Act, before it’s too late

Lynch mobs

The condemnation by the Supreme Court on July 17 of the recent spate of lynchings as “horrendous acts of mobocracy” and its plea to Parliament to make lynching a separate offence could not be more timely as such acts are often accompanied, quite disturbingly, by prolonged silence from those in power, at the Centre and in the states. And frankly speaking, that it took so many incidents of lynching for us to be sufficiently alarmed and outraged over them is quite a matter of shame. But neither the apex court’s directive nor the new Group of Ministers’ suggestions will work on the ground if there is active encouragement of the culture of hate, paranoia and divisiveness across the nation.

Where does one start? Recall Graham Staines, an Australian Christian missionary, and his two little sons were brutally burnt to death by a gang of Bajrang Dal fundamentalists in 1999 in Odisha; Rakbar Khan and his accomplice, who were transporting cows, were severely thrashed up by the villagers of Ramgarh on suspicion that they were smuggling the animals. Rakbar died, or was left to die by police.

From a lad in Ballabhgarh who was knifed to death on a Delhi-Mathura train while returning from Eid shopping, to a 55-year-old dairy farmer who was hunted down and murdered by a crazed crowd on a highway in Rajasthan for allegedly smuggling cows, one might discover a thematic and trite similarity of plot. While the murder of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, Pehlu Khan in Alwar, and Hafiz Junaid in Haryana made their names the most talked about, the perpetrators, the faceless gangs, remained anonymous. Why were most of the killers allowed to get away? Why was no rigorous search mounted to track the perpetrators?  

The answer possibly lies in the fact that the lynch mobs enjoy the active patronage of politicians from the ruling party and dominant religio-political organisations.

The so-called gau rakshaks would not have proliferated without encouragement and support from the RSS, backed by the strength of BJP governments. It is due to the likes of union minister Jayant Sinha felicitating convicted cow vigilantes or another union minister Giriraj Singh meeting Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal leaders implicated in communal clashes that such fringe groups can dare to go on rampage. Majoritarianism provides them an entrenched sense of security, armed with which they attack Muslims and Dalits with impunity. 

Is there any historic parallel? The post-war wave of reaction, after World War I, in the US cost the American people many of their most cherished democratic rights. It fomented nationwide intolerance, hysteria, hatred and fear. Thousands of innocent persons were arrested, jailed and tortured. Scores died in labour struggles, lynchings and race riots. Never before had terror and repression been so widespread in that nation.

Violent lynching of African-Americans was a widely supported phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation, and public events that traumatised black people throughout the country were largely tolerated by state and federal officials. Members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) terrorised the population with intimidatory parades, floggings, mutilations and lynchings.

While this was called the “foulest page in American history”, the spate of fatal lynchings in India, sometimes on mere suspicion that one is a child-lifter, or that one is waging ‘love jihad’ by seducing girls of another faith, or that one is carrying cattle, raises the spectre of India becoming a mobocracy.

This culture of lynching, which once pervaded the American South and manifested through the spasmodic anti-Semitic pogroms in tsarist Russia, is common now in India and threatens to take us back to a medieval age marked by the absence of rule of law.

And these mobs can kill an errant driver on the run, a petty thief pilfering a bicycle or a goat or sometimes a woman for practicing ‘sorcery’, a boy for having an interfaith relationship, or on any other flimsy pretext.

Check institutional bias

How can we tackle this menace? The administration must not act according to the popular ideological/religious beliefs. It cannot be institutionally biased against beef-eaters and meat traders, treating them as transgressers just because they do not conform to the culinary diktats of the ruling dispensation. Any act of collective intimidation, or strong-arm tactics (like electoral bullying as reported during the Panchyat elections in West Bengal) must be seriously tackled.

More important, in view of the fact that mobocracy does entail lawless control of public affairs by the mob or populace, there is such a widespread distrust of the lengthy legal process and leaky justice delivery system that nobody trusts the courts to punish the guilty. Therefore, it is a raw form of street justice that betrays a sheer disdain for the rule of law. This lumpen mobocracy harks back to an antediluvian age and thrives on atavistic fears. It is regressive and medieval and hardly in sync with New India.

The description of lynchings and mob violence as “creeping threats” by the apex court could not be more germane to what is happening in the country today because this practice of meting out instant justice is blind to the nuances of a putative act of offence.

What is worrisome is that base passions are stirred up by fake news, self-professed morality and false narratives, made possible by unrestricted and irresponsible use of social media.

The obscurantist forces are on the rise again. The caveat by the apex court that the rising wave of frenzied mobs would consume the country like a “typhoon-like monster” might well be real because lynch mobs can kill anybody and everybody, on some specious plea or another. The time to act is now, before it is too late.

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Act, before it’s too late

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