By Karan Mujoo Jun. 27, 2017
Why do we lynch? There is something in the make-up of Indian crowds that makes them declare themselves judge, jury, and in some cases even the executioner.
Afew days ago, I went out to lunch with a friend. It is the sweltering month of June, and as luck would have it, on our way to the café, we got a flat tyre. With no other option, we hunched over the flat with the “jack”. We must have been sweating profusely for a few minutes when a shadow fell across me.
“Puncture hua hai lagta hai?” remarked a wiry old man with great interest. We grunted in acknowledgment and carried on with the backbreaking job of changing the wheel. Five minutes later the shadows had increased manifold. A small group of onlookers had gathered to witness our misery. None of them offered help, but almost everyone had advice. “Garmi mein regular check karana chahiye. Rubber expand hota hai na.” “Arrey right side nahi, left side ki taraf ghumao.” “Mechanic bula lo, aap se nahi hoga.”
It took us another ten minutes to fix the tyre, and in the meanwhile a cottage industry of advice had grown around us. The hanger-ons were sipping tea, smoking cigarettes, and shooting bull. When we wrapped up there was tangible sadness on the faces around us. How would the great Indian crowd fill their yawning day next?
Such sights, of people gathered in groups ranging from five to fifty, are common on Indian roads. One of the great national pastimes of Indians is the scuffle between two motorists. One small scratch is enough of an invitation for a crowd to gather, for cars to grind to a curious crawl, and in time come to a complete stop. People gather around the parties in confrontation. Sides are taken as the two motorists face each other like fighters in a ring. The mob becomes oblivious to the traffic jam it is causing. A boring day is suddenly punctuated by the possibility of violent entertainment.
The anatomy of a lynch mob is made up of active protagonists and passive onlookers. Hindustan Times / Getty Images
The anatomy of a lynch mob is made up of active protagonists and passive onlookers.
Hindustan Times / Getty Images
A friend once told me a story of an incident in Connaught Place a few years back. They were at a crossing when the signal turned orange and the loud and insistent horn of an incoming biker pierced through the clogged air. The biker wiggled between the traffic, swerving madly, narrowly missing a cycle-rickshaw, and he was almost at the signal, with the full intent of scraping through but the car in front of him, a white Ambassador, came to a halt. The biker braked with a screech but was flung to the heavens and crashed on the road eventually.
The crowd was still for several seconds and then everyone reacted all at once, seizing this rare opportunity for some quality vigilante justice. The biker was dead, instantly exonerated of any wrongdoing and the rich man would take the fall. Big cars shouldn’t be allowed to trample over humble two-wheelers. They flocked to the Ambassador. That is where they extracted their revenge for the dead biker, the unfairness of life, lost jobs, difficult wives, rising prices. Within seconds, the accident became the symbol of the country’s class struggle, its epic economic disparity.
The anatomy of a lynch mob is made up of active protagonists and passive onlookers. Both roles are important ones. In the recent sweep of lynchings in the country — the two “child abductors” in Assam’s Karbi Along or the two Muslim “cow thieves” in Jharkhand – each of the cases had hundreds of onlookers but nobody saw a thing. In each of them, the mob drank in the drama like a bloodthirsty vampire, recording it on their phones for circulation and perpetuity, but quickly suffered from collective amnesia when the incident was over.
But this silent crowd plays more than the role of a passive onlooker. It forms a collective consent of sorts, giving people the courage to do things, sometimes terrible things, which they would not even think about individually. Without the cover of the mob they are ordinary people with middling ideologies but with the cover, their beliefs are multiplied and strengthened. The crowd gives them both validation and blanket immunity from the consequences of their actions.
There is something in the make-up of Indian crowds that makes them declare themselves judge, jury and in some cases even the executioner. Gema Santamaria, a leading expert on the rise of vigilantism in the Philippines and across the world, believes that it’s not just a desire for justice. It’s an “over-killing” that is not merely about causing death but actually de-humanising the body. Its drivers are therefore more emotionally embedded than driven by the logic of delayed justice. We unleash something primal within us during that collective moment. It is a venting of the most primitive and damaging kind.
But why are we venting now? The answer, according to Gema Santamaria who has worked extensively in Latin American countries which have witnessed a spiral in vigilantism, is insecurity and distrust. In countries like India, the frustration with the legal system, the knowledge that justice will be horribly delayed and sometimes entirely absent, usually drives extra-judicial violence.
The crowd gives them both validation and blanket immunity from the consequences of their actions. The Washington Post/ Getty Images
The crowd gives them both validation and blanket immunity from the consequences of their actions.
The Washington Post/ Getty Images
We are living in a society with weak courts and poor law enforcement combined with intractable structural injustices. Nigerian writer Teju Cole, offers an explanation in an essay on mob murders in Nigeria: “What many of these societies have in common is a crisis of modernity. People, finding themselves surrounded by newly complex circumstances, and finding themselves sharing space with neighbours whom they do not know and with whom they don’t necessarily share traditions, defend themselves in terrible new ways. The old customs have passed away, and the new, less reassuring, less traditional modes of life are struggling to be born. Mobs arise out of this crisis. They are a form of impatience.”
In India, just like in the Philippines or Nigeria, we have long been witness to this crisis. What we have not witnessed – at least in the last few years – is this indignant righteousness; this wave of confidence that the majority is always right. It’s a view condoned by the current dispensation, if its inaction toward and refusal to acknowledge several such incidents is any indication. The mob is only emboldened by this refusal. Every lynching that goes unnoticed and unpunished by our legal institutions is further license to the next one. Every lynching creates a void – a void into which more blood will flow.