WhatsApp: The New Adda for India’s Lynch Mobs

Social Commentary

WhatsApp: The New Adda for India’s Lynch Mobs

Illustration: Akshita Monga

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n July 1, a mob of what is claimed to be 3,500 men, gathered outside a house in Maharashtra’s Dhule town united by a common purpose. It wasn’t celebratory, it wasn’t even a protest. It was enmity and a virtual cue to enact justice on their own that had brought these people together. Hours later, five men were lynched based on the suspicion that they might have kidnapped children from the area.

The Dhule lynching was one of 14 such incidents of mob justice, in the state of Maharashtra in the month of June alone. Increasingly, the ones who are on the receiving end of mob justice feel like its least troubling aspects – it is the frequency and ease with which these groups turn violent, and treat the loss of human life as a mere fallout of their collective traumatic catharsis that has now become scary.

This cycle of normalised violence has found its most potent ally in WhatsApp. When the likes of Facebook and WhatsApp first became available to us in our smartphones, they seemed like fantastical tools to build virtual societies, networks, and friends. But the concept of knowing and listening to other people through these tools has over the couple of years changed. It is not who or what we love, that helps us find common ground with people anymore. It is who we hate. Vice – especially the targeted kind – has somehow become an adhesive that sticks weak spines together.

Hatred has a kind of monopoly over our minds these days. It seems a question of who, not if. Surprisingly, it isn’t the corruption we hate, the lack of jobs, poor healthcare, or the ineptitude of many of our institutions. We direct our hate at living, breathing outsiders. From Muslims to the economically indigent, from people of the Northeast to those of the working class, the likelihood of someone’s guilt is directly correlated to their dissimilarity. On the surface, this hot-headedness might seem like a form of instantaneously delivered karma to some. But its immediacy, especially its use of lethal violence, reeks of insecurity… an age-old complex that has haunted Indian society.

In a way, social media, once touted as an equaliser, the wall-less utopia of the masses has only manufactured larger silos, groups that thrive on the isolation of a viewpoint.

Figure this, none of the 3,500 people who supposedly gathered at the Panchayat house in Dhule, thought it best to wait for the authorities to intervene, or exact justice for whatever crime the victims were thought responsible for, had been established. Because to them, there was no separating the WhatsApp messages from reality, so mutually hazardous have they both become. The vitriol of one life, having eventually seeped into, and further ignited the realm of another. For some reason, citizens don’t only feel capable, but empowered, to become the first executioners of the law.

It isn’t that rumour-mongering did not exist in the pre-social-media age. I remember a colleague once told me that the African community living in Khirkee extension in Delhi was a “community of cannibals”, that they ate people alive. That even after he admitted he neither had proof nor had ever even spoken to anyone from the community.

I can only imagine what that pent-up paranoia and insecurity translates into over instant messaging, or worse, the WhatsApp groups that have replaced secret hideouts or meeting rooms of the past. One can simply remote control it, set fire to a whole village at once, all without moving a limb.

What has been common about the lynchings in Karnataka, Assam, Maharashtra, and other places is that the target has always been a form of the outsider, be it race, class or caste.

Photo by Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

What has been common to incidents that have happened in Karnataka, Assam, Maharashtra and other places is that the target has always been a form of the outsider, be it race, class or caste. In a way, social media, once touted as an equaliser, the wall-less utopia of the masses has only manufactured larger silos, groups that thrive on the isolation of a viewpoint. It now acts as an accelerated recruiter for the like-minded, a rumour machine on speed dial.

What could be worse? That people with political agendas like Jayant Sinha, see the silver lining over a body of corpses.

Violence has always pandered to a form of politics. Here it reappears repeatedly, straining the binary of us-against-them. But in the hands of people like Sinha, or those prepared to take advantage of gullible men, it could prove self-annihilating. Social media, as an idea, seems plush for the range of possibilities it wakes at dawn with. By nighttime, though, it seems torn apart, its essence shredded by the same maladies that go back centuries – hatred and insecurity.

Clearly, only technology has evolved since then. Not us.   

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