Mob lynchings are not new. But the culture of impunity is.
One of the most stinging descriptions of the dangers of mob violence never to be published (at least by the author in his lifetime) was Mark Twain’s response to a racial lynching in Missouri in 1901. He saw in it the danger of America turning into “The United States of Lyncherdom”. The secular republic of India, more than a century later, appears to be amidst the shadow of a similar fear.
A recent report by IndiaSpend, basing itself on the content analysis of news reports, concludes that “In the first six months of 2017, 20 cow-terror attacks were reported–more than 75 per cent of the 2016 figure, which was the worst year for such violence since 2010. The attacks include mob lynching, attacks by vigilantes, murder and attempt to murder, harassment, assault and gang-rape. In two attacks, the victims/survivors were chained, stripped and beaten, while in two others, the victims were hanged.”
Another analysis of mob violence and public disorder between January 2011 and June 2017 on Observer Research Analysis, shows that cow-related violence has spiked up dramatically from five per cent of the total incidents (of Lynching or Public Disorder) to over 20 per cent by the end of June 2017.
The anguish against this recent mob violence has been palpable among a large section of the citizenry. It has recently led to series of protests and demonstrations (including the “Not In My Name” campaign) in many parts of the country.
Everyone condemns mob lynching deaths, so what is the problem?
There has already been a spate of opinion pieces in mainstream media over the murder of people by mob lynching in India. A common thread which emerges across the Right and the Left is that vigilantism and mob lynching should have no place in society. Its presence shows an inept law and order situation and prevents society from facing and handling other serious issues of development.
However, going beyond the valid concern of law and order, there is also the dimension of a perceived escalation in such mob-violence over the past few years, and its relationship with the rise of the Right-wing in power. It has been eloquently pointed out that this recent spate of mob lynching indicates state indifference and a majoritarian denial of reality, that it is the deliberate persecution of minorities based on hate, an anti-Muslim feeling buoyed by the current Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party dispensation, and that a lynching is a majority’s way of telling a minority population that the law cannot protect it. This rings out loud in the aftermath of legislations passed on cattle trade and the now infamous rise of cow vigilantism in India.
There are however certain sections within the media who deny such perception any basis in reality. They point out to the gruesome history of mob violence and massacres in the past, particularly prior to the current central government, to state that lynching is essentially a law and order problem. They argue that there is only a “narrative” within a politically biased mainstream media, which seeks to hold the central BJP government and the RSS responsible and that a consequence of such “selective condemnation and bigotry”, is that it absolves law enforcement and drives away the moderates from the debate.
The question, therefore, hinges on looking at the trends of such mob violence and lynchings in India in the recent past.
Communal lynchings: A new form of hate crime
In the absence of any official data on mob violence and lynching, news content could certainly serve as an important data sources with regard to such crimes. Some insightful characteristics can definitely be discerned by any such content analysis on mob violence. The authors of this piece did an exercise searching specifically for ‘mob lynching’ in ‘India’ on Google news between 2010 and 2017.
The exercise is somewhat similar to that by IndiaSpend that uses different key words such as ‘cow vigilantes’, ‘gau rakshaks’, ‘beef’, ‘lynching’, ‘cow slaughter’, ‘cattle thieves’, ‘beef smuggler’ and ‘cattle trader’. The results of the IndiaSpend article have not been duplicated and can be found here separately.
The biggest trend that could be observed from our data-set is that of the lynching of individuals by a mob acting as an executor of an extrajudicial punishment. It includes the lynching of individuals who have been accused of petty crimes, individuals accused of murder and rape, and individuals perceived by the mob as deviants. There have also been quite a few instances of mob-violence on the basis of race against African and African-American students and tourists.
Apart from the incidents considered in our analysis there are three other prominent issues which merit an independent investigation and have not been included here as the incident count pertaining to them is too large. In addition, cases related to these issues are also often not reported. First are lynching deaths based on witch-hunting. These numbers are shocking in themselves. One report indicate that 2,097 such murders were committed between 2000 and 2012 in at least 12 states. The second type pertains to the historical issue of caste violence against Dalits. Caste atrocities often include lynching but are generally under-reported. The purpose behind these displays of violence in public is of course to intimidate by way of making an example. Curiously, one of the first widely reported instances of mob lynching based on bovine issues in recent times was based on a rumour of cow slaughter in 2002, where five Dalits from Haryana were lynched by a frenzied mob. The third includes lynching incidents which have occurred during riots or have been the instigating cause of riots (for instance in Muzzafarnagar as well as in Kokrajhar). These incidents are part of communal violence and rioting and must be considered separately.
There is, then, a clear history of mob violence and lynching in India, reflecting a society with palpable remnants of pre-modern values — the barbaric caste system being the most glaring example. This above listing of mob violence seen in conjunction with the data released by IndiaSpend (which cover a total of 101 cases), however, shows the creation of an entirely new category of violence -– bovine-related mob lynching deaths. This category has its own characteristics — the victims are largely Muslims, the proximate causes often based on rumours, built upon the prejudices against a community. It is also revealing that the proportion of this type of lynching among all cases of mob violence has increased in the last three years.
Strikingly, the report by IndiaSpend reveals that a blatant 97 per cent of all attacks centred on bovine issues between 2010 and 2017 were reported in the last three years. When a glaring 61 of a total of 63 such cases are registered after the creation of cow protection squads and beef trade restrictions, it definitely signals that an entirely new trend of mob violence in India, has gained ground under the current governing dispensation (this includes the fact that a majority of the cases have been reported in BJP-governed states).
Construction of a culture of impunity
Such an argument immediately begets the question, what explains the growing trend of this new form of lynching? Is it an expression of a latent communal prejudice, which has always been there as a symptom of an incomplete democratic project? Or is it a new sentiment all-together that has found its origins in the late twentieth century? Any response to this question would invite a deeper socio-economic and political analysis. However, we would like to make the limited claim that it is the culture of impunity constructed under this new RSS-BJP regime that has led to the sudden flourishing of such communal sentiment and the associated mob violence.
Communal polarisation has historically been one of the most important strategies of the Hindu Right-wing. The functioning of this strategy was readily at witness during the campaign for the 2014 general election and has continued unceasingly thereafter. The Prime Minister spoke against beef and cattle trade, in what has been termed by him as the “pink revolution”. The culture of impunity enjoyed by the fanatical Hindutva groups indulging in these hate-crimes is an outcome, intended and unintended, of the same strategy.
The response of the government machinery and the administration since the very first case of bovine-related mob lynching under the current dispensation reflects the construction of this culture of impunity. Filing of cases against the victims of these hate-crimes as the first step of action is just one example, there has been no dearth of subtle and non-so-subtle hints as to where the sympathies of the administration lie. Not a single instance of strong condemnation by government institutions has been witnessed in these cases. On the contrary, such incidences have at times been followed by shows of strength and statements of encouragement for the perpetrators. The tourism minister Mahesh Sharma while visiting the funeral of the accused in Mohammad Akhlaq’s murder is reported to have said, “(the murder) took place as a reaction to that incident (cow slaughter). You must also consider that there was also a 17-year-old daughter in that home. Kisi ne usey ungli nahin lagaayi (nobody touched her).” ML Khattar, the Chief Minister of Haryana, went on to call the lynching a misunderstanding and reinstated bigotry by claiming, “They can be Muslim even after they stop eating beef, can’t they? It is written nowhere that Muslims have to eat beef, not is it written anywhere in Christianity that they have to eat beef.” The BJP President, Amit Shah, made light of and was dismissive of a question on the apprehensions surrounding lynching deaths by claiming that “more lynching occurred prior to this NDA government” and that “there is no apprehension anywhere in the country”. This despite his claim in April 2017 that “action is being taken against cow vigilantes”. Even the Prime Minister, forced to break his deafening silence, issued a seemingly ineffective warning to cow vigilantes. On the very day of his warning on social media, a man in Jharkhand was lynched on the suspicion that he had carried beef in his vehicle.
While the acts of such lynching have served the purpose of striking fear into the minority community, the official responses, rather the lack of any response worth the name, to these acts of a public spectacle of violence, have created an impression that such fanaticism is beyond the realm of law. This impression, in turn, has engendered a self-perception among the perpetrators of being acceptable. It has implied a mainstreaming, in fact, glorification, of, what till very recently was considered, the fringe. The “erstwhile” fringe is now encouraged to follow suit everywhere thus, perpetuating itself to the extent that it creates an illusion of being normal and presents the danger of a real breakdown of social bonds between the majority and the minority.
The normalisation of such violence was in fact witnessed during some of the most recent cases, where the lynching was much more public in character, in front of an anonymous crowd that watched it and did not come to intervene. In fact, they even denied witnessing it. A teenager is attacked and his attackers comment on his perceived eating habits and his religious identity, he lies grievously hurt in the platform and no one comes to his help.
This, as a matter of fact, did happen and is not an account of a biased media.
It is this normalisation of the extreme act of lynching that Mark Twain feared deeply, the fear that one such instance will breed many. This is also reminiscent of the normalised violence against SC/ST communities and the frequent refusal by the administration to file cases under the atrocities act.
While it is indeed a law and order issue, we cannot let that become an excuse to carpet over the essential elements of communal prejudice and hate that constitutes these lynching deaths. That the government machinery, as well as the law enforcement agencies, collude or remain silent encourages this. And when the powers that be merely denounce the act of mob lynching and not its basis, they tacitly or explicitly allow such bigotry and oppression. This new form of hate crime is normalised as a result of the immunity granted to such vigilantes because they espouse a certain ideology. If such violence continues, it can cause an irreversible harm to the tenets of democracy that has shaped the idea of India.
A failure to recognise this new form of violence in India and call it out only absolves us from introspecting the rot in our society, and more damningly precludes us from moving forward politically to resolve it. Unfortunately, Mark Twain chose to remain silent despite an appropriate assessment of the danger. Will the moderates in today’s India exercise the same choice? That is for history to judge.