By Appu Esthose Suresh
Organized mob violence is not new to India. But at the heart of the current wave of lynching is a new political emotion promoted by a craftily nurtured project that targets those who dissent from the restrictions imposed by self-styled conscience keepers of “society”.
The mood of the nation, at present, is to explain its dealings with one another in the religious language of righteousness and sin. Eating beef is sin. Public display of love is a sin — unless it is towards your nation.
This new emotion has its roots in outrage and hatred and its closest ancestor is the honor-based eye-for-an-eye kind of emotion of ancient times.
How did we get here?
It is not as if lynching was never reported in India. According to an October 27, 1985 report in The Statesman, Communist-led West Bengal witnessed a wave of such violence in the Eighties. During 1982-84 a total of 482 incidents of mob lynching claiming 635 lives were reported from the Communist state. These were particularly on account of the public losing faith in the law and order machinery and deciding to take matters in their own hands.
But this present wave is very different.
The Dadri lynching, as it has come to be known after the killing of an elderly Muslim man Mohammad Akhlaq in September 2015, was the beginning. The incident is critical to understanding the character of present lynching culture.
Individual acts of ‘rebellion’ inside the comfort and safety of one’s home were the first threat to this new project — such as a young girl choosing her life partner who may be from another religion — which decrees that such decisions should be left to the collective moral authority of society.
Aklaq’s crime was that the conscience-keepers of society thought he had beef in his house. A sin according to them, which ought to be punished. The message was clear: individual freedom is not above the collective conscience of society. Any act beyond the culturally-sanctioned walls erected in an ancient era is one that the defenders of this new project disapprove of, in public or private.
How did society concede this space?
A democratic nation committed to human dignity and following the Constitution is an effective deterrent to lawless tribalism. But the participants of this new ‘nation-building project’ emphasise that legal recourse based on Constitutionalism is long-winded and time-consuming. Faced with this question of choice between the futilities of liberal (also read alien) principles based on the Constitution and defending the current project of saving society from a perceived imminent threat, the instant system appears preferable. Vigilantism has now gained legitimacy.
India’s foremost public intellectual, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, has said: “These kinds of incidents always inhabited the realm of religious intolerance zone. Now it has entered a Constitutional and political realm and is finding acceptance. This is the first time we are seeing mainstreaming of such philosophy.”
This new attitude has been encouraged by public rhetoric, by the attitude of political leaders, by local loyalties and is to be coercively imposed. A democratic progressive nation has a Constitutional duty to protect individual freedom – but this is on a direct collision path with the current project. In this new national project, individual self-expression and dissent are strongly discouraged and “moral control” and unanimity strongly encouraged.
The narrative of an ideal society is based on a misplaced pride in ancient glory and a narrow interpretation of “Indian culture”, not on the Constitutional reflection of pluralism and the Constitutional idea of what an ideal society should be.
The challenge to this narcissist narrative is a counter narrative based on extending sympathy and building a decent society according to the principles of the Constitution, the only written document of vision of an aspiring Indian society. No doubt, the Indian Constitution also talks about a ban on cow slaughter as one of its objectives, however, it is in a manner that befits a progressive democratic society of the 21st century.
How do the vigilantes defend this new ‘nation-building project’ from being derailed?
Creating a nation with no dissent
That is where the precursor to street vigilantism has played an important role. In social media platforms, ‘mob lynching’ over dissent or expressions of free speech has been going on for a long time — and is still continuing. But now the theatre has shifted to the streets.
This was facilitated by a slyly-constructed narrative of nationalism — a hybrid of patriotism and Hindutva.
The symbols of patriotism are powerful tools for arousing emotions once the public is able to relate to them. These symbols can also be cultivated by repetition since by their very nature human beings resonate to an image or thought that it is repeatedly echoed.
In order to promote a new public attitude, a narrative was built around symbols that attracted such sentiments: the Army, a symbol of a just institution which therefore cannot be criticized; the Cow, a sacred symbol equivalent to your mother, which must be protected at all costs, and the National Anthem, a symbol of pride, which must be respected. A violation of these symbols can evoke extreme reactions of public emotion which are sanctioned by the tacit support of the political leadership.
Besides promoting these symbols of patriotism, the new narrative has been successful in promoting a stereotype of enemies of patriotism. It is tapping into the historical conflict between two communities, the Hindus and Muslims, and has painted the minority community as less patriotic. But the real success of this narrative is tainting dissent as anti-national. For instance, since the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) sedition row, there were many reports of heckling of students from this institution. When extreme emotions are aroused in the public, anyone who fits the anti-national profile becomes the target. So Pehlu Khan was lynched to death for transporting cattle – but his Hindu driver was spared.
These public emotions have not been discovered yesterday as we saw with the example of West Bengal in the 1980s. They were prevalent but the intervention of society, condemnation and action by the State stabilized it. Remember the Graham Staines incident in 1999 where the Christian missionary and his two sons of 10 and six years were burnt alive by a mob in the name of conversion. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the then prime minister, also from the BJP, termed it a “ghastly act” and launched a speedy investigation.
But by crippling dissent and blurring the principle of separation of church and state, such interventions have been made virtually impossible. The political followers and the bureaucracy are quick to pick up signals from those leading them. Try and put together the sequence of the following images. One, in February 2016, a political activist came to hear the sedition trial of JNU students in Patiala court, right in the heart of India’s power centre, and was beaten by lawyers as a contingent of the police looked on. Second, a year later, on May 18, in Jharkhand, a man, face covered in blood, asked for his life to be spared with folded hands as a mob brutally attacked him in the presence of the police. In both these incidents the state machinery became a mute spectator.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta says, “Even the hypocrisy of the top leadership set the norm. Condemning these violent incidents even for the sake of it can influence the followers on the ground, which is lately absent.”
Silence or condolence messages with riders such as “not all cow vigilantes are bad” only reconfirm that the political leadership is unsympathetic towards disrespect to the new narrative, the newly energized symbols of patriotism. Compassion is an act of cowardliness in these situations. Perhaps this explains why the vigilantes or the mobs now record their acts even as the victim pleads with folded hands or is bullied out of a movie theatre for failing to respect the “national anthem”. It is a reminder: compassion is not for those who disrespect this new ‘nation-building’ process.
As the list of symbols and ‘enemies’ of these symbols increases every day, the virulent lynch culture seems here to stay – at least in the near future.
By Appu Esthose Suresh