Decoding the inner workings of India’s lynch mob syndrome
A common thread unites Mohammad Akhlaq, Pehlu Khan, Junaid Khan — they were lynched by Hindu mobs in the name of cow protection.
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP took power in 2014, mob lynchings have become the new normal. The BJP’s rise and the regular pro-Hindutva sermons issued by party leaders have instilled a sense of invincibility in these gau rakshaks (cow protectors).
Chief among them is Mohan Bhagwat, sarsanghchalak of the RSS, the BJP’s ideological mentor, who has repeatedly urged the Centre to ban slaughter of cows. Party MPs, including Yogi Adityanath, who became chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in March, has issued open threats against beef trade. Adityanath’s appointment as the state’s chief minister was followed by an unprecedented crackdown on slaughterhouses.
In the backdrop of this violence lies the BJP’s ideological goal — to create an India of the upper caste by suppressing the Muslims and confining the lower castes to their “rightful” place at the bottom of the food chain. Its idea of India stems from the Manusmriti or the Laws of Manu and Bunch of Thoughts by M.S. Golwalkar, the RSS’s second sarsanghchalak.
Mukul Kesavan wrote in The Telegraph that “the anti-cow-slaughter campaign has become for the BJP and its vision of Bharat what the anti-blasphemy law used to be for Zia-ul-Haq and his vision of Pakistan: an occasion for the public enactment of the supremacy of a religious majority and, correspondingly, the subordination of religious minorities.”
Kesavan described a visit to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington where he realised that “lynchings were public performances, designed to strike terror into minds of black people, specially blacks who had forgotten their place vis-à-vis their white betters.”
He also drew a parallel between the lynchings of the Ku Klux Klan and the violence of Hindu mobs. The Ku Klux Klan, he wrote, “used violence to intimidate free blacks, to ritually enact their ‘inferiority’. White vigilantes attacked black men and killed them in the name of protecting white womanhood. Between 1890 and the middle of the 20th century nearly 3,500 black men were lynched in the name of white supremacy.”
They also took pictures of their handiwork, which were often published as postcards. It was a “form of white terrorism in America, specifically designed to intimidate black Americans,” Kesavan wrote.
Most lynchings in India take place in the Hindi belt of the north, where the BJP has traditionally wielded more power. The lynch mobs see clear complicity of the people at the helm in the violence where the prime minister, as the chief minister of Gujarat, had himself advocated extrajudicial encounters. The mobs feel empowered. They also know that they enjoy impunity and patronage from the power.
Another aspect of emboldening the lynch mobs is their glorification by the ruling dispensation. The body of Ravi Sisodia, an accused in the murder of Akhlaq, was draped in the Tricolour and hailed as a martyr after he had died in jail.
Modi’s silence on this rabid expression of violence also provides tacit approval of their actions. Forest fires in Portugal elicit a quicker response from their leader than the gruesome murder of a 15-year-old boy.
This has created an “us versus them” mentality among the fringe elements where even police are mute spectators, while the courts are too busy debating whether a peahen reproduces by merely drinking the peacock’s tears.
The lynchings take place not just in the name of cows. It has ranged from fake WhatsApp messages alleging that a rape accused was an illegal Bangaldeshi immigrant through allegations of child trafficking to civic officials allegedly lynching a political activist after he tried to stop them from photographing women defecating in the open.
These were not the only instances. At the height of last year’s students’ movement in Jawaharlal Nehru University, there were repeated, some successful, attempts at attacking students, teachers, and activists on the court preemies. Some lawyers even managed to beat up students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar when he was lodged in jail at the time.
Decoding lynchings from the point of view of neuroscience, Sumaiya Shaikh, a medical scientist with a PhD in neuroscience, wrote in The Wire that a mob lynching differed from physical harm or a killing. According to her, several components come together — the attackers, spectators and the outnumbered victim(s) for this public spectacle that dates back to the medieval ages. “It needs the public humiliation of the victim and, unlike a lawful process of punishment, a lynching is a demonstration that the sentiments of the attackers are beyond the law or the government,” she wrote.
The perpetrator category of ‘participants’, Shaikh wrote, “isn’t an individual but a group that unites to act as a single entity. Within this group, there is trust, recognition, validation, power and anonymity for its members. Every action and thought of a group of this sort, like the workings of an insect swarm, consists solely of achieving their shared objective.”
But not all lynchings are spontaneous outbursts of mob sentiment. Two cow vigilantes had tailed the van of Asgar Ali alias Alimuddin on a bike from Chitarpur in Ramgarh, a known beef hub, to Bazartand in the heart of the district town on June 29 morning, providing regular updates during the 15km stretch to their friends in the marketplace waiting to kill, a chilling example of premeditated mob murder in India.
Apoorvanand agreed that “the spate of violent attacks are in no way spontaneous expressions of mob anger. They are the product of systematic incitement to violence by Hindu nationalists.”
The “atmosphere of sustained hatred against Muslims makes attacks on them seem spontaneous and the product of mob anger. But few question why the mob is angry in the first place,” he wrote.
In April 2017, when a man succumbed to his injuries suffered in a mob attack in Rajasthan, the state’s home minister told reporters that cow protectors were trying to stop people from trafficking cows. The chilling logic — those who are lynched are on the wrong side of the law and those who lynch are protecting it — gives further credence to the work of these lynch mobs.
The absence of laws against lynchings also allows these mob vigilantes get away with little or no punishment whatsoever. The founding fathers of the Constitution of India, perhaps, expected that India had moved on from the medieval practices and didn’t see the need to include any clause against mob violence. They didn’t realise, however, that the party which would hold the country’ts reins from 2014 would steer it back to the dark ages of mob justice.
A draft law to address the menace was unveiled on 7 July by the National Campaign Against Mob Lynching as a response to a spate of lynching incidents that have rattled the nation over the past few months. The draft Maanav Suraksha Kanoon (Masuka) defines lynching as “any act or series of acts of violence, whether spontaneous or planned, committed to inflict extra judicial punishment, or as an act of protest and caused by the desire of a mob to enforce upon a person or group of persons any perceived legal, societal & cultural norms/ prejudices.”
Masuka is expected to fill a glaring hole in India’s constitution. Whether the ruling dispensation makes any efforts to get it passed without delay is, however, still up in smoke.