Militarization and excessive nationalism are seeping into every layer of Indian society. Retired Air Marshals publish books lauding India’s soldiers while minimizing or ignoring their worst crimes. Sociologists like Sanjay Srivastava lament that jingoistic marketing campaigns for food and consumer goods, especially after India’s incursions into Pakistani-occupied Kashmir in 2016, have insidiously normalized horrendous violence “as just everyday playful events.” Talk shows, news channels, and interview panels are flooded with warmongering former generals comparing Pakistan to a “rabid dog,” as seen in The Print. India is even home to the world’s second most heavily armed civilian population. An investigation by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom concluded that widespread economic insecurity, the pursuit of status, and a deeply ingrained “machismo” culture are fueling the black-market arms trade. Illegal gun manufacturing bazaars are multiplying at an alarming rate throughout Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and Haryana.
Additionally, Philosopher Samir Chopra revealed how the Indian Armed Forces use the Bollywood film industry as a tool to disseminate propaganda. Filmmakers constantly churn out popular blockbusters which glorify or whitewash Delhi’s brutal occupation of Kashmir. Even politicians are spinning a war narrative about the Covid-19 pandemic—a narrative that justifies the near-permanent suspension of civil liberties and conveniently absolves the authorities of any responsibility in the deaths of millions of destitute and marginalized people due to the virus, as noted by Gender Studies scholar Niharika Pandit.
Devastating defeat at the hands of China in 1962 sent India spiraling down the path of militarization. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of India as a leading exponent of peaceful development was shattered overnight. An assertive militarism swiftly replaced Nehru’s pacifism as Delhi relied on aggressive force to exert influence abroad and to crush rebellions or social movements at home. The armed forces soon wielded unprecedented police powers during Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency” dictatorship between 1975-77. Two years later, West Bengal’s Communist administration oversaw the massacre of Dalit refugees at Marichjhanpi island. No policemen were held accountable for the alleged murder of thousands of unarmed women and children, according to journalist Deep Halder. By the early nineties, millions of citizens in Kashmir, Punjab, and the northeastern states of Nagaland, Assam, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura, and Arunachal Pradesh lived under direct or covert military rule, according to political scientist Seema Kazi. A cruel autocracy lurks beneath the world’s largest democracy.
Militarization persists today and is most apparent in the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF). South Asian studies Professor Devesh Kapur says the size of paramilitary police forces has grown exponentially over the past two decades. The Ministry of Home Affairs, which controls the Border Security Force (BSF), Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) among others, is one of the rare government departments to see a huge increase in personnel. By 2015, CAPFs nearly outmatched India’s army in terms of sheer numbers.
The CAPFs, according to Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative member and retired policeman G.P. Joshi, “are organized more or less like the infantry battalions of the army…trained to assault and annihilate.” In other words, they are trained to combat exceptional threats like Maoist insurgencies in Chhattisgarh or to patrol India’s volatile borders with Pakistan and China, not to handle routine law and order cases. Yet state administrations continue to use poorly equipped and ineptly led CAPFs at the expense of neglected and underfunded state police.
To make matters worse, the public supports paramilitary deployment because of local police corruption and lack of impartiality during violent inter-communal skirmishes. Vulnerable religious minorities, Adivasi tribals, and lower castes like Dalits and Shudras often view policemen as the foot soldiers of upper-caste landlords. A Human Rights Watch report even quoted an activist in Delhi who compared India’s police force to a criminal enterprise “that masquerades as the law.” Moreover, Indian military veterans like Major Gaurav Arya take advantage of the police’s dismal reputation to argue that supposedly disciplined, competent, and honest army officers deserve more access to leadership positions in various police organizations, as noted in Asia Times.
It is not surprising, then, that ordinary Indians trust highly militarized units to protect them instead—no matter how dangerous the CAPFs may be for the country’s stability. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to centralize policing have been a roaring success so far. Article 14 alleges that 2021 witnessed the proliferation of secretive agencies endowed with frightening powers. The new Special Security Force in Uttar Pradesh is “protected from civil or criminal action and can search or arrest anyone on “reasonable suspicion” alone, with no warrant or magistrate’s order.” The Border Security Force’s jurisdiction has also been expanded to include Punjab, West Bengal, and Assam. India’s states must stop surrendering their shrinking police powers to an increasingly authoritarian government in Delhi. Trigger-happy paramilitaries are no substitutes for level-headed, well-paid, and respectable state policemen.
Members of Hindu nationalist groups like the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and BJP (Bharatiya Jana Party) also tend to embrace a militaristic ethos and worldview. Scholars like Bidyut Chakrabarty, Bhuwan Jha, and Marzia Casolari amply demonstrated how fanatical proponents of Hindu supremacism expressed admiration for the military prowess and martial spirit that fascist regimes in Italy and Nazi Germany exhibited during the 1930s. Ideologues like B.S. Moonje and V.D. Savarkar believed that only through rigorous physical “regeneration” and rifle practice could Hindu youths ever hope to assert their dominance over the Muslim minority in India.
Contemporary RSS leaders and recruits have taken these sinister lessons to heart. Journalist Samanth Subramanian reports that approximately four million RSS volunteers swear oaths of allegiance to Hindu culture and religion, wear matching uniforms, participate in quasi-military drills, and dabble in borderline fascistic parades as their loathing for Muslims, secularists, socialists, and liberals mounts with each passing year. In January 2020, Hindu extremist youth brigades like the RSS-affiliated ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) shouted “shoot the traitors to the nation” while laying siege to rooms belonging to faculty and students who dared criticize the BJP at JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University). Multiple Amnesty International reports attest that anti-Muslim hate crimes, lynchings, and mob violence are rising in states controlled by the BJP. A cold civil war is underway.
Modi’s government is waging relentless “lawfare” against India’s Muslims as well. Following his general election victory in 2019, a series of legislative coups confirmed that the BJP’s main objective is to institutionalize anti-Muslim discrimination and remold India into a Hindu supremacist nation. The abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution stripped the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy, while the revision of Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) could deprive thousands of Indian Muslims of their citizenship. Furthermore, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) prevents Muslim immigrants fleeing Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan from acquiring Indian nationality, according to Usama Hameed and DW News. The fact that Delhi even plans to herd “foreigners” (read Muslim Assamese) into internment centers bearing an eerie resemblance to concentration camps is another ominous illustration of just how far the BJP is willing to go to win the war against the “enemies within,” as noted in the Guardian.
What can be done to stem the tide of militarism? The numerous grassroots human rights organizations that emerged in response to disastrous counter-insurgency tactics in Northeastern states like Manipur offer many lessons worth emulating elsewhere in India. Countless people who live under the shadow of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which allows armed personnel to carry out heinous atrocities against mostly innocent civilians without fear of persecution, fight hard to resist the militarization of their communities. Women’s movements, like the Meira Paibis (Torch Bearers), have an exemplary record when it comes to staging imaginative and eye-catching non-violent protests. Following the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama by paramilitaries in 2004, twelve women stripped naked in front of the headquarters of the Assam Rifles regiment in Imphal. The nude protest caused a sensation both nationally and internationally. Though Delhi ultimately refused to accept protestor’s demands to repeal the AFSPA, the Assam Rifles have since refrained from indulging in serious human rights violations and the number of paramilitary crimes has steadily dropped.
Groups like Human Rights Alert (HRA) and the Extrajudicial Execution Victim’s Families Association (EEVFAM) have also been very successful in restraining the Manipur Police Commandos (MPC). The wives, mothers, and family members of victims the MPC indiscriminately killed filed a public interest litigation to the Indian Supreme Court, asking for an investigation into extrajudicial executions and compensation. In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that security forces must be held accountable for crimes they commit. Sociologist Makiko Kimura says that extrajudicial killings in Manipur have now almost entirely disappeared. Police and security personnel are, at long last, genuinely scared of being punished.
Militarization can be stopped. It is incumbent upon organizations like the Control Arms Foundation of India to transform the cause of anti-militarism into a mass movement akin to the Farmers’ strikes. Skanda, the Hindu god of war, must not replace Gandhi as India’s icon.
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