Death by ‘encounter’: Yogi Adityanath’s penal populism

Once crime was as solitary as a cry of protest; now it is as universal as science. Yesterday it was put on trial; today it determines the law. Albert Camus; The Rebel (1956)

Bharat Bhushan

Support for harsh penal policies is often the result of two interconnected phenomena. One, viewing criminals as those outside of society and two, a result of disillusionment with procedural justice

Even if some claim that the shooting of Atiq Ahmed and his brother Ashraf by assailants while under police custody is the last nail in the coffin of the judicial process, the public at the receiving end of Atiq Ahmed’s criminality and terror does not appear to be in mourning over the ascendance of “jungle-raj” in Uttar Pradesh. If anything, they will probably agree with the pronouncement of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) minister and former state president, Swatantra Dev Singh, “Paap aur punya ka hisab isi janam mein hota hai (The account of sin and virtue is settled in this lifetime only). The representation of justice through the metaphor of religious virtue instead of law is, as we shall see, not accidental.

It is also clear that the “penal populism” promoted in Uttar Pradesh by its chief minister Yogi Adityanath has spilt over, dangerously, into vigilante justice. “Penal populism”, political scientists tell us, describes a notion of justice that centres around delivering harsh and quick retributive punishment to criminals.

Yogi Adityanath has always sought the image of a strongman upholding law and order. So far, his chosen instruments for instant justice have been police encounters and using bulldozers to demolish criminals’ property. They are his calling card in elections not only in UP but in other states as well, where there seems to be widespread public approval of his methods and his leadership. This is despite numerous judicial pronouncements on extra-judicial killings and their mandatory investigation.

The death of several dreaded criminals by police encounters played a crucial role in legitimising the rule of Adityanath and ensured a massive second term in UP for the BJP in 2022. It is said to have contributed to his achieving a consecutive win in a state where the CM has never been re-elected for a repeat term. Since he came to power in 2017, there have been 10,933 police encounters in the state in which 183 notorious criminals have been killed, 5,046 wounded, and 23,348 arrested and jailed. In contrast, only 13 policemen lost their lives, and 1,443 were injured. The encounter killing of Atiq Ahmed’s son will further scale Adityanath’s “strongman” image.

Political scientists believe that the support for harsh penal policies is often the result of two interconnected phenomena. One is viewing criminals as individuals outside of society and, therefore, the need to exclude, excise or punish them. And two, a result of disillusionment with procedure-laden legal processes, which are seen to function to the advantage of criminals and disfavour the ordinary folk. However, by themselves, these two beliefs do not necessarily lead to extra-judicial killings or harsh punishments outside the judicial process. However, they create the objective conditions for the rise of populist leaders, fulfilling the yearning for a strong leader who would restore social order.

This fits in well with Yogi Adityanath’s political ambitions. He has successfully built an image of a leader with no personal agenda to push as the celibate head of a Hindu religious sect. As the anointed head of the Hindu sect of Gorakhpanthis, he also has no special attachment to bureaucratic procedures, civil society traditions or modern law. His loyalty is to the Divine; the Constitution and laws, legality and the judiciary are mere instrumentalities that he has to operate with if he also holds elected office in the mundane world. They are but formalities that have to be tolerated. At the same time, there are few ethical qualms about dispensing justice through alternative means if the legal processes are seen to be slow and ineffective. His harsh penal policies, summarised in his message to the police in a TV interview: “Thok do” (Finish them), sometimes barely skirt the right side of the law but have been well received by public opinion.

He is seen as a political leader with the will and the capacity to circumvent the legal and bureaucratic institutions, which the people believe are either inefficient or corrupt. His rise as the brightest new star on the Hindutva firmament is associated with appeasing the lowest common denominator of public opinion– swift delivery of justice without what is seen as the legal rigmarole.

Yogi Adityanath’s penal populism goes down especially well with his Hindutva constituency, especially when the gangsters and criminals targeted are Muslims. It may be no coincidence that the assassins of Atiq Ahmed and his brother Ashraf saw themselves as doing something righteous and shouted the religious slogan “Jai Sri Ram” after the killing. In the hands of individual vigilantes, penal populism transmutes into social revenge and is seen as justice — in this case, seeing themselves as ‘avengers’ at delivering a kind of justice on behalf of ‘Hindu society’. Of course, one must also allow for the possibility that their sloganeering may have been a deliberate red-herring.

Regardless of whether the killers only pretended to be social avengers, vigilante justice — punishing a wrong by a like wrong — is not social justice. It can often turn out to be yet another step in the spiralling cycle of revenge. In the long run, it degrades civilised society and offers no social closure, which is the primary purpose of justice.

More immediately, however, two things are likely to happen. The demand for Yogi Adityanath as a campaigner in the upcoming state elections, beginning with Karnataka, could dramatically rise. He will also ensure that in the upcoming UP urban local body elections on May 4 and 11, the BJP records a massive victory.

The results will coincidentally be announced on May 13, the same day as the Karnataka legislative elections. Even if the BJP were to lose in Karnataka, the national narrative would be about its UP victory — the state which sends the largest number of MPs to the Lok Sabha. This will allow the party to proclaim that it remains on top for the 2024 general elections. It will also enhance Yogi Adityanath’s national image in the Hindutva constituency.

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