Are BJP-ruled states moving towards Nazi-style policing?

Police officials patrol the venue of a Dharma Sabha, or a religious congregation, organised by the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a Hindu nationalist organisation, in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, on 24 November 2018. Pawan Kumar/Reuters
26 May, 2022

In an unusual but unsurprising development this May, the Bajrang Dal and the police at Madhya Pradesh’s Seoni district admitted that they work in coordination. The admission came after police arrested a group of men reported to have links to the Hindutva outfit for lynching two tribal men on suspicion of cow slaughter. While trying to give a cloak of legality to the activities of Bajrang Dal workers, the admission is also indicative of how states ruled by Bharatiya Janata Party are reinventing the policing model. This reinvention appears to be moving towards a pattern seen under the Nazi rule in Germany—one which culminated with security forces taking directions from the brown-shirted paramilitary wing of Hitler’s party.

The two tribal-community members, Dhansai Invati and Sampatlal Vatti, died early on 3 May after around fifteen people to twenty people attacked them in Simaria village. Families of six of the accused have said that they were associated with the Bajrang Dal, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh offshoot and sister organisation of the ruling BJP, according to a report in the Indian Express. While the Bajrang Dal has not clearly admitted to its role in the incident, the publication also quoted its district coordinator in Seoni, Devender Sain, as saying, “Those two men should not have died. We are sorry about that.”

As the lynching touched off a major political row, the Bajrang Dal began a damage-control exercise and claimed to be working in coordination with the police, the report noted. “The men who are accused of being members of our unit handed over the two men to police,” Sain told the publication. “We coordinate with police on every cow protection raid giving them crucial tip-offs.” Sain’s assertion was confirmed by the superintendent of police in the district, Kumar Prateek, who revealed that he had repurposed a highway patrol unit meant to prevent highway robberies to focus on cattle smuggling. Prateek claimed “that roping in the vigilante outfits denies them the excuse that the administration is not checking cattle smuggling.” He told the Indian Express, “I am in touch with most of these outfit members … Per day we get one-two informer tip-offs.”

The revelation by the superintendent is telling of the physical setting in which policing has been taking place in BJP-ruled states. I came across a case with such a setting in July 2021 while reporting on a series for Article 14 on the misuse of sedition law in Uttar Pradesh, another BJP-ruled state. On 9 November 2018, Feroz Ahmad, an electrician with a small shop at Nautanwa in Maharajganj district, was arrested for sedition—a charge that the police had to drop two and a half months later.

I reported that when Ahmad was arrested and brought to the police station, the line between the force meant to preserve law and order and a Hindutva outfit—in this case Hindu Yuva Vahini, the state chief minister Adityanth’s personal army of Hindu communalists—was barely noticeable. “There were around twenty Hindu Yuva Vahini men in the police station when I was taken in. They started shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ the moment they saw me,” Ahmad told me later. “I was scared as I saw Narasingh Pandey telling policemen about the specific charges that would be used against me.” Pandey, the district president of the HYV, was the complainant in the case. Ahmad added, “I could clearly see matters slipping out of the hands of the policemen.”

The first-information report accused Ahmad of forwarding a WhatsApp message, which, the HYV leader claimed, had hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus. “He wants to cause communal flare-up with the objective to destabilize the government and damage the unity and integrity of the country,” the FIR said.

Ahmad told me that at the police station he kept insisting that he had not forwarded any such message, that he was practically illiterate and could barely write his name. But the police—clearly under pressure from the HYV—did not listen to him.

On being contacted, Pandey had said, “One of my duties as a leader of Hindu Yuva Vahini is to file complaints with the police against those who speak or write against our gods and goddesses or our Maharaj-ji”—as the HYV men refer to Adityanath—“or any other Hindu religious guru.” He added, “We don’t spare even those who share such posts on social media.” Pandey also claimed that the HYV had filed about a dozen such complaints in various parts of the district since Adityanath became the chief minister. “In some cases, I am the complainant. In other cases, other members of Hindu Yuva Vahini are complainants,” he said.

Formed in the wake of Gujarat pogrom in 2002, the HYV has worked as a militia targeting Muslims in Gorakhpur, Maharajganj, Basti and some nearby districts. Earlier, Pandey said, its preferred tactic was to frame every argument and altercation between a Hindu and a Muslim in communal terms and turn it into a sectarian riot. But after Adityanath became the chief minister, lodging complaints against the so-called anti-Hindus has been one of the main engagements of its workers.

Coordination between Hindutva outfits and the police—even if unofficially—means combining an extremely ideological entity with the civil service. If these efforts go unchecked, they could institutionalise the relationship between the two.

It is worth recalling that an important step in the Nazi regime’s transformation into a powerful dictatorship was the melding of the Schutzstaffel—or the Protection Squad of Hitler’s Nazi Party—and the police into one institution. Soon after Hitler came to power in 1933, the Nazis took control of the German police forces and gradually transformed them into instruments of state repression. Not only were anti-Nazi police officers removed, but the entire police culture was reoriented towards achieving Nazi goals. During 1930s and early 1940s, this transformation facilitated the implementation of the Nazi regime’s radical plans and was responsible for innumerable crimes, including the mass murder of Jews.

As it is, the Indian police forces in many parts of the country are said to carry communal and casteist biases. Multiple media reports, for instance, revealed how the Delhi Police looked the other way as mobs burned down houses and shops of Muslims during the violence that broke out in the northeastern parts of the capital in February 2020. The police were also accused of attacking the victims. A video that went viral showed a group of injured men lying on the ground being beaten by policemen, who were seen forcing them to sing the national anthem. Even during the investigation, the role of the police was shoddy. The Delhi Police alleged that the riots were a “pre-planned conspiracy and centrally co-ordinated” by those protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. But as the matters are unfolding before the courts, these allegations are proving to be ill-founded.

The existing biases will develop deeper roots, instead of being removed, if the police and the Hindutva outfits synchronise further. They will remain motivated by the same strategy: not to act legally but to sustain a violently undemocratic model of governance aimed at strengthening majoritarian consolidation. The trend is dangerous, and the nation would ignore it at its peril.