Anurag Thakur leading ‘goli maaro’ chant tests limits of political speech, speaks to malaise of hate in Indian polity

If senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders had left us with the capacity to be shocked, we would indeed be profoundly shaken by the fact that a member of the Union Council of Ministers led a crowd he was addressing on Monday in raising a chant exhorting people to “Shoot the country’s traitors”.

A BJP candidate for the impending Assembly election in Delhi, Kapil Mishra, led a procession on 21 December, 2019 in which an abbreviated version of this chant was also raised. He was not sanctioned, though his recidivist bouts of incitement led the Election Commission (EC) to slap him gently on the wrist – banning him from campaigning for 48 hours, beginning 5 pm on Saturday (thus, expired now) – for saying that the Delhi election was like a contest between India and Pakistan.

Minister of State for Finance Anurag Singh Thakur was the offending leader on Monday, raising the chant while campaigning for a BJP candidate in Rithala, Delhi. Considering the fact that a candidate for the elections got away practically unscathed after making incendiary statements serially, it is unclear what the EC can do to Thakur. At best, it can ban him from campaigning altogether, but that will probably neither greatly inconvenience him nor the party.

Dilip Ghosh, the president of the West Bengal unit of the BJP, had made a similar statement, which he refused to retract after it provoked an outcry. He had said on 12 January that people in West Bengal who were destroying government property while protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019, and the National Register of Citizens (NCR) should be shot ‘like dogs’ as they had been in Uttar Pradesh and Assam. He refused to recant despite criticism from members of his own party and a statement issued by the Uttar Pradesh government to the effect that it had not shot anyone.

 Anurag Thakur leading goli maaro chant tests limits of political speech, speaks to malaise of hate in Indian polity

File image of Union minister Anurag Thakur. AFP

What ought to be done in such cases lies in the bailiwick of the police. This chant is clearly an incitement to violence, even murder. The police can, therefore, slap an accessory-before-the-fact charge on these leaders. The Delhi Police had actually lodged a first information report (FIR) against Mishra for the ‘India-Pakistan’ tweet. On the face of it, there is no reason to desist from lodging FIRs against Mishra and Thakur for the ‘shoot them’ slogans. Ghosh has been booked by the West Bengal Police.

The larger point, however, is the phenomenon itself of senior BJP leaders making statements that do not behoove them. Take the rhetorical trajectory that began with the formulation of the dangerous, though utterly vacuous, phrase ‘tukde, tukde gang’. The phrase gained currency in 2016, when then Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar, along with two other students, was accused of raising ‘anti-national’ slogans at an event organised by them. They were charged, inter alia, with sedition. In the absence of evidence, the cases against the three former students have languished.

But these two phrases — ‘tukde, tukde gang’ and ‘anti-national’ — have become part of the BJP’s rhetorical arsenal. They are used indiscriminately to attack as unpatriotic and even traitorous anyone and everyone who does not embrace the viciously exclusivist and majoritarian ideological frame of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its parivar, which includes preeminently the BJP.

Thus, a number of leaders have branded the protesters currently demonstrating peacefully at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh and scores of Shaheen Baghs all over India. It was Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad who, most recently, accused the Shaheen Bagh protesters of being, by default, part of the tukde, tukde gang.

A significant section of the protesters at Shaheen Bagh and elsewhere are, however, apolitical women who are participating in a protest for the first time in their lives because they genuinely fear that a toxic combination of the CAA and the NCR will rob many Muslims, alongside many poor and indigent people regardless of their denominational status, of their citizenship and wreak great damage to constitutional democracy.

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