Populist Barbarism:  Killings in an Authoritarian State

Lawlessness does not begin to describe what is transpiring in India, the land of the Buddha, Mahavira, Jnaneshvar, Guru Nanak, Kabir, Badshah Khan, and Gandhi.  “Ahimsa paramo dharma” [Nonviolence is the highest duty], says the Mahabharata, but few in this ancient land appear to be in any mood for nonviolence.  A spectre is haunting India—the spectre of unfathomable rage, wanton cruelty, and a ravenous appetite for retribution and on-the-spot justice.

A few days ago a 26-year young woman in the greater Hyderabad metropolitan area, a veterinarian by profession, met a gruesome end.  Her scooter had stalled at a toll plaza in the evening as she was preparing to return home and a man nearby insisted on helping her.  But the vet felt uneasy and placed a call to her younger sister at 9:30 PM, urging her to keep in touch with her every few minutes.  The younger sister was unable to reach her again, and by 10:30 PM found that her sister’s phone had been switched off.  The family then drove to the toll plaza but could not locate her; in the early hours of the morning, after the police had wasted several hours questioning the family, a complaint was registered at the police station.

At 7 AM, on Thursday, November 28, a charred body was found 30 kilometres from the toll plaza.  The vet was identified by her clothing.  She had evidently been abducted by four men, later identified as Mohammed Areef, Jollu Shiva, Jollu Naveen, and Chintakunta Chnnekesavulu.  The men stripped her, then took turns in raping her; when she regained consciousness, they asphyxiated her, wrapped her body in a blanket, and then doused the corpse in gasoline before setting it on fire.  Rather unusually, considering the justly deserved reputation that most Indian police forces have as inept in the extreme, the alleged assailants were identified within 24 hours of the heinous crime.

Had the matter stopped there, or with the outrage that was expressed in the form of country-wide protests demanding the expeditious imposition of the death penalty against the alleged criminals, the country would have been witness to another heart-wrenching story of the rampant sexual violence against women that has earned India much notoriety and the total disregard for the lives of women in a country where the “feminine principle” has informed a good deal of the religious practices at least of the Hindus.  The country has lived through all of this repeatedly in the last several years:  there was the infamous case of the brutalization of 23-year old “Nirbhaya” in December 2012, and not so long ago a girl from the Bakherwal community who was not even in her teens was brutally assaulted, gang-raped, and then blunted to death within the very precincts of a temple.   Then, and now, the cries for lynching the accused were exceedingly loud.  At the police station where the accused were being held, a large crowd that had gathered demanded that the men be turned over to them.  According to newspaper reports, the police had difficulty in dispersing the crowd—in part because women and children comprised a substantial portion of the crowd.

But the case of the alleged assailants of the victim has already taken a different turn.  Less than 24 hours ago, they were taken to an underpass on the Bangalore Hyderabad national highway by the police, ostensibly with the objective of having them reconstruct the horrific events of the night that they brutalized and murdered the veterinary doctor.  According to the police, the suspects, who were not handcuffed, somehow connived at snatching the firearms being wielded by some of the policemen, and started firing.  In the exchange of fire that ensued, the four men were shot dead.

One of Indian English’s many contributions to the language is the word “Encounter”. Everyone in India would have understood this as an encounter killing:  when the police desire to kill terrorists or armed political rebels, usually with the justification that self-defence necessitates such a drastic step, they stage an encounter.  The supposition is that terrorists and criminals, or, to put it more accurately, those represented as such have no rights and need not even be viewed as fully human.  Such “encounter killings” have sometimes been used as a front to eliminate supposed enemies of the state or meddlesome human rights activists.  What cannot be emphasized enough is that the four men in this case were suspects, and no more than that.  Indians have become impatient with democracy, a subject which calls for pronounced reflection, but here it suffices to say that their disaffection both with policing and the judicial system runs deep.  In the wake of the grisly gang-rape of Nirbhaya, who succumbed to her injuries some days later, the government sought to introduce “fast-track” courts for crimes of sexual violence but such courts have evidently done little to stop rapists in their tracks.   The police were doubtless under extreme pressure to bring the suspects to justice, and calls for “public lynching” from politicians placed in high positions and some public figures of eminence may have emboldened them to bump off the suspects in the expectation that they would receive accolades rather than brickbats from the public.


Protests by ABVP activists in Hyderabad on 2 December 2019 calling for the death of the suspected rapists.  Source:  https://www.thequint.com/news/hot-news/no-let-up-in-protests-over-hyderabad-gang-rape-murder

As the public reaction to the extrajudicial killing of the four suspects amply shows, the policemen judged the situation accurately.  There are widespread reports of the jubilant celebrations that have followed these killings.  When India went nuclear over two decades ago, people felicitated each other, distributed sweets, and boasted about the prowess of their country.  We may say that many in the country have similarly gone ballistic at the present turn of events:  some people hoisted policemen on their shoulders, others showered them with rose petals and exploded firecrackers.  Nirbhaya’s father is among those who is reported to have issued a statement to the effect that the police had been within their right to shoot the suspects, who would surely have fled the scene and might not have been caught again.  Ironically, his statement suggests that he does not repose much faith in the police, given that he appears to have thought that if they fled from the scene the police would not have had the competence to apprehend them again.  No one, neither Nirbhaya’s father nor anyone else, has thought it fit to ask why, if indeed the scene occurred precisely as described by the police, the suspects were not shot in the legs to disable them. Nirbhaya’s mother has made a public appeal that the policemen responsible for shooting the four suspects should not be subjected to punishment.  One can understand the extraordinary distress that Nirbhaya’s parents have experienced over the years, even if, as is the case with the present writer, one cannot condone the wanton killing of suspects—and one should reiterate, to the end, that they were only suspects.  But the enthusiasm that Jaya Bachchan has displayed for such reckless killings suggests that the actress and Member of Parliament has watched the many films of her husband, who perfected the role of the hero who set out to create a world of vigilante justice, far too often.

The brutalities to which the 26-year old veterinarian was subjected can never be fully comprehended.  The extent to which some men—and they are mostly the male of the species—will degrade themselves must always remain unfathomable to some degree.  Studies have repeatedly shown that the most ordinary people can be turned into killers at short notice.  India is scarcely the only country where women are violated at will by men, nor is it the only country where the question of how to police the police has become a pressing issue.  Those who object to the killings of the suspects on the grounds that the law must be allowed to take its own course are doubtless right.  The public cannot act as prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner, and the majesty of the idea of the “rule of law” must not be diluted—even as one understands how the law is often exploited, manipulated, and prostituted to serve the interests of those who are monied or wield power.  It is shocking in the extreme—and perhaps not, given what we know about the character of many of those who are entrenched as part of the country’s political elite—that the calls for the “public lynching” of the four suspects also came forth from the very halls of Parliament, whose members are sworn to uphold the Constitution of India and its promise of due process for all.  One cannot think of a greater disregard for the “rule of law”.

India has, however, now passed the point of being merely lawless.  The horrific killing of the young veterinarian was a form of barbarism.  Not less barbaric are the killings of the four suspects alleged to have murdered her and then, as all of this was not sufficiently putrid, public rejoicing at this act of wanton killing.  The victim’s name was, contrary to all norms of civility, widely circulated–and, in yet another ominous sign of our times, was trending as the most searched name on porn sites.  Barbarism upon barbarism:  the unthinkable.  At this rate, the Indian state will no longer require the services of the police in the years ahead:  it has, with great adroitness, outsourced retributive justice to the public.  The state can not only absolve itself of its responsibilities in this respect, but even claim that this is democracy truly at work:  the will of the public is being honored.  The country will require all of its intellectual, spiritual, and cultural resources to take it through the dark days ahead.

14 thoughts on “Populist Barbarism:  Killings in an Authoritarian State

  1. Thank you for this piece. If I so much as question the actions of the police in this case, people say I must support the rapists. It is utter madness and hysteria that has taken over our nation, amplified by the ruinous influence of Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and WhatsApp. There is something unique in the Indian consciousness, I feel, that allows for moments of mass psychosis: I am not sure if any other society has experienced this. I have also always been skeptical of those who support a death penalty for rapists, even if they are duly convicted. This is not because I have some pro-rape position but because it would seem as though victims would be even less likely to report sexual crimes if it meant the rapist would be hanged. We already see the massive stigma against women who report rape: some are even told, by the police, to marry the rapist! Imagine how it would increase if rape came with a death sentence.


  2. Most important thing to read to understand our times is Ashis Nandy’s discussion of his interviews of Narendra Modi and other RSS members. The disturbed men he describes, which shocked even his psychologist’s eye, have channeled their mental state to the whole of the country!


    • Yes, his interview with Modi from two decades ago and his description of what he at that point already could discern was the essence of the authoritarian personality is truly worth reading.


  3. There is no hope. India and its democratic institutions have reached a position of irredeemable disrepair. Every single institution and major political party has been complicit in what has happened and there isn’t a single powerful, influential voice advocating a return to democratic norms. The news media is free in name only, having become entirely an extension of the state. The police are given free reign. The military has become politicized. Indian democracy is already dead: the only question is when we do away with the constitution in toto which only exists as a formality at this point.


    • I can understand your sense of despair, Sonia, but I wouldn’t say that there is no hope. The greatest crisis always call for the most creative response and I think there is enough in our civilization to warrant the hope that we will get out of this hole, even if some institutions may have been badly damaged. I will speak to this in one of my essays in the future but for the present just wanted to add this very short note.


    • Good point, Vivek.
      Moreover, the late P.M. Indira Gandhi ordered an attack on the Khalistani group and even on the sacred precincts of the Sikhs where the Khalistanis were hiding. Attacks on Naxalites were also ongoing during past Congress ruled governments. So, prior Congress governments were using violence


  4. These incidents are indeed despicable and require more efforts from central, State and local authorities, as well a change in the mentality of the common people many of whom consider boys will be boys and pamper them while growing up, and treating girls and women as less important. Also we should keep in mind that such incidents are also frequently happening in USA which has one-third the population of India (I see this on TV news broadcasts).


    • Previous Congress ruled governments of India have used vote bank appeasements to divide and rule, why is the current BJP ruled government being singled out for divide and rule, when they are moving away from vote banks and appeasement of minorities?


    • Dear Prof. Vinay Lal, Previous Congress ruled governments of India have used vote bank appeasements to divide and rule, why is the current BJP ruled government being singled out for divide and rule, when they are moving away from vote banks and appeasement of minorities?

      Regards, Maneck Bhujwala


    • Dear Maarten de Vries,
      Your statement is against Democratic form of government, so it applies to all democratic governments of India and other countries. It does not villify the current BJP majority government headed by P.M. Narendra Modi.


    • My reply should have also been directed to Maarten de Vries, whose statement is directed against all forms of Democratic governments and not just against BJP government headed by P.M. Narendra Modi.


  5. What happened to Nirbhaya and the veterinarian are unimaginable and some of the cruelest things people can experience. Their rapes and deaths caused protests across India and the people, understandably, called for the four mens’ deaths. In the US, we have the death penalty in some states and even that is a heated discussion. In India, the death penalty is legal, so it’s not crazy that people wanted the men dead. What is crazy is how in less than a week, the vet was raped and murdered, all four killers were found, and they were all shot dead by the police in what some called an “encounter killing”. At the time of their death, the four men had yet to face a trial and were still only suspects of the crime. In the US since 1973, 187 people have been exonerated of all their charges due to new evidence of their innocence. If the men did commit the crimes, which they likely did, they deserved the death penalty, but only after facing a fair trial. By letting the police and the public carry out this killing, and yes the public had a hand in it by protesting and calling for their heads which resulted in the police killing them to satisfy the public, the laws no longer have power. In a State where laws no longer hold any meaning, chaos will ensue. Democracy is no longer a thing when the laws are ignored. I agree with you that the public should not be able to play judge, juror, and executioner because it may lead to many more deaths, each with less and less proof, but more and more personal bias. Framing people of crimes or just accusing them could soon be enough to see someone killed. Many criminals are found to be guilty, but the few innocent ones will get caught in this crossfire and wrongfully lose their lives. In the case of these four men in particular, I hope they were guilty so the actual criminals aren’t still out there, but despite the horrible crimes they were accused of, they still deserved a day in court and a proper sentencing.


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