What lynchings sparked by rumours of child lifting tell us about India’s social anxieties
Opinion

What lynchings sparked by rumours of child lifting tell us about India’s social anxieties

They are essentially public unmasking of a society which has always harboured a retributive impulse in its imagination of justice.

By Anand Vardhan

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If you have been following the news these past few years, you might find something mundane about the latest incident of mob lynching in Borlai village of Madhya Pradesh over rumours of child lifting. It was different from earlier such incidents in two ways. One, the labourers accused of spreading child-lifting rumours owed money to the victims, one of whom was killed and five injured. In most such cases, the rumour mongers generally didn’t even have a petty motive. Second, the mob allegedly fooled by the rumours was led by a local BJP leader, Ramesh Junapani, who has since been arrested along with three other accused. The rare case of a local politician being part of a mob driven by child-lifting rumours should not misdirect us far the more regular, widespread and insidious social psyche of the menace to the turf of political rhetoric.

Previously, such rumours were spread mostly as pranks by people with a rather grisly sense of idler’s fun. Such rumour mongers, duly aided by smartphones and the capacity to misinform through social media, have triggered a spate of mob lynchings in different parts of India. Taken together, the mob violence against suspected child-lifters has been the major reason for lynchings. Their scale and frequency is greater than lynchings driven by other reasons which are talked about much more.

Take, for instance, lynchings documented by the Bihar police last year. There were 39 mob lynchings in just two and a half months, resulting in the killing of 14 people. And common to most of these incidents was rumours of child abduction.

Attempts by a section of the media at communalising one such incident became irrelevant in the face of several mob lynchings where the victims belonged to all sections of society.

The menace prodded the Bihar police to launch sensitisation drives against rumours of child-lifting and the consequent violence. Announcements on loudspeakers, awareness campaigns on social media, posters and hoardings, and camps organised by district magistrates and police officials have sought to warn the public of the dangers of spreading and believing such rumours. Besides, the police have used video footage to register FIRs against 348 identified and 4,000 unidentified people last year.

While the fear fuelled by such rumours gripped much of Bihar, Samastipur, Muzaffarpur, Gaya, West Champaran, Buxar and Patna witnessed attacks on suspected child-lifters. The victims – men, women and children, some of them mentally unstable – were either severely injured or killed. In Samastipur, two engineers working on a survey for the Indian Railways were attacked on suspicion of being child-lifters.

The extent of rumour-fuelled alarmism has made the police’s sensitisation campaign a necessary but tough task. It’s even seeped into popular culture. Songs are being churned out in the regional pop warning chachi and bhauji about child-lifters on the prowl.

While Bihar has seen a spurt in mob lynching of suspected child-lifters, it has been widespread in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Assam, Tripura, and Telengana. A report published in July 2018 stated that 61 mob attacks had been reported in the first seven months of that year, resulting in the deaths of 24 suspected child-lifters. The already heavy toll has risen alarmingly in the last 18 months. The study makes a distinction between attacks sparked by neighbourhood talk or hearsay and those motivated by rumours circulated on social media.

These numbers entail a reflection on impulses driving mob violence. A mob acting on mere suspicion or rumours reveals a society’s anxieties with real or imagined threats as well as the tendency to believe anything sinister. Its response to the rumours may also tell something else about the society.

As I argued in a recent article, frequent incidents of mob lynching in India are essentially public unmasking of a society which has always harboured a retributive impulse in its imagination of justice. In more ways than people realise, the yearning for proportionate and instant justice has been at the heart of lynch mobs. Such responses are a subset of the crisis of the defiance of law for instant delivery of justice. Their grievances could be as diverse as actual or suspected acts of theft, child-lifting, eve teasing, cattle smuggling, witch-spotting.

Such violent, celebratory responses can also be seen as the depletion of trust in the country’s criminal justice system. It’s seen as cathartic outpouring of the bypassing of judicial scrutiny, a process that many perceive as an unsure and very long road to justice. While this is an evidently dangerous corrective measure, there is something even more ironic. Based on just rumour, these responses end up being punitive action against a crime that most probably was never perpetrated.

Rumour mongering on social media feeds on a threat-anxious society. Such a society is a sitting duck for mischief-makers who revel in mob violence as an age-old spectacle. In the wake of mob violence fuelled by child-lifting rumours in Delhi last year, the educationist Krishna Kumar reflected: “The smartphone has transcended the considerable distance that divides the settled middle class and its struggling counterpart. The borderline class of people serving the settled middle class lives in permanent vulnerability of sudden change in their limited fortune. They are the ideal victims of rumour.”

He adds, “Those who compose and spread rumours are also right there among them, seeking to derive the pleasure that comes from seeing your mischief making a big impact. It matters little that the impact implies someone’s death. This kind of callousness is a part of the new technological environment. Not that it didn’t exist earlier. Watching someone being thrashed was a known social spectacle.”

The lure of such social spectacles has found a dangerous route to gratification in instant and violent anxieties. While technology may be quickening it, mob violence fuelled by rumours of child-lifting reveals grim faultlines in the contemporary social ethos of information-sharing.

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