Skip to main content

Right-Wing Populism and Vigilante Violence in Asia

We’re sorry, something doesn't seem to be working properly.

Please try refreshing the page. If that doesn't work, please contact support so we can address the problem.


Right-wing populism is threatening pluralist underpinnings of diverse democracies around the world by staking claims of privilege for dominant ethnic groups and undermining minority rights. Existing scholarship has evaluated these threats in terms of the majoritarian vision peddled by charismatic politicians seeking electoral victory and the enactment of discriminatory policies through the dismantling of institutional constraints by those already in power. This article looks beyond these macro consequences of right-wing populism and examines vigilante violence as the mechanism through which these movements articulate and enforce their vision at the grassroots level. It compares the experience of India and Indonesia to evaluate factors that have enabled right-wing populists to deploy vigilantism for dismantling democratic protections against majoritarianism. I argue that the intrinsic properties of vigilantism as an efficient and transformative form of violence make it a valuable tool for right-wing populists. However, its use for political ends in two of the world’s largest democracies is enabled by three factors. First, because pluralist constitutions make it difficult to curtail minority rights through top-down legislation in India and Indonesia, vigilantism has become an appealing extra-legal strategy for undermining these rights from the bottom up. Second, widespread social legitimacy associated with everyday forms of vigilantism allows right-wing populists to scale up local templates of violence for national goals. Third, similar pathologies of state-building in both countries enable right-wing vigilantes to act with impunity. I conclude by arguing that while vigilantism has long been thought of as a way in which disempowered citizens cope with dissatisfactory provision of order by the state, right-wing populists are transforming vigilante violence into means for engineering social dominance.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. This definition is consistent with two leading conceptualization of vigilantism used in political science (Moncada 2017; Bateson 2020).

  2. While this data is useful for illustrating similar in-country trends, it cannot be used to compare the magnitude of vigilantism between India and Indonesia because of vastly different data collection methodologies used in each country. In India, this data has been collected by the FactCheker at IndiaSpend from national media reports and is limited to communal incidents. In Indonesia, the data is from 16 provinces that comprise half of Indonesia’s population and represent all its major ethnic groups. The data is from the National Violence Monitoring Database collected from local media reports that provide more granular coverage of a much broader definition of vigilantism. For a detailed description of the definition and methodology used to collect vigilantism data, see Jaffrey (2019). For a broader description of the NVMS dataset, see Barron et al. 2016: Dataset available at

  3. IndiaSpend. “Every Third Indian Cop Thinks Mob Violence Over Cow Slaughter Is ‘Natural’: New Survey,” August 28, 2019, sec. Latest Reports.

  4. “BJP Helped with Legal Fees of Jharkhand Lynching Accused: Jayant Sinha.” The Week. Accessed February 9, 2021.

  5. Gowen, Annie. “A Muslim and a Hindu Thought They Could Be a Couple. Then Came the ‘Love Jihad’ Hit List.” Washington Post, April 26, 2018, sec. Asia & Pacific.

  6. Author’s calculations based on the National Violence Monitoring System Dataset.

  7. Flock, Elizabeth. “The War on Valentine’s Day in India.” The Atlantic, February 14, 2018.

  8. “Police Watched As Anti-Romeo Squad Allegedly Shaved Man’s Head In UP’s Shahjahanpur.” HuffPost India, April 1, 2017.

  9. Adam, Aulia. “Nasib LGBT di Indonesia: Target Kebencian, Razia, dan Penjara RKUHP.”, July 11, 2018.

  10. Bureau. “Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh: Meat Traders, Butchers Feel the Heat, Shut Slaughterhouses in Panic.” India Today, March 21, 2017.

  11. Sharma, Saurabh. “Indian State Uses Draconian Law to Detain Those Accused of Killing Cows.” Reuters, September 11, 2020.

  12. Apoorvanand. “India’s ‘Love Jihad’ Laws: Another Attempt to Subjugate Muslims.” Accessed February 9, 2021.

  13. Knight, Kyle. “Criminalizing Indonesia’s LGBT People Won’t Protect Them.” Human Rights Watch, February 14, 2018.

  14. Varma, Subodh. “Jharkhand’s 14th Lynching in Four Years, Country’s 266th.” NewsClick, June 25, 2019.

  15. Kunal Purohit, IndiaSpend. “What’s to Blame for Jharkhand’s ‘Witch-Hunting’ Problem? Poor Healthcare and Illiteracy.” Scroll.In. Accessed February 11, 2021.

  16. “‘Free Pass for Mobs’: India Urged to Stem Vigilante Violence against Minorities.” The Guardian, February 19, 2019, sec. World news.

  17. “Cow-Related Violence: 86% Dead Since 2010 Are Muslim; 97% Attacks Reported After 2014.” The Wire. Accessed February 13, 2021.


  • Abrahams R. Vigilant citizens: vigilantism and the state. Polity Press Cambridge. 1998.

  • Acemoglu D, Robinson JA, and Santos R. “The monopoly of violence: evidence from Colombia.” Working Paper 15578. National Bureau of Economic Research. 2009.

  • Ali M. “The rise of a Hindu vigilante in the age of WhatsApp and Modi.” Wired, April 14, 2020. 2020.

  • Andersen W, Damle SD. Messengers of Hindu Nationalism: how the RSS reshaped India. Illustrated. London: Hurst; 2019.

    Google Scholar 

  • Aspinall E, Mietzner M. Southeast Asia’s troubling elections: nondemocratic pluralism in Indonesia. J Democr. 2019;30(4):104–18.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Barron P, Jaffrey S, Varshney A. When large conflicts subside: the ebbs and flows of violence in post-Suharto Indonesia. J East Asian Stud. 2016;16(2):191–217.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bateson R. “The politics of vigilantism.” Comparative Political Studies, September, 0010414020957692. 2020.

  • Bateson RA. “Order and violence in postwar Guatemala.” Ph.D., United States -- Connecticut: Yale University. 2013.

  • Berenschot W. Patterned pogroms: patronage networks as infrastructure for electoral violence in India and Indonesia. J Peace Res. 2020;57(1):171–84.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bertrand J. Nationalism and ethnic conflict in Indonesia. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. 2004.

  • Bertrand R. “Governor Sutiyoso’s ‘Wars on Vice’: criminal enterprises, Islamist militias and political power in Jakarta.” In Organized Crime and States: The Hidden Face of Politics, edited by Jean-Louis Briquet and Gilles Favarel-Garrigues, 73–96. 2010. Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Biswas S. “Is India descending into mob rule?” BBC News, June 26, 2017, sec. India. 2017.

  • Brass PR. Riots and pogroms. New York: NYU Press; 1996.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Buehler M. The politics of Shari’a law: Islamist activists and the state in democratizing Indonesia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2016.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Bush R. Nahdlatul Ulama and the struggle for power within Islam and politics in Indonesia. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. 2009.

  • Bush R. “Religious politics and minority rights during the Yudhoyono Presidency.” In The Yudhoyono Presidency: Indonesia’s Decade of Stability and Stagnation, edited by Edward Aspinall, Marcus Mietzner, and Dirk Tomsa, 239–57. 2015. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

  • Carothers T and O’Donohue A. Democracies divided: the global challenge of political polarization. Brookings Institution Press. 2019.

  • Chatterjee M. “The ordinary life of Hindu supremacy: in conversation with a Bajrang Dal activist.” Economic and Political Weekly, June, 7–8. 2015.

  • Chatterji, Angana P, Hansen TB, and Jaffrelot C. Majoritarian state: how Hindu Nationalism is changing India. Oxford University Press. 2019.

  • CJP. “Cow slaughter prevention laws in India.” Citizens for Justice and Peace. 2018.

  • Crouch M. Implementing the regulation on places of worship in Indonesia: new problems, local politics and court action. Asian Stud Rev. 2010;34(4):403–19.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Crouch MA. “Law and religion in Indonesia: the constitutional court and the blasphemy law.” Asian J Comp Law. 2012;7:(1).

  • Curato N. Politics of anxiety, politics of hope: penal populism and Duterte’s rise to power. J Curr Southeast Asian Aff. 2016;35(3):91–109.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fealy G. “Killing for God.” Inside Indonesia, 2010. 2010.

  • Fealy G. “The politics of Yudhoyono: majoritarian democracy, insecurity and vanity.” The Yudhoyono Presidency: Indonesia’s Decade of Stability and Stagnation, 35–54. 2015.

  • Fealy G. “The politics of religious intolerance in Indonesia: mainstream-ism trumps extremism?” In Religion, Law and Intolerance in Indonesia. 2016a;115–31 Routledge.

  • Fealy G. “Bigger than Ahok: Explaining the 2 December Mass Rally.” Indonesia at Melbourne, December 7, 2016. 2016b.

  • Fealy G, and Sally W eds. Expressing Islam: religious life and politics in Indonesia. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. 2008.

  • Fujii LA. ‘Talk of the town’: explaining pathways to participation in violent display. J Peace Res. 2017;54(5):661–73.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Galston WA. Anti-pluralism: the populist threat to liberal democracy. 1st ed. New Haven: Yale University Press; 2018.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Goldstein DM. The spectacular city: violence and performance in urban Bolivia. Latin America Otherwise. Durham: Duke University Press. 2004.

  • Hadiz VR. Islamic populism in Indonesia and the Middle East. 1 edition. Cambridge University Press. 2016.

  • Hamayotsu K. The political rise of the prosperous justice party in post-authoritarian Indonesia. Asian Surv. 2011;51(5):971–92.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hansen TB. The saffron wave: democracy and Hindu nationalism in modern India. Princeton University Press; 1999.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Hefner RW. Civil Islam: Muslims and democratization in Indonesia. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 2000.

    Google Scholar 

  • Horowitz DL. Constitutional change and democracy in Indonesia. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. 2013.

  • Human Rights Watch. “Violent cow protection in India.” 2019.

  • ICG. “Indonesia: implications of the Ahmadiyah Decree - International Crisis Group.” 2008.

  • Jaffrelot C, editor. Hindu nationalism: a reader. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 2007.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jaffrelot C. Toward a Hindu State? J Democr. 2017;28(3):52–63.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jaffrey S. “Leveraging the Leviathan: politics of impunity and the rise of vigilantism in democratic Indonesia.” Ph.D., United States -- Illinois: The University of Chicago. 2019.

  • Jaffrey S. “In the state’s stead? Vigilantism and the policing of religious offense in Indonesia.” In Democracy in Indonesia: From Stagnation to Regression?, 303–25. ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. 2020.

  • Jaffrey S and Siswo M. “Between persecution and prosecution: vigilantes, the state and the politics of offence.” Indonesia at Melbourne, June 20, 2017. 2017.

  • Jalal, A. The sole spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim league and the demand for Pakistan. Reprint edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1994.

  • Jauregui B. Provisional authority: police, order, and security in India. 1 edition. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press; 2016.

  • Jones S. The ongoing extremist threat in Indonesia. Southeast Asian Aff. 2011;2011(1):91–104.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jones S. “Sisi Gelap Reformasi Di Indonesia: Munculnya Kelompok Masyarakat Madani Intoleran.” In Sisi Gelap Demokrasi: Kekerasan Masyarakat Madani Di Indonesia, edited by Husni Mubarok and Irsyad Rafsadi. Jakarta: PUSAD Paramadina. 2015.

  • Katju M. The politics of Ghar Wapsi. Econ Pol Wkly. 2015;50(1):21–4.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kenny PD and Ronald H. “A new penal populism? Rodrigo Duterte, public opinion, and the war on drugs in the Philippines.” J East Asian Stud. 2020;20(2).

  • Lev DS. The transition to guided democracy: Indonesian politics, 1957–1959. Cornell University. Modern Indonesia Project. Monograph Series. Ithaca: Modern Indonesia Project, Southeast Asia Program, Dept. of Asian Studies, Cornell University. 1966.

  • Levitsky S and Loxton J. “Populism and competitive authoritarianism: the case of Fujimori’s Peru,” In Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat Or Corrective for Democracy?, edited by Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, 160–81. Cambridge University Press. 2012.

  • Lipsky M. Street-level bureaucracy: dilemmas of the individual in public service, 30th Anniversary Expanded Edition. Anniversary, Expanded, Updated edition. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. 1980.

  • Lukacs J. Democracy and populism: fear & hatred. Yale University Press; 2005.

    Google Scholar 

  • Menchik J. Islam and democracy in Indonesia: tolerance without liberalism. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. 2016.

  • Menchik J. Moderate Muslims and democratic breakdown in Indonesia. Asian Stud Rev. 2019;43(3):415–33.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mietzner M. Fighting illiberalism with illiberalism: Islamist populism and democratic deconsolidation in Indonesia. Pac Aff. 2018;91(2):261–82.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mietzner M, Muhtadi B. The myth of pluralism: Nahdlatul Ulama and the politics of religious tolerance in Indonesia. Contemporary Southeast Asia. 2020;42(1):58–84.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Moncada E. Varieties of vigilantism: conceptual discord, meaning and strategies. Global Crime. 2017;18(4):403–23.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Panggabean R and Ihsan AF. Policing religious conflicts in Indonesia. Jakarta: PUSAD Paramadina. 2015.

  • Purdey J. Anti-Chinese violence in Indonesia: 1996–99. University of Hawaii Press. 2006.

  • Robinson GB. The killing season: a history of the Indonesian massacres, 1965–66. Princeton University Press; 2018.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Rummens S. “Populism as a threat to liberal democracy.” In The Oxford Handbook of Populism, edited by Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul A. Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo, and Pierre Ostiguy, 1 edition, 554–70. New York: Oxford University Press. 2018.

  • Sensenig VJ. Anti-Chinese violence in Indonesia, 1996–1999. J East Asian Stud. 2008;8(3):517–20.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sharma, J. Hindutva: exploring the idea of Hindu Nationalism. Penguin Books India; 2011.

  • Sidel J. Riots, pogroms, Jihad: religious violence in Indonesia. 1st ed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press; 2006.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Slater D. Democratic careening. World Politics. 2013;65(4):729–63.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Slater D and Tudor M. “Why religious tolerance won in Indonesia but lost in India,” July 5, 2019. 2019.

  • Smith NR. Contradictions of democracy: vigilantism and rights in post-Apartheid South Africa. New York: Oxford University Press; 2019.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Soedirgo J. Informal networks and religious intolerance: how clientelism incentivizes the discrimination of the Ahmadiyah in Indonesia. Citizsh Stud. 2018;22(2):191–207.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Staniland P. “Militias, ideology, and the state.” J Conflict Resolution, March, 0022002715576749. 2015.

  • Sumaktoyo NG. “Ethnic and religious sentiments in Indonesian politics: evidence from the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election.” Journal of East Asian Studies. undefined/ed: 1–24.

  • Tajima Y. The institutional basis of intercommunal order: evidence from Indonesia’s democratic transition. Am J Polit Sci. 2013;57(1):104–19.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Thachil T. Elite parties, poor voters: how social services win votes in India. Reprint. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2016.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tudor M and Slater D. “The content of democracy nationalist parties and inclusive ideologies in India and Indonesia.” In Parties, Movements, and Democracy in the Developing World, edited by Nancy Bermeo and Deborah J. Yashar. 2016: 28–60. Cambridge University Press.

  • Turnbull M. Elite competition, social movements, and election violence in Nigeria. Int Secur. 2021;45(3):40–78.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • van Dijk C (Kees). Rebellion under the Banner of Islam: The Darul Islam in Indonesia. Brill. 2014.

  • van Klinken G. Communal violence and democratization in Indonesia: small town wars. 1st ed. London: Routledge; 2007.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Varshney A. India, Pakistan, and Kashmir: antinomies of nationalism. Asian Surv. 1991;31(11):997–1019.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Varshney A. Ethnic conflict and civic life: Hindus and Muslims in India. Yale University Press. 2002.

  • Varshney A. Modi Consolidates Power: Electoral Vibrancy, Mounting Liberal Deficits. J Democr. 2019a;30(4):63–77.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Varshney A. “The emergence of right wing populism in India.” In Re-Forming India: The Nation Today, edited by Niraja Gopal Jayal. 2019b: 327–45. Gurgaon: Penguin Viking.

  • Varshney A, Tadjoeddin MZ, Panggabean R. Creating datasets in information-poor environments: patterns of collective violence in Indonesia, 1990–2003. J East Asian Stud. 2008;8(3):361–94.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Warburton E. “How polarised is Indonesia and why does it matter?” In Democracy in Indonesia: From Stagnation to Regression?. 2020: 63–80. ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

  • Welsh B. Local and national: Keroyokan mobbing in Indonesia. J East Asian Stud. 2008;8(3):473–504.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wilkinson SI. Votes and violence: electoral competition and ethnic riots in India. Cambridge University Press; 2006.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wilson I. “Morality racketeering: vigilantism and populist Islamic militancy in Indonesia.” In Between Dissent and Power. 2014: 248–74. Springer.

  • Wilson ID. The politics of protection rackets in post-new order Indonesia: Coercive Capital, Authority and Street Politics. Routledge. 2015.

  • Wood AL. Lynching and spectacle: witnessing racial violence in America, 1890-1940. New edition edition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 2011.

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sana Jaffrey.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Jaffrey, S. Right-Wing Populism and Vigilante Violence in Asia. St Comp Int Dev 56, 223–249 (2021).

Download citation

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: