What the Bulandshahr Cop’s Killing Tells Us About India’s Growing Mob Power

Social Commentary

What the Bulandshahr Cop’s Killing Tells Us About India’s Growing Mob Power

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

The Indian public’s relationship with the police is a fickle one. On one hand, the widespread corruption and problematic attitudes prevalent among police personnel are no secret, but on the other, most citizens also view the uniformed men and women with a degree of fear. That fear was nowhere to be found in Bulandshahr, UP, yesterday, when a mob killed police inspector Subodh Kumar Singh after a skirmish over animal slaughter in the area.

In the wake of the inspector’s murder, matters proceeded according to script. A SIT was swiftly set up, the FIRs were filed, and two arrests were made. The arrested suspects belong to the Bajrang Dal, VHP, and the BJP youth wing. Now, having meted out their own brand of vigilante justice, these goons will face the Indian justice system. But is justice really being served? What is justice, when death sentences can be issued and executed by a seething mob? As we struggle to make sense of the new normal, we can’t afford to ignore how the lynch mob has shaped the world we live in today.

It was only a matter of time that the angry mobs dispensing shotgun justice across the country claimed a government servant. Their bloodthirstiness, once triggered, can only be satisfied by death. Yesterday, Subodh Kumar Singh was a policeman trying to do his job and prevent an incident of communal violence; today, he’s a martyr and a reminder of how dangerous India’s mob violence problem has become. There are myriad reasons behind why these mobs assemble, from WhatsApp rumours about child-lifting and organ harvesting, to a misguided desire to protect gau mata. Whatever their motivation, the end result is depressingly similar – a dead victim and a grainy WhatsApp video of the killing.

But this killing is particularly symbolic: The policeman represents law and order, while the mob is the embodiment of unbridled chaos, and it’s clear which of the two is in the ascendancy. The institutions we relied upon are proving toothless in the face of the ideologically charged violence we witness today.

As the institutions that once dictated the rhythm of public life crumble, there is a vacuum of power.

The signs are clear for any who wish to see them. The executive, judiciary, and the media are all experiencing a period of upheaval. From BJP ministers who assault policemen in restaurants to yesterday’s shocking killing of Singh, the evidence of how the executive is under threat is clear. On the judicial front, the murky death of Judge Loya last year and the unprecedented motion to impeach CJI Dipak Misra show how tenuous the court’s relationship with the Centre has become. Meanwhile, the media continues to grow increasingly subservient to the government’s agenda. The doctored clip of pro-Pakistan slogans being aired at a Congress rally on Zee News this week should be enough to convince you that India’s press is far from being fair or free.

As the institutions that once dictated the rhythm of public life crumble, there is a vacuum of power. Amid this air of uncertainty, non-state actors are emboldened to take the law into their own hands, dictating how people should live their lives. Child-snatching rumours and cow vigilantism account for the bulk of the killings. As data from IndiaSpend shows, 97 per cent of deaths related to cow vigilantism in this decade occurred after the BJP assumed power in 2014, and this year alone, 24 people have been killed by mobs that were out there to get “child-snatchers”. But receiving a rumour over WhatsApp over beef smugglers or kidnappers is a mere trigger; the real reason for the rise of mob violence are the deep-seated rifts in India’s society, and the elements that are exploiting them to gain power.

As the 2019 general election draws closer, political parties are showing us their true communal colours. The Congress talks up Rahul Gandhi’s Brahmin roots and the BJP is selling the Hindu Rashtra dream, with some ministers even felicitating convicted “gau rakshaks”. All of this contributes to a vitiated, toxic atmosphere of distrust between groups – a sweet spot in which lynch mobs operate with impunity.

In the past year or so, those with a thirst for “vigilante justice” have only gotten stronger.

A report in The Atlantic points out, “Across all of [the incidents of mob violence], religious, class, gender, and local/outsider divisions come into play, as does a lack of faith in governmental authorities to fairly protect communities, leading to vigilante justice. And in some cases, it is government officials themselves who are using WhatsApp groups to mobilise the mobs…” This indictment of the ruling party is backed up in a January report by the Human Rights Watch, which stated, “Many senior BJP leaders publicly promoted Hindu supremacy and ultra-nationalism, which encouraged further violence.”

In the past year or so, those with a thirst for “vigilante justice” have only gotten stronger. Man or woman, young or old, and now, civilian or public servant, it seems like mob will not spare anyone who attracts its ire. Subodh Kumar Singh might be the first policeman killed by the dreaded mob, but the greatest tragedy of his death is the fact that he might not be the last.