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Murderous mobs

Murderous mobs
The sight of a man down on the floor, his body drenched in blood and begging for respite from a murderous mob in the village of Sobhapur located near the industrial city of Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, will haunt public consciousness for years to come. Unfortunately for the man, the mob refused to relent. They beat the man and three of his colleagues to death last week. Later in the day, another three people were brutally murdered in a separate incident of mob violence. Why were the mobs so enraged? What triggered this brutality? For nearly a month, rumours had gathered steam among tribal communities of gangs that abduct young children from villages and sell them into the sordid business of trafficking. Ghastly photographs of dead children were circulated on WhatsApp, triggering a spell of hysteria that finally resulted in this tragic episode. Reports indicate that two people were lynched on May 12, while another seven suffered a similar fate on May 18. "The lynchings took place because of rumours of a child-lifting gang in the area even though no such case has been reported," said a senior police official. Meanwhile, the incident in Sobhapur village on May 18 triggered communal tensions in the nearby city of Jamshedpur, since four of the victims happen to be Muslim.

These events encapsulate everything that is wrong with the state of law and order in many States. Social media-fuelled rumours leading to incidents of mob violence or vigilantism represent a complete breakdown of the State machinery. Aside from neglect from the State and rampant exploitation, tribal communities are also dealing with a grave child trafficking problem. Extensive media exposés have described how young girls are kidnapped and sold outside the state, often into prostitution or domestic labour. Successive State governments have done little to tackle the problem. In fact, both the State government and local district administration did nothing when rumours of child snatching were fuelled by social media posts. Reports indicate that even after the violence of May 12, which resulted in the lynching of two men, State officials did little to dispel rumours, leading to the lynching of seven people on May 18. Videos posted on social media describing the mob violence show that police personnel were present but did little to save the victims. At every level, one could argue, these incidents displayed a worrying lack of capacity on the State administration's part to ensure a semblance of law order.

Unfortunately, this isn't the first time such incidents have occurred in the country. Mob violence is a regular event, as most commonly witnessed in the name of the holy cow. There have also been instances of vigilante attacks or violence perpetrated by large crowds of people inspired by racial and xenophobic attitudes. Most recently, Nigerian students in Greater Noida, a hub for private universities located a mere 40 km from the national capital, were subject to a wave of mob violence. For the uninitiated, tensions began to heat up after a high school student in Greater Noida's NSG Black Cats Enclave went missing on the evening of March 24. Rumours had started to spread that the boy was last seen with a group of Nigerians. What followed was truly unfortunate. A mob forcefully entered the home of these Nigerian students, and when they could not find the teenager, a vicious rumour got around that these students were cannibals who had eaten him up. Following the incident, several international students of African origin were violently targeted by mobs. Three months earlier, a crowd in Bengaluru assaulted, stripped and paraded a 21-year-old Tanzanian student, in addition to setting fire to her car. By all accounts, her only fault was that she happened to pass through the same neighbourhood, where an hour before, a Sudanese student had run over and killed a resident. Back in 2014, there was a frightening mob attack on three black men at a metro station in Delhi for allegedly misbehaving with women. Of course, one cannot forget the infamous Khirki Extension incident in the national capital three years ago, when a former minister of the Delhi government led a vigilante mob against the locality's African citizens for their alleged involvement in a drug and prostitution racket. The victims of this vigilante mob were subject to violence, including instances of molestation. No evidence was found to support claims that these individuals were involved in prostitution or a drug racket.

In most cases, either the local administration is woefully undermanned or unwilling to stop such instances of vigilante violence. Evidently, this lack of State capacity poses a real danger. Any basic reading of political science will clearly state that the State has a monopoly on violence. When non-State actors appropriate that right to use violent means, it leads to complete chaos. In a development that should shake the conscience of any reasonable individual, a vigilante mob in Mardan, Pakistan, last month had thrashed and then killed a university student and seriously injured another for alleged blasphemy. Both students of mass communication at the Abdul Wali Khan University were accused of promoting the Ahmadi faith on social media. The incident occurred in the presence of local police, who were outnumbered by the vicious mob. Reports from Pakistani media paint a rather horrific picture of what took place during this incident. The mob allegedly forced one of the students to recite verses from the Quran before they began beating him. When the police intervened and saved him, the crowd went after the other student. After a vicious thrashing, someone in the mob shot him in the head and chest. Not satiated by the cold-blooded murder, the mob continued to beat the dead student's body. In many parts of Pakistan, the State has lost the ability to impose its writ in the face of Islamist militant groups. Under no circumstances can the State in India allow mobs to define the nature of justice. The warning signs are clear.
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