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Violent Religious Vigilantes in India and Indonesia


Sana Jaffrey, the Director of the Institute for Policy Analysis in Jakarta, has recently written an outstanding analysis of right-wing populism and vigilante violence in India and Indonesia. You can find it in the 2021 Studies in Comparative International Development, “Right-Wing Populism and Vigilante Violence in Asia”.

Religious vigilantes carry out mob assaults on victims who are accused of violating the religious sensibilities of the attacking group. Vigilante attacks involve religious majorities assaulting religious minorities. In India, this means Hindu attacks on Moslems. In Indonesia, this means Moslem attacks on Chinese or less frequently, Christians. In Indonesia, there are also sectarian vigilante attacks on rival Islamic congregations. In India, there are attacks on butchers who sell beef, and truck drivers who transport beef cattle. In both countries, there are vigilante attacks on gays, sex industry workers and inter-religious dating couples. The choice of targets is not always accurate. A group of men drinking together can be accused of being gay. A butcher who might be unpopular for other reasons may be accused of slaughtering cows. Attacks generally involve vigorous beatings by the crowd. Some vigilante attacks result in the victim dying. However, usually the point of the assault is to merely to punish the victim enough to scare off other people from imitating his activity. Jeffrey notes, for example, that other butchers will close their businesses and move to other neighborhoods in response to a butcher-beating near their shop. Were the other butchers selling beef? Who is to say – but the butchers that remain make a point of only selling other types of meat.

Vigilante violence is rising in both countries. The data sources for the two nations are not comparable; Indonesian data sources are more accurate and pick up more incidents than do Indian ones. The increase in India has been dramatic – from less than 10 assaults a year in 2009 to near 90 assaults a year in 2017. Most of the increase occurred after the BJP, a Hindu Nationalist party, came into power in 2014. Indonesia reports far more incidents – which is probably a function of the better data collection in Indonesia. However, vigilante incidents went up only 15% between 2005 and 2014. Generally, Indian incidents are more violent than Indonesian incidents with more actual beatings rather than threats and more deaths resulting from beating.

What is changing in India and Indonesia is the form of ethnic violence rather than the quantity per se. In earlier eras, both nations experienced communal riots. These are large scale rampages where a large crowd of people from one religion storm the neighborhood of a different religion making generalized mayhem. There is widespread property damage and often substantial personal violence as well. The number of communal riots has actually gone down in the last two decades. The difference between communal riots and vigilante attacks are that specific individuals are targeted for vigilante attacks – while communal riots are more of a “anyone-in-our-path” kind of attack. In theory, this ought to be “an improvement”, but it’s not. In a vigilante situation, one victim faces a massive crowd – is totally outnumbered and is completely defenseless. In communal riots, as well, there are settings where lopsided and hopeless encounters occur. However, because communal riots involve there are more people being attacked all at once, there is some possibility of the victims joining together to defend themselves. Think of communal riots as being hurricanes that do massive widespread damage, and vigilante violence as being tornadoes that leave most people untouched – but devastate the victims whom get hit.

Why is this occurring? Sana Jaffrey offers a number of explanations – most of which are generally plausible.

1. These actions are supported by local politicians and the police. The crowds know they can act with impunity. The victims know there will be no protection – so they had better do what the crowd is demanding. The vigilantes support politicians who will let them attack moral enemies. The politicians call for violence against beef eaters or homosexuals to rally crowds for their nationalist causes. In India, local politicians control the police forces which are decentralized. Therefore, vigilante attacks went up after the Hindu Nationalist party (BJP) got into power, and vigilante attacks are more common in BJP states. In Indonesia, the police are controlled by the federal government – which has, outside of one period, been controlled by pro-tolerance political parties. When the Indonesian National Government was run by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), vigilante attacks went up. Before and after FPI control, vigilante activity was more subdued. Even during the period of FPI rule, Indonesian crowds were more subdued because police served as intermediaries, negotiating with potential victims about the importance of making religious concessions in order to forestall possible attacks or moderate an attack already in progress.

2. Vigilantism has long been well accepted in both countries as a practical solution for controlling crime. Crime rates are high in both India and Indonesia, as they are in most rapidly urbanizing underdeveloped nations. The quality of police protection even under ideal conditions is spotty; police protection is worse when there is corruption or complicity between police officers and organized crime. Vigilantes have long been used to provide practical protection for neighborhoods. Such groups are also welcomed by politicians due to their willingness to help insure favorable outcomes on election day. There is also a tradition of using vigilantes to pursue social agendas. Jaffrey argues that Indian states with high rates of religious vigilantism also have high rates of vigilante attacks on women for being witches. Witch attacks are often thinly disguised attempts by males to control women who are assertive, successful or nonconformist.

3. Jaffrey argues that religious vigilantism is often a later stage of failed campaigns to institutionalize laws and political procedures that would favor religious majorities over religious minorities. It is clearly the case that politicians and organizations that tried and failed to produce constitutional changes that would have favored Hindus over everyone else in India and Moslems over everyone else in Indonesia were later enthusiastic supporters of vigilantes. Given the long history of religious communal violence in both countries, I am not so sure that violent measures were narrowly the result of failed attempts at pro-majority legal change. Ethnic violence in India dates back to the Hindu-Moslem Riots of the 1948 Partition and the Indonesian massacres of Chinese during the Cold War years. However, violence is often politics carried out by other means. Jaffrey is surely correct that these legal conflicts played a role in supporting subsequent attacks in the streets.

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Jaffrey argues, and I concur, that religious vigilantism is not good for democracy. These are explicit attempts by majorities to dominate, control and politically neutralize and dominate the minorities of their country. Control is being imposed on religious minorities, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities - - - and women. Women are hardly a minority in either India or Indonesia. These new assaults however have a patriarchal script as well as a theological script. The consequences for civil liberties are obvious. The consequences for economic development are less so. But violence is not conducive to a good business environment. Silencing women and keeping them uneducated and out of the labor force does not lead to a good business environment. Attacking businesses and entrepreneurs because they have the wrong religion or belong to the wrong ethnic group does not lead to a good business environment.

Violence not only creates more violence. It creates poverty. Poverty creates frustrated unemployed men. Frustrated unemployed men create violence. There is nothing good about the cycle being started here.

What if anything can be done about this?

You tell me.

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