Decoding lynching in 2018
Lynching is indicative of a lowly public morality and ineffective law enforcement
The week from June 13 to 20, 2018 witnessed four Muslims being lynched at Hapur, UP, and Godda and Ramgarh in Jharkhand. Lynching is a public crime, though it is not enlisted separately under the IPC. Information, thus, can be gained only from media and fact-finding reports.
According to web portal IndiaSpend, 25 Indians were killed in 60 cow related violent incidences between 2010 and 2017. 97 per cent of these incidences were reported after 2014 and 84 per cent of those killed were Muslims. A July 2017 report by Observer Research Foundation found a sharp increase in cow related violence, which rose from less than 5 per cent of cases of mob violence in 2012 to more than 20 per cent by June 2017.
In many cases of lynching, locally organised cow protection groups take the lead and incite mob violence against hapless victims. Hate-filled messages fabricated with lies are spread on social media to gather crowds. The police is a passive accomplice and, in most cases, criminal cases are filed against victims themselves under cow protection laws.
The increased lynching of minorities in the last four years is closely related to the rise of local-level Hindutva outfits. However, it needs to be underlined that even without these two factors, individuals and communities in India face sufficient violence which enjoys passive or active public approval. Dalits have been facing caste violence for thousands of years. Even now, despite constitutional provisions, many are subject to everyday public humiliation. Massacres of Dalits at Kilevenmani, Bathani Tola, Laxmanpur Bathe, Khairlanji are among the darkest spots in post-Independence Indian history. More recently, at Una in 2016, four Dalit youth skinning dead cattle were publicly beaten by a cow protection gang, and the video recording of the beating was widely shared as a proof of just punishment. There were 288 cases of honour killing between 2014 and 2016.
Prelude to Fascism
While the lynching of minorities is largely political, caste and ethnic violence and honour killings are social systemic. While the crowd created by political parties with a purpose indulges in violence, the unorganised association of people carries out the killing on certain faulty premises.
Since the beginning of the year, incidences of such lynching have taken place in states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Assam, which otherwise show little evidence of communal lynching. The most common excuse is suspicion of child abduction. Allegations of petty theft, witchcraft, etc are some of the other reasons cited. Adivasis, mentally disturbed persons, migrant workers, single women and even tourists have been targeted. One media report lists 13 dead due to lynching in such cases in the first half of 2018. This indicates a very low level of opposition to violence in our society.
All decent human beings feel a revulsion against the lynching of a fellow being. However, appropriate social correction and political responses are also important. Democracy cannot sustain where mass violence is a norm. A society which accepts different kinds of social systemic hazards and random violence as routine can become an easy prey to the political violence of fascism. Fascism is anti-democratic precisely because it uses violence as a political tool against selected social and political groups. If fascism is made easy by the mass acceptance of violence, its success legitimises violence and further lowers the threshold of accepting violence.
Global context of lynching
Lynching originated in North America. The hordes of white settlers who swarmed the Americas in 16th and 17th centuries first lynched and eliminated the Native Americans to rob their lands. The next victims were the African Americans and 3,446 African Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1968. Documented history shows lynch mobs roaming the streets of Washington DC during the "Red Summer" of 1919, attacking African-Americans in a frenzy whipped by racism, anti-communism, fears of joblessness and post-war jingoism. Further, at least 605 Hispanic Americans were lynched in the United States between 1848 and 1928. In fact, once vociferously targeted groups were the Mexican-Americans, Chinese labourers, Italians, anti-Capitalist and "unpatriotic" union activists, homosexuals, Jews and Mormons. American-Arabs, Moslems, and Sikhs attacked by strident patriotic mobs in misplaced retribution for 2001's horrific "9/11" events were another spate of lynching in the US. While hysteria was certainly an element of lynch mob behaviour, perhaps a persistent one, other aspects of the experience seemed more deliberate and conscious. Many of these public displays of unimaginable brutality were ritualised affairs, carefully orchestrated.
Lynchings were public demonstrations of white power and a means to exert social control. Racial tensions had an economic base. In attempting to reconstruct the plantation economy, planters were anxious to control labour. In addition, agricultural depression was widespread and the price of cotton kept falling after the Civil War into the 1890s. Lynchings erupted when farmers tried to terrorise the labourers.
We can see initial signs of lynching connected to destabilising the carpet or zari industry, cattle business etc run by minorities and Dalits in India. The land mafia also, at times, encourage lynching to acquire prime land in India.
Since the political successes of BJP under Modi, alongside economic prosperity, India is witnessing a degradation of public morals. The more people show acceptance of the current style of aggressive bravado and blatant abuse in public discourse, more they become insensitive to others; and, then, they also become more likely to turn into brutes at any given opportunity.
The mindset of plain bigotry to avoid a cab driven by a Muslim or not to be serviced by a Muslim delivery boy to lynching 'the other' on the basis of rumours runs exactly opposite to the famed Indian value of 'Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam' (the world is my family), which PM Modi declared as a guiding principle of his government. Refusal to take note of, or delayed condemnation of sectarian violence, by those in positions of power, are not healthy to governance in a secular democracy.
In Independent India, we saw this mob violence in its ugliest form in the 1984 killings of the innocent Sikhs in Delhi by the goons of the Congress. Every political party encourages this mob violence. Each political party criticises mob violence only when the 'mob' does not subscribe to its ideology or is not affiliated to it.
The other serious aspect is the role of social media, especially Facebook, and messaging service WhatsApp. The police now say that gory WhatsApp images of cows and blood flamed passions were circulated ahead of the Dadri lynching. Surprisingly, the agencies said this after the deaths! Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Baghpat, and Meerut – the violence of 2013 was made possible because of the sprinkling of hatred via the visual-text communications threw up a challenge to law and order authorities with the salacious use of popular WhatsApp. Same goes on today in Alwar, Hapur, Assam. Has any action related to the source of these images and messages circulated on WhatsApp been taken by the UP or Rajasthan Home Ministry, or the central home ministry?
Political parties and social organisations should undertake special efforts to prevent incidences of public violence. Mass campaigns, especially involving youth and students should be started against this culture of violence. All 'cow protection' gangs involved in terrorising and lynching must be banned. Cow protection laws which give a legal fig leaf to such gangs should be repealed across the country. Police and Courts should take an unambiguous stand against lynching and perpetrators must be punished at the earliest. As in the case of sexual violence, a special law should be made against lynching and given wide publicity to inform citizens of legal punishments.
If corrective measures are not taken today, the acceptance of lynching on perceived righteousness will permeate the social fabric soon and it will be tough to reverse the process later.
( Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury is a media academic and former Dean of Symbiosis and Amity Universities. The views expressed are strictly personal)