Capitol Hill Violence and Lessons for Indian Democracy

People all over the globe were shocked and shaken by the event that unfolded at the Capitol Hill in the United States of America in the morning of 7th January, 2021. Some of the politicians used this as an opportunity to hit at the US using this an opportunity to revel on the incidence. Russian lawmakers were quick to jump on events in Washington as proof of US moral bankruptcy. They also went one step ahead and threw in some words of support for Trump’s baseless suggestions of electoral fraud. “The losing side has more than enough grounds to accuse the winner of falsifications – it is clear that American democracy is limping on both feet,” wrote Konstantin Kosachev, the chair of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s upper house of parliament, in a post on Facebook.

There are other leaders who are trying to learn lessons from the events that have been unfolding there prior to the run up to the presidential elections and post-election period of confusion and chaos. The Prime Minister of Indi Modi who was considered to be very close to Donald Trump till he lost the elections, condemned the violence and urged that all parties ensure the peaceful transfer of power. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canadians were “deeply disturbed and saddened by the attack on democracy”. “Violence will never succeed in overruling the will of the people. Democracy in the US must be upheld – and it will be,” he wrote on Twitter.

This is also the case with those from the world of media. Harish Khare writing in the Wire on 9th January, 2021 stated that the United States can boast of a system of checks and balances which still ensures that the occupant of the White House does not go entirely berserk, we in India are on a weak wicket. Or, perhaps, as Yeats had put it, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Going further, Harish Khare cautions the Indians, as a political system, we are no stranger to the phenomenon of almost all constitutional arrangements acquiescing in a ruler’s authoritarian waywardness. The new ruling clique has draped itself with nationalism, jingoism and militarism; it relies on intimidation against its political rivals, as it is confident of the timidity of various institutional players. It is a desperate and depressing state of affairs to see the manner in which constitutional principles like democracy, secularism, socialism and republic are progressively violated by all the political regimes that ‘ruled’ this country. But in the last one decade, India is thrust upon by the utter failure of all the political parties a fascist, authoritarian and undemocratic regime which is basing its rule on deceit, deception, division and destruction of all the constitutional values. All the conscious and committed citizens of the country need to learn lessons from the writings on the wall to save oneself and to save the constitution and the country.

It is all the more important to note this fact that there was a personal bond between Narendra Modi and Donald Trump till Trump lost the presidential election. For the Namaste Trump event on 24th February, 2020 huge amount of money of this poor country was spent, slums were cleared without alternative arrangements for them, vendors were chased out and city stood stand still for days. While Modi and his stooges may gain out of this act while Trump lost the election, it is the Indian masses who will have to pay in the hard way.

The Runup to the Capitol Violence

Writing in The Guardian on 12th December, 2020, under the tittle, “After the fact: the five ways Trump has tried to attack democracy post-election” Tom McCarthy argued that the decisive rejection by the Supreme Court of an attempt by one state, Texas, to throw out election results in four other states might prevent the recurrence of such an effort in future presidential elections. He also warned that if this is not corrected such efforts could escalate in, or echo through, future elections for an unknown time to come. Tom further stated that the historians could mark 2020 as the moment when the Republicans applied the same zeal, they have used to attack democracy in advance of elections, through voter suppression and gerrymandering, to attacking democracy on the back end, by trying to deny and overturn the results.

The author goes on to present, five post-election attacks on democracy by Donald Trump and  the Republicans that were new in 2020 but might haunt elections for years to come. They are:

1) Reckless and sustained election fraud charges: False accusations of election fraud are a fixture of US elections, but Trump has professionalized the enterprise, making more audacious and systemic claims of election fraud than ever before and coaxing more elected officials to go along with the lies than seemed possible before the Trump era.

2) Political pressure on local elections officials: In an unprecedented manner, local officials from both parties received death threats as they worked to finish the vote counting and then certify the result. This has led to fear among the citizens of America that there is a chance that officials might take direction from the White House or some politician instead of voters.

3) External legal challenges to the certification of state election results: in the past, lawsuits have filed during and after elections in the US. But never in US history has an election been followed by a legal battle of the scope mounted by the Trump campaign. Trump, the loser, sued in every state, with multiple lawsuits, where flipping the result could help him win.

4) Internal political challenges to the certification of state election results: Goaded by Trump, legislators in Pennsylvania asked the supreme court to prevent certification by the state of its result. Republican Senate candidates in Georgia demanded that the Republican secretary of state withdraw from the certification there. The Republican party in Arizona demonstrated extremely shrill behavior, demanding that the election not be certified. On the whole, efforts by these state elected officials to respond to Trump’s sudden demand that they overthrow what everyone had previously recognized as a democratic process were half-hearted and ineffectual.

5) The president’s role: The defeated President called up country election officials in charge of certifying the results and spoke up to them. He invited some of the lawmakers for lunch. He instigated the mob on Twitter against a local election official or a state secretary of state who has resisted his schemes.

Capitol Violence and Responses within the US

Expectedly in situations of this nature, there were supporters of violence at Capitol Hill and there were many who decried it in the US itself. For instance, Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida who was defeated by Donald Trump in the 2016 election primary, later came to embrace the president, defending him even after he was impeached. But on 8th January, he called upon the Republicans to chart a new course that no longer indulged the “darkest instincts” and “most destructive impulses”.  He also went on to bemoan the fact “It wasn’t long ago that we controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House. And, four years later, we’ve lost all three. We need to reflect on why this has happened”. Rubio’s call for a review of what is happening politically in the US came after a Republican president who has refused to accept his electoral defeat incited a mob assault on the US Capitol Building, and the party lost control of Congress following twin Senate defeats in Georgia.

It is also reported that something like a civil war has opened up within the party between Trump’s defiant loyalists and a growing cast of critics, and between Republican lawmakers and their disillusioned corporate donors. The party is split on whether to engage with the incoming administration of Joe Biden or obstruct it. Tony Fratto, former senior Treasury official stated that Trump made this party’s grassroots strength a cult of personality. With this personality cult, almost making the leader a demi-God, the members of Trump’s family have repeatedly threatened to crush any Republican who did not support the president’s efforts to overturn the election.

The conservative electorate in US, meanwhile, continues to remain with the outgoing president. According to a snap YouGov survey released on 7th January, 2021, just 27 per cent of Republicans considered the attack on the Capitol a threat to democracy, while 45 per cent of them approved of the storming of the halls of Congress. This notwithstanding, progressively many Republicans are beginning to speak about and against the violence at Capitol Hill. It is reported that senior Republican lawmakers who tolerated, collaborated and heaped praise on Mr Trump over the years have suddenly turned against him. Some have gone on record through their Twitter, “The invasion of our Capitol by a mob, incited by lies from some entrusted with power, is a disgrace to all who sacrificed to build our Republic. More and more politicians are beginning to speak against the violence and hence against Trump.

But what is pertinent to note here is that as per the reading of the political analysts of American politics, the divide within the Republican Party started from the year 2000. George Bush Junior the son of former president George Bush Senior won the election in November 2002, in a disputed election, defeating Democratic nominee Al Gore. It is in this election that a winning candidate lost popular vote and the controversy of counting lingered on even after Bush assumed office. That history is being repeated now is something that needs to be reiterated for learning lessons for other countries.

It is also significant to take note of this statement made by the Maryland Governor Larry Hogan who said that his repeated appeal to send the National Guard to Capitol to quell violence was denied. Hogan went on to say in a press conference that he convened an emergency meeting of his “unified command team” when he was informed of a mob of Trump supporters descending on the Capitol as lawmakers attempted to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. He also revealed the fact that the House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called Hogan from an “undisclosed bunker” and were “pleading” with him for assistance from his state and national forces. But the Department of Defense’s authority repeatedly denied permission to take any action. It was also reported only about an hour and a half later, Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy gave approval to send his troops to Washington, D.C.

Writings on the Wall for India

Mob violence also has been part of the history of India. In the recent past in the name cow protection, love jihad, construction of temple, arson, violence, lynching, etc., have been added to the dark history of India. In the last few decades, due to the unprecedented tacit or covet support of the ruling establishment the big business houses and corporates have been benefitting while the already poor and vulnerable have been reduced to poverty and penury; social harmony has been systematically done away for short term political gains resulting in social distancing and disturbances; caste, religion and regional identities are used to divide the citizens through blatant lies of beneficiaries and loosers which further ends up in communal and collective riot; education and employment are pegged at a level where vast majority of the marginalised youth cannot reach and end up getting frustrated; cultural degradation in terms of disrespect respect to personal, family, religious, social values further permitting a culture of ‘everything is permitted’; governments over the years have been more engaged in using religion for political purposes and resultantly governance has been totally thrown to the winds.

Historically speaking, there have been violence of various kinds, types, modes and methods over the years. Manavi Kapoor writing in the Quartz India identified a few of them. The Indian sadhus stormed the parliament complex in 1966 demanding that the Indian government declare a national cow-protection law. While police stopped the mob from entering the building, seven sadhus and one policeman were killed in the clash. But nothing was done to rectify or address these kinds of violence then.

In 1984, for instance, after then Prime Minister Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated, supporters of the Congress party carried out violent attacks on the Sikh community. This was to avenge the death of Mrs Gandhi, who was killed by her Sikh security guard, who, in turn, was trying to avenge Gandhi’s decision to allow military forces into the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest site. This revenge taking riot was carried out for four days by the Congress party workers and the goons employed by them in which over 2,000 Sikhs were killed. The Congress party which came to power again did not do anything to punish those who were guilty and redress the grievances of the affected Sikh community. This failure of the Congress party continued to haunt the polity of India for many decades later.

Even Rajiv Gandhi who is considered by some to be a ‘decent’ politician, with an overwhelming majority did not and possibly could not punish his own party men who master minded the massacre of Sikhs. There is no doubt that the Congress party paid heavy price for its acts of commissions and omissions like these in the last 6 decades. No Indian will shed tears for the Congress party but surely will detest it for its misrule which has forced many citizens of this country to opt for the Bhartiya Janta Party as a viable alternative. In the last one decade, India has paid heavy price for this.

Indian history was blotted by another massive riot in December 1992, when a ‘spontaneous’ as claimed by the perpetrators of this crime,  angry mob demolished, the Babri Masjid, in Ayodhya. This mob, allegedly led by right-wing Hindutva leaders, believed that the mosque was built on land that originally was the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. This act of destruction did not limit itself to Ayodhya but its impact was felt all over India. Especially this was the case in Mumbai. Large-scale rioting ensued then on for days which resulted in the massacre of over 900 Indians out of which the largest number was from the Muslim community.  The Muslims were systematically targeted by right-wing Hindu mobs for protesting the demolition of the Ayodhya mosque.

It is significant to note that a special CBI court in September 2020, acquitted all 32 accused in the Babri Masjid demolition case, including former deputy prime minister L.K. Advani, former union ministers Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti, former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Kalyan Singh. The case lingered on for 3 decades. Finally, the judge claimed that the demolition was not pre-planned and the accused persons were trying to stop the mob and not incite them. He added that there was not enough evidence against the accused and that the court cannot probe the authenticity of the audio and video evidence provided by the CBI. It went on to a ridiculous extent to claim that those who climbed on the dome are anti-social elements.

Thus, not only those who were responsible for the demolition of the Babri Masjid which was used to further widen the divide between the Hindus and Muslims by the Hindutva Forces but also succeeded in creating a Muslim phobia. Since this historical wrong was not taken up for rectification, the country dripped towards Hindustan and Pakistan debate. The Mumbai riot also was not addressed as a national issue which resulted in giving legitimacy to any communal hate speeches, actions, riots and violence.

Once again in 1998 in the Dang area of South Gujarat Christians mostly from the Tribal communities were brutally attacked. The attacks reportedly started at the end of 1997 before peaking during the Christmas of 1998 after the anti-Christian rallies in the Dangs District by the Hindu Jagran Manch. The attacks included assaults on and killings of Christians, attacks against Christian schools, institutions and shops, damages, demolition and burning down of Prayer Halls and Churches mainly by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Vishwas Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and Hindu Jagran Manch. The culprits were not booked and the victims continue to reel under the fear of being victimised if they practice the religion which is a right provided in the constitution of India.

On December 13th, 2001, 5 militants reportedly part of a suicide squad, attempted to make their way into India’s parliament in New Delhi. They tried to storm into the building, guns blazing and armed with explosives, before they were killed by security forces. 10 people lost their lives besides the attackers, most of them from the security forces. But no parliamentarians who were targeted were hurt. The Bhartiya Janata Party which was in power is supposed to have traced those who supported this attacked and arrested them. This further widened the gap between India and Pakistan and it has almost reached a state of no return now.

Just a year after, that is, in 2002, a riot broke out between the Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat when Narendra Modi was the chief Minister of Gujarat. As reported, a train ferrying Hindu karsevaks (volunteers) was allegedly burnt by a Muslim mob. In revenge, Hindu groups stormed Muslim-dominated residential complexes and massacred them. Then chief minister Modi received national and global condemnation for not acting swiftly or calling the army on time and allegedly letting the rioters to run amok.   According to official figures, 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus lost their lives, while the civil society claims that over 2,000 people were massacred. Those who undertook relief and rehabilitation in the affected areas were shocked to see in Juhapura the writings literally on the walls of house in the same locality – Hindustan and Pakistan. Gujarat has not been the same from then on. What is more depressing is that Modi has become the prime minister of this country which further sends shivers in to the spines of the Muslim community.

It is expedient to highlight this fact that in 2001, after the Bhuj earthquake, many voluntary agencies were active to do relief work. They mobilised huge money mostly from donor agencies from abroad and were seen moving around gleefully in Scorpio vehicles and had costly mobiles. In many government offices that were over seeing relief works, one could see saffron clad Sangh Parivar karyakartas sitting with the government officials directly the relief operations. This is not in itself untenable. But in a country where there are people of various religions, if the government is seen as affiliated with one religious workers, the credibility of the relief work would be tainted.

Further, relief workers were also detested to see banners like these, “This is a Jain village, and we will receive relief only from Jains”. Very clear articulation of caste, religion and food restrictions even in disaster goes to state how deep down are these identities and how it is important to address these at the earliest. Some of the other relief works took their vehicles only up to the location where their vehicles could go and distributed the material and went away happily. In the given Indian context, in the rural areas, pukka roads are available only for the upper caste and class. In contrast to some, there were relief workers from Punjab who came with truck load of food material and went to the remotest hamlets where the Dalits and Tribals reside, cooked and distributed food. But these humanitarian sense is being eroded in this country more and more.

Another violence that unfolded itself in 2008, which has come to be known as Kandhamal violence also has added to the crisis that is engulfing India. This violence was unleashed by the Sangh Parivar against the Dalit Christians on the alleged crime of the killing of a Hindu Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati.  According to civil society reports the violence resulted in at least 100 Dalit Christians killed, 40 women sexually assaulted, more than 395 churches vandalized or burnt down, over 5,600 houses plundered or burnt down, over 600 villages ransacked and more than 60,000 people left homeless.

Even today, justice has not been done to the victims. Though this issue has been taken up in the national and international courts and human rights forums, the victims still cry for justice. Almost all those who ran away from home and the state, have not returned back and are forced live and work as domestic help in different parts of India. It is significant to note that the Sangh Parivar used the Kui Tribals to attack the Dalit Christians. Over 3 decades, the Hindutva Force worked to drive a wedge between the Kui Tribals, predominantly professing Hinduism and Dalit Christians and finally succeeded in destroying the Dalit Christians who were educationally and economically on the rise. Subsequent governments or the communities did not address the issue of differences among these two marginalised communities and both became victims of fundamentalist forces.

Politicians, family members and henchmen of politicians, beating up government officials, toll gate staff and others have become a daily occurrence. In June, 2019 a BJP leader allegedly beat up a government official in Madhya Pradesh’s Satna district. Few days before another BJP MLA Akash Vijayvargiya thrashed a municipal corporation officer with a cricket bat. When Akash Vijayvargiya was released from the jail after 3 days for his offence, he was welcomed with garland, sweets and gunshot. He went on to claim that he was not ashamed or feel guilty of his act. It is this attitude of the politicians and leaders which is picked up by the youth since this shows an arrogant, masculine, unperturbed image of an Indian.

On January 5th,  2020, students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi protested a fee hike, but violent mobs raided hostel rooms and attacked so-called “leftists.” There were no arrests or convictions. Rooms of student leaders were identified and vandalised along with beating up on them brutally. When the victims called 100 for help, the police promised to arrive. Once again, the perpetrators go scot free and the wounds inflicted on the victims have not healed.

The riots in Delhi in February, 2020,  have brought another bitter reminder of the tinderbox of India’s socioeconomic fabric. It has left bitter taste for the Muslims who are further forced to take the place of second class citizens of India or a community which does not belong to India. As known to us, this violence was in retaliation to the peaceful demonstration at Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi by the Muslim women against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act imposed by the Modi government. This act could potentially take away the citizenship of those who cannot prove their Indian ancestry, but allowed concessions only for members of non-Muslim faiths.

Incidentally, much like the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 which were framed by opponents in the US, the anti-CAA and NRC protests across the country were termed violent, and those protested were termed terrorists and anti-nationals by BJP supporters. Prime Minister Modi, too, called it anarchy in the name of protests. By this he justified the brute forced used against the students, especially that of JNU and Jamia University.

Since the Prime Minister and Home Minister themselves took negative attitude towards the protesting community, it gave boost to the Sangh Parivar goons to run riot. Kapil Mishra demanded from the Delhi police to clear the road where the protest was taking place and warned if this is not done there would be violence. Without any delay he led the mob and engaged in riot. Over, 53 people were killed in this violence, two thirds were Muslims who were shot, slashed or set on fire. What is much more dehumanising was that the victims were asked to lift their lower garments to identify if they are Hindus or Muslims and the crime was committed. The dead also included a policeman, an intelligence officer and over a dozen Hindus. More than a week after the violence had ended, hundreds of wounded were languishing in inadequately staffed medical facilities and corpses were being found in open drains. The present government and its communal agents have succeeded in profiling the ‘Muslim Phobia’ and have further destroyed this country.

The last in the list of wearing out those on the streets, delay tactics, maligning the name, divide and rule, trying to appease through benevolent schemes, appoint a committee to look into the matter, accusing the opposition leaders, using the judiciary, etc., is unfolding now when the farmers of this country are fighting for their demand from September 2020. They are opposing 3 ordinances, known as farm bills which the government claims are for the benefit of the farmers, while the farmers are seeing these as detrimental not only to them but to the country. Instead of addressing the issues raised by the protesting farmers, the Prime Minister, Modi trained his gun at the opposition parties and accused them of misleading farmers. Talking on 25th December, 2020 he pretended to be humble and said, “We have not claimed that we have all the knowledge. There should be debate. That is how democracy works. We are ready to address all issues in an open mind”. The same Prime Minister did not think is contrary to democratic principles when he bulldozed these ordinances without following any democratic processes. And that too when the country was reeling under the threat of COVID-19.

On the one hand, Narendra Modi spoke of debate on the issue, on the other hand, his party men were trying to malign the protesting farmers. Madan Dilawar, a BJP MLA  from Rajasthan  accused protesting farmers of spreading bird flu by eating chicken biryani. His comment is part of the smear campaign being run by right-wing forces against farmers.

On 12th January, 2020, the Supreme Court appointed a 4 member committee to look into the matter. The Minister of State for Agriculture responded saying, “Though this is not what the government wanted, the government will respect the judgement of the court”. But the protesting farmers refused to meet the committee but stuck to their demand for the repeal of 3 ordinances. Over 60 farmers have given their lives to protest against the ordinances and in biting cold, the farmers in the open for months to say no to the ordinances. But the government of India has turned blind eyes to this. When some people died in a plane accident in Indonesia, the Prime Minister expressed his condolence. But the farmers are dying during this protest and he is arrogant and autocratic as ever.

Taken together, it is dawning on the conscious and concerned citizens of India what unfolded itself on 7th January, 2021 at Capitol Hill is a warning written on the wall to desist any aggressive, authoritarian, communal, fascist, undemocratic and divisive polity. But there is no stopping there. Politics is only one aspect of life. It is time that all the Indians unite together to examine the social, cultural, religious, educational, economic, regional and political antagonism and aggression imposed on them by the politicians, cast, class, regional and religious leaders of this country.

The warnings of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar can be a guide post in this review and the program of action. On November 25th, 1949, Dr. Ambedkar spoke of the need to give up the grammar of anarchy, to avoid hero-worship, and to work towards a social – not just a political – democracy. This project has to begin towards a democratic, secular, socialist and inclusive path of rural reconstruction and nation building. This alone will save India and Indians.

Prakash Louis is Founder of Indian Christians for Democracy


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