Written by Maurisa Zinira
Right-wing populism continues to show signs in various countries. By adhering to claims of privilege as the dominant group, they further their politics by mobilizing hatred against minorities. They don’t even hesitate to use vigilante methods to set up domination. Using the extra-legal mechanism for politics, right-wing populism perpetuates the chain of violence that threatens democracy. The micro picture of the relationship between right-wing populism and vigilantism is discussed remarkably in the 8th Reading in Social Science (RISOS) by reviewing Sana Jafrey’s article entitled “Right Wing Populism and Vigilante Violence in Indonesia” that was published in the journal Studies in Comparative International Development (2021) 56:223–249. The forum was held on 29 August 2022 by inviting two researchers in the same study, Laurens Bakker from the University of Amsterdam and Iqbal Ahnaf from Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies, UGM.
Vigilantism and Right-Wing Populists
Sana Jaffrey—the director of Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) argues in her article that right-wing populism and vigilantism are often interconnected and complementary. Although not all populism uses vigilante methods, this kind of vigilante-based dominance mechanism is increasingly being used by right wing populists to articulate and fight for their social dominance.
Jeffrey defines right wing populism as “political movements rooted in perceived marginalization of ethnic majorities due to alliance between political elites and “disloyal” minorities”. As the majority, they feel left out by a system that should (arguably) give them positions and privileges. Thus, reclaiming power from the supposedly “disloyal” minorities through politics must be carried out one among the other using vigilantism to push them to acknowledge the populists’ power. While vigilantism itself is defined by Jefrey as a collective use of extra-legal violence to respond to perceived transgressions of social order.
Drawing on comparative analysis of India and Indonesia, Jeffrey finds that both countries have similar features of right-wing populism. First, like any other right-wing populist, those are in Indonesia and India make majoritarian demands as “authentic” people who are under threat of the minority. Second, secular nationalist political elites are labelled as the obstruction to the realization of people’s true identity. And third, populists in both countries galvanize various groups into political action after a notable historical event.
Despite similar traits, however, right wing populism in both countries bring about different outcome of electoral politics. While BJP in India successfully seized the election, Islamists in Indonesia failed to further their politics. This also explains the acts of vigilantism in the two countries. While vigilantism continues to rise in India, the number of riots and pogroms constantly decreased. There were at least 254 violence against religious minorities between 2009-2018, of which 90% occurred after the BJP came to power. Meanwhile in Indonesia, the target of vigilantes is not only religious minorities, but also internal religious groups who have different views and those who are considered to be committing moral offenses. Employing such a different category to maps the action, there are approximately 25,421 acts of vigilantism that occurred from 2009 to 2019. The high number of vigilantes above should not be compared since the technic of collecting samples from the two countries marked the differences.
A Lobbying Violence for Political Ends
Vigilantism helps right-wing populists to achieve their political goals. In India, this kind of action is used by Hindu nationalists who move on claims of majoritarianism through Narendra Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). Since 2014, the party has sharpened tensions between religious communities in India. By calling themselves “authentic” people, they eliminate various practices contrary to Hindu’s sensibilities such as forbidding Muslims to eat and sell beef. Jaffrey pointed out in her article that there were at least 133 of cow-related vigilante violence between 2012-2019, resulting in a total of 290 victims and 50 died, about 74% were Muslims and the rest were Dalits. At the national level, the government cut minority political privileges, especially for Muslims, to accept government funding and autonomy for educational institutions and personal laws.
In Indonesia, Islamists claim to be the largest population to have automatically had more privileges than other minority groups. They demand the implementation of the Sharia system in government and institutionalize Islamism through vigilante actions. Such behavior help incentivize mass sympathy for electoral politics, especially from 2016 to the 2019 elections when polarization of us vs them intensified. As they popularize moral and religious reasoning to legitimize the use of violence, they succeeded in influencing political constituents through identity politics.
Jeffrey notes two reasons why right-wing populism use up vigilantism. First, it is an efficient mechanism to regulate behavior for minority groups to submit to their rules. And second, violence is a form of lobbying strategy to transform the law. By claiming to preserve moral values, they force the government to comply with their action and make rules following the needs vigilantes believe to be proper. There are at least two forms of transformation that arise because of such a systematic use of vigilantism as a form of lobbying violence. First, harsher enforcement of existing law by the state. And second, the expansion of state power to regulate domains that were previously not their authority, such as dealing with issues surrounding LGBT under the pretext of moral order.
At the national level, vigilantism based on such moral claims continue to be voiced by right-wing populists to build a political base. Based on religious and ethnic majoritarianism, this group claims to be the owner of the native land. Whereas according to Jeffrey, what makes a group a majority is not particularly comprised of religion and ethnicity. From an economic aspect, it is the poor who make up the majority. Even looking at religious-political view, right wing populist number is relatively small compared to the more moderate one.
Apart from that, there are three things that, according to Jaffrey, become the enabling environment for the high use of vigilantism by right-wing populists. First, the difficulty of suppressing the rights of minorities from the constitutional path makes them use extra-judicial means. Second, the existing culture of violence gives legitimacy to vigilantism practices. Such as the perception that violence perpetrated by vigilantes is considered a normality or even a form of public protest for the reason that state laws do not work effectively. And third, collaboration with various state actors gives vigilantes impunity. Due to the support of right-wing populist politicians, vigilantes easily get impunity from various legal consequences. The BJP’s status as an election winner in India gives them the flexibility to decide legal cases especially given the decentralized feature of Indian police system and strong majority pressure. Likewise, in Indonesia, the involvement of FPI (Islamic Defender Front) in various mobs also exempted them from legal consequences. As vigilantes use religious and molar claims, those who are against their agenda are accused of being anti Islam.
Interestingly, as Laurens Bekker points out, the vigilante group is not singular. His research on the vigilante movement in Indonesia even found that groups like FPI, FBR and Pemuda Pancasila are in competition over media spotlights and commercialization areas that can benefit their future existence. In addition to that, Bekker mentioned that such movements have always targeted minorities as well as well-known individuals without community protection. This was not too surprising because only by fighting small groups would they be able to show strength. They would rather not be making any hassle with larger group as they have their own paramilitary wings.
Iqbal Ahnaf added that the high number of violence perpetrated by right-wing populism is not caused by the high technical skills of the perpetrators, but rather by the silence of the majority. The majority are often hesitant to provide serious responses to acts of vigilantism that permit the state to give no serious response to violence and intolerance. The weak counterbalance from the majority further causes impunity for vigilantes’ extra-legal actions that perpetuates chains of violence directed against minorities.
Indeed, efforts to reduce acts of vigilantism require serious action. In her presentation, Jaffrey argued that the rise of vigilantism in India was partly because of the absence of counterbalance against the Hindu’s violent narratives. While in Indonesia, the existence of two large organizations NU and Muhammadiyah is enough to give color to religious practices that muffle the existing violence not to escalate into communal conflicts at a larger scale. Considering how counternarratives make an effective alternative to violence, it is important to continue mainstreaming inclusive peaceful messages for tolerance.
Recorded Discussion: YouTube PUSAD Paramadina