Something has changed in the fabric of Indian society in the past few years. It seems as if a violent, hate-filled black emotion has bubbled up from somewhere deep and is being played out collectively in diverse parts of the country.
There have been 27 deaths by lynching in the past two months, spread across 14 states. This is just the tip of the iceberg because deaths are serious matter and get reported countrywide. In the vast hinterland, the number of incidents of attempted lynchings – beating of people by mobs – is several orders of magnitude more.
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Take Maharashtra, where 5 people belonging to a nomadic tribe were mercilessly beaten to death with sticks, iron rods and stones in Dhule district by a mob of 3500 while eight policemen watched ineffectually. Earlier, similar incidents had taken place in Aurangabad City, Aurangabad Rural and Gondia districts. But reports indicate that 12 districts have reported such violence, not all of which led to deaths of the victims. Similarly, Odisha doesn’t yet figure in the map of states where killings have taken place. But the state police have reported 20 cases of mobs beating up people, mostly ‘outsiders’, that is non-Odia persons.
If you sift through the chilling accounts of lynchings two things appear to be common among most cases – social media and ‘outsider’, which actually means anybody who is a stranger or talking a different language, or wearing different kind of clothes, or just behaving differently. In most cases, Whatsapp messages, including videos and images of persons, have been identified as spreading rumours about child-lifters. This fear of child abductors on the loose is relatively ancient – there have been sporadic incidents stretching back decades sparked off by such rumours. Obviously, Whatsapp is now the vehicle of choice for extensive spread of such rumours. After all, an estimated 200 million people are using it daily.
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But these two factors – fear of the ‘other’ and its spread by modern communication technology – were also behind a similar spate of lynchings that started after Modi’s assumption of power and reached its peak in the last year. In the past four years there have been 78 incidents of mob attacks and lynchings in the name of cow protection and beef eating, led mostly by Sangh Parivar associated persons. In the expression of collective barbarism, these attacks and killings which caused deaths of 29 people and left 273 injured, were very similar to the current tide of seemingly random mob attacks. Over two thirds of the victims were Muslims and the remaining mostly Dalits – both communities that are considered ‘outsiders’ by the RSS in word or deed. The RSS and its wider family, including the BJP, have been carrying out hate filled propaganda against the Muslims for decades and the sudden outburst of the so-called ‘cow protection’ sentiment was nothing but a deliberate attempt to fan these flames.
It is worth recalling that most of these incidents were sparked off by wild and manufactured rumours of beef eating, cow slaughter, etc. and social media use for such hate-mongering was well known.
Once you realise the continuum between mob lynching of Muslims and Dalits and the current spell of lynching against alleged child-lifters, many other aspects fall into place. The chief amongst them is the fact of growing impunity. In most cases of attacks in the name of ‘cow protection’ the accused members of the mob either remain unidentified or cases against them deeply mired in legal skulduggery. In any case, those who incited the mobs of gau rakshaks remain at large, untouched by any legal proceedings.
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This incendiary sense of impunity of the mob has now come back full circle, though it is being fed by similar rumours, originating and being propagated through similar means. People realise that a mob can get away with murder. And, people also realise that it is just fine to have a weak target, an ‘outsider’ on whom your deepest fears can be pinned and consummated in the most barbaric form. If you can kill or beat up a fellow resident of the village and get away with it, then what harm will come your way if you kill or beat up an unprotected and innocent ‘outsider’.
This is why the incidents of lynching of supposed child lifters and thieves and witches and organ snatchers are happening in unconnected parts of the country but with very similar makings. What is common to different regions is manufactured fear and impunity – both gifts of the present dispensation.
A word also needs to be said about background or not so proximate causes. The country is also going through a phase of increasing economic distress. This is mainly because of ever increasing joblessness or under-employment. After a decade of jobless growth, we have four years of worsening job availability. Farming is in crisis with millions losing money every year and no end in sight. All this gives rise to deep uncertainty, insecurity and resentment because inequality of the most flagrant kind is visible constantly. This is not manufactured hate or fear, it is a simmering, all consuming shadow in the lives of millions. It also leaves people vulnerable, open to misdirection, in fact eager to seek some justice for something close. It is the well-spring from which fears and hate can be easily drawn out and become blood-lust.
There are reports of this or that police officials taking stringent steps in their areas to prevent mob violence. There is talk of stopping internet services to prevent rumours. Then, there are also reports like that of the Tripura BJP minister declaring that an 11-year old boy was killed by people to steal his kidneys, leading to widespread fears of such gangs operating in villages and, two days later three lynchings taking place. As the country fumbles around to find solutions, one is forced to wonder where all those people are that claim to unite the whole society under a single flag and religion. Are they part of the solution, or are they the problem?