Violence has moved to the "centre stage of Indian public life", Thomas Blom Hansen, an anthropologist at Stanford University, argued two years ago.
He wondered why ordinary Indians seemed to either "tacitly endorse, or actively participate" in public violence. "This development signals a deep problem, a deformation and pathology that may present a danger to the future of democracy," Prof Hansen wrote in his 2021 book, The Law of Force: The Violent Heart of Indian Politics.
Amit Ahuja and Devesh Kapur, two US-based political scientists, differ. In their upcoming book, Internal Security in India: Violence, Order, and the State, they argue that large-scale violence has actually declined in the country. To put it more precisely, "aggregate levels of violence in India - public and private - have declined in the first two decades of this century compared to the previous two decades".
For their research, Prof Ahuja, of University of California, and Prof Kapur, of Johns Hopkins University, trawled through decades of official records of a swathe of violence in public life in India: from riots to election violence; from caste to religious and ethnic violence; from insurgencies to terrorism; and political assassinations to hijackings.
They found that violence in India has actually declined in many of these indicators - in some cases, substantially - during the "peak quarter century" from the late 1970s to early 2000s.
Some of their more striking findings:
To be sure, there are different reasons for the decline in different kinds of violence.
Beefing up of state capacity has helped control insurgencies, riots and violence during elections. Increased use of paramilitary forces, using helicopters and drones for surveillance, installation of mobile phone towers, fortified police stations, new roads and increased health and education facilities in affected areas have helped stem the tide of this violence, Prof Ahuja and Kapur suggest.
"The decline of violence is more due to enhanced state capacity and less the sort of political settlements that would provide consent of the governed and ensure that new cycles of violence don't occur."
The decline in hijackings is generally attributed to the tightening of airport security around the world following 9/11. India's relatively strict gun laws seem to have helped to keep murders low. (60% of India's 3.6 million arms licences in 2018 were issued by just three states - Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir. Of course, there are illegal and smuggled weapons).
But there is a worrying outlier - the rising violence against women.
Although data is unreliable since much of it occurs in private spaces and goes unreported, reported violence against women has increased. About one in three women in India are subject to intimate partner violence, but only one in 10 of these women formally report the offence. There's growing harassment of women in digital spaces. Deaths over dowry continue to occur as do honour killings and acid attacks.
Prof Ahuja and Prof Kapur add some key caveats to their work.
For one, absence of evidence doesn't always imply evidence of absence. There is, for example, "violence and humiliation that curtail life opportunities of women and Dalits and religious minorities like Muslims".
Also, there has been a rise in new forms of public violence, stoked by communalism: intimidation and lynching to prevent interfaith marriages or cattle smuggling are the main concerns. "New forms of public violence such as vigilantism and lynch mobs seem to be sprouting like an ugly cancer across the country," say Prof Ahuja and Kapur.
What is worrying, they say, echoing Hansen, is why so many ordinary people support or participate in public violence. This "weakens a powerful check on the state" and also undermines the state's ability to control violence. "Online and street mobs are allowed to act with impunity. All this could easily spin out of control and significantly undermine state capacity to control violence."
Also, the decline in violence does not rule out its resurgence, they say. There could be an uptick in violence if social harmony is threatened, if joblessness and inequality worsen, and the ability to reach permanent settlements to political problems is delayed. "India has to do much more to reduce the threat of violence," they say.