetent. While it hogs lion’s share of state exchequer as salaries, and perks, its professional contribution to the general well being is minimal.

Finally, these killings and reaction to them show how fractured the ‘public’ in India is. In a formal sense all activities beyond the confines of private spaces are public. The disillusioned army of Dera Sacha Sauda followers walking for days on state highways back to their villages in distant districts of Punjab is public. So are shoppers at the Sector 17 market of LeCorbusier’s Chandigarh. Yet the two publics are not only worlds apart, their realities and imaginations are often in conflict. Privileged strata manage to create a sense of public in societies through successfully projecting their ideas of social living as hegemonic, which the underprivileged not only accept and incorporate, but also imitate. Indian reality is far from it. Actually, with his  bombastic self representation, which is seen as cartoonish in elite cultures, some one like Gurmeet Ram Rahim, ‘pitatji‘ (divine father) to his millions of Dalit followers, appears to be mocking any pretense of hegemony by India’s ruling groups. Any public imagined in India is actually fragmented. This is the curse of Manu, which Indian society is still living through. Prescient observers like Ambedkar and Kosambi had long ago noted that the caste ridden Hindu society is actually not even a society, it is an arithmetic conglomeration. Hindutva, which marries caste privileges with hatred against minorities and jingoistic nationalism, is interesting sociologically as an attempt towards organising Hindus under a hegemonic project. Its successes will lead India only towards greater disasters. The other possibility, a society with a modern public arena can emerge only with the annihilation of caste.

Another indicator of the lack of a genuine public in India is the absence of public morality, and its confusion with a glib discourse on corruption. Corruption is illegal personal gain. Lalu Prasad and his family accumulating wealth beyond legal means is corruption. Indians lack the moral framework to judge the betrayal of Muslim voters of Bihar by Nitish Kumar, who got their votes through Mahagatbandhan, but then hitched himself to Hindutva band wagon. Public morality is built upon shared codes of evaluation, that judge actions primarily on the basis of their effects on others. Hence, it can be reasonably argued that political discourses through which state power is gained should not rely on lies, half lies, unfounded allegations, and be tempered by a little bit of self reflection which is necessary for course correction. Yet the political success of Hindutva, Mr Modi’s specifically, is precisely the result of the kind of discourse which will be disapproved by any public conscious of its morality.

Indian elites living in enclaves like Panchkula lack any framework of public morality in which the killing of forty people by state armed forces will be a shock. This matches well with their self interest, which is focused on maintaining their privileges. The real tragedy of India is that other Indians, people like followers of Dera Sacha Sauda, put their faith in crooks and criminals like Gurmeet Ram Rahim.

 Sanjay Kumar teaches Physics at St Stephen’s College, Delhi. 




Related Articles