Understanding Mob Lynching: Beyond We and They

Light of truth

Question: Joseph T. Thomas

Are we not affected by the plague of mob lynching? Is our country in danger of mob anarchy?

Answer: Subhash Anand

In the past the sense of belonging to a particular clan, caste, church, etc., expressed itself in a set of behaviour patterns that governed the outer appearance, food habits, rites of passage, etc. These behaviour patterns functioned as boundary markers. Those who followed them were with us, while those who did not were the outsiders. They could also be against us in some situations. Belonging to some clan, caste, church, etc., gave the individual a sense of security; but that also made us dependent, and thus obstructed our freedom and blocked our growth. Fortunately there were always some exceptions. With globalization we suddenly find ourselves in a society without boundaries. On the superficial level we are at home in it: we exploit to the maximum the material benefits of globalization: food variety, dress fashions, communication media, travel facilities, etc., but deep down many of us still very traditional. We are schizophrenic people. And schizophrenics can be very volatile. We can be easily provoked. We see a young lady dressed ‘scantly,’ a young couple walking hand in hand, a group of men and women sitting in a bar sipping chilled beer and enjoying themselves, etc., and we are aroused to ‘holy’ anger, and we jump into violent action. Mob-violence is one form of moral policing. While we are carried away by the market plurality, deep down we are very narrow-minded. We still insist on using the outdated monocle. We have not really responded to the challenge of globalization in a critical manner. We are still kids of the past. This schizophrenia affects all communities. This explains why honour killing is not confined to some uneducated group or unenlightened ‘pagan’ community.

Mob-violence can result in communal disturbance when it is the result of religious aggression and intolerance. Then the physically more powerful group inflicts different forms of violence on the members of the other group. In a secular state all religious groups need to respect civic space and time. In the name of religion we cannot create traffic problems nor disturb people with our noise. So too, in a secular state no one group can dictate to the others what they should eat and not eat, etc. We have a right to entertain our religious sentiments and beliefs, but we cannot impose them on others. For the last five hundred years and more there has been a break between the church and the state in Europe. Not only that, there have been periods of violent anti-clericalism and even total rejection of Christianity. During these years Europe had to find a way to make public life secure by providing an ethic that was not grounded on church teaching, but the fruit of a reflection on what it means to be human. Yet, this so-called secular ethic has its roots in the Christian understanding of the human person, the consequent equality of all humans, whatever be their colour, gender, language or religion. Hence it is very true to say that the concept of secular state comes from Europe. The experience of Asia has been different. It is not easy for them to understand secular nationalism. Not mere literacy but real education is needed to appreciate secular values. Just as many of us have not critically placed ourselves in the global village, so too many of us have not really understood and accepted the secular ethos.

Some may ask: “Why is it that mob lynching is on the rise?” “Where is our country heading to?” “Does the freedom we acquired in 1947 give us the licence to do what we like?” “Is our democracy deteriorating into a mobocracy? Different factors explain this tragic development. First, there is the need to find a scapegoat. Many people, even professionally qualified young people, are jobless. There is growing sense of frustration. Similarly agricultural workers feel that on the one hand they put in a lot of time, money and energy to provide the nation the food material it needs, but they get very little in return. The different pay commissions, with their wage-hike, have not effectively benefitted the rural agricultural workers and their families. Similarly, the unorganized labour force does not benefit from the norms laid down by the pay commission. There are so many unemployed people that contractors arrogantly tell people: “Either accept what I am prepared to give or get lost.” Frustration generates anger and anger needs an outlet. Some people may use the social media to spread false rumours and to malign some group. This generates suspicion and even hatred. This malign person or group becomes the scapegoat for the others. The faceless crowd provides a good mask: the culprits cannot easily be identified. The village people know that the legal process takes a long time and does not always bring relief to the right persons.

Second, the state fails when it does not respond promptly and appropriately when mob lynching takes place. This is the failure both of the politicians and the police. It has been noticed that in the recent years some political leaders have maintained an unholy silence after mob lynching episodes. They were aware that the people responsible for the violence were connected to their political party or at least constituted their vote bank. Their silence legitimized the action of the culprits and emboldened them further. On the other hand, the police force finds it difficult to act. The police people are not sure that their lives really matter to their political bosses. Hence they are forced to play safe. Their honesty may not only jeopardize their future but may even cost them their life. Hence they delay the process and slowly the episode is forgotten.

The increase in mob lynching is also by the double failure of the state. Let me explain with some examples. A sand-laden dumper runs over a man. A violent mob torches twenty-four dumpers and even some people are engulfed in the flames. The reaction of the mob appears to be ‘spontaneous,’ and yet it has its roots. Many people are against sand-mining from rivers as that affects the profile of the rivers. They also believe that the sand-mining mafia are hand-in-glove with the politicians and the police. Hence the driver of the fatal dumper would go scot free. They have no alternative but to take the law in their hands. This explains why even when a vehicle driver gets involved in some accident in a village, the first thing he does is to abandon the vehicle and run for his life. He may be totally innocent, but for the village folk he is the culprit. Here again we see a prejudice operating: the other is always wrong.

Another phenomenon that may explain the rise of mob lynching is the fact that our some of our political parties are trying to polarize our population so as to create a secure vote bank for themselves. Any social change—good or bad—takes place faster if a proper catalyst is in place. Political parties find an effective catalyst by instrumentalizing some religious symbol. Many tribal communities were totemistic. Every tribe considered some particular animal, bird, fish, or plant as uniquely linked with its tribal identity. Every tribe considered its totem sacred, and hence would not inflict violence on it. But that was within the tribe. The totem gets instrumentalized when it becomes a tool to hurt others: we expect everybody to regard that totem the same way as we do. If tribes were to go by this expectation, they would not survive because every animal, bird, fish, or plant that was a food item would be totem of some tribe or the other. I am afraid many mob lynching episodes are the result of the instrumentalization of a religious symbol: the cow. As a result many stray cows are crowding our roads and creating traffic problems, and if by some chance a cow is knocked down by a vehicle, then the driver is at the mercy of the mob. If the mob finds that he is not a fan of the cow, then they will see no reason why he should live.

There is, however, a deeper reason for all of us to be concerned: we are losing the sense of the sacredness of the human person. The consumer market has succeeded in convincing many of us that what really matters is what we have. The more we have of the latest in the market, the more up-to-date we are. Even parents give their children much more what they can buy in the market than their own love and care. They have enough time for many things but no quality time for their kids. The loss of the sense of the sacredness of the human person can only dehumanize us. We become violent prone animals. Like Ganesh, we have a human body, but an animal head—our heart and mind (our thinking and feelings) are those of animals.

The Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen (1828 –1906) in his play An Enemy of the People deals with mob fury which can lead to mob-violence: people consider him their enemy because he discloses a weakness of their society, which they do not like to face. Mob fury can find its expression in many ways. We can marginalize a person by just ignoring him. We can convey our disapproval through social media and pour out our anger towards our target. If we are to deal with mob lynching in a healthy manner, we need to begin by healing ourselves. If we think that we are always right and they are always wrong then we are potential agents of mob lynching. The history of the Roman Catholic Church shows how the above kind of thinking can lead to terrible violence and even the most innocent people can be brutally done to death. Also when we remain silent, as did the majority of German Roman Catholics during the Nazi regime, we are part of the violent mob. This way of thinking ‘we and they’ operates in many ways. If men think that only they can lead a religious community and preside over its worship, then men are guilty of mob violence against women. We Christians in India need to rise above all divisions that in any way violate human dignity. Even when we have other divisions, e.g., Oriental and Latin, they should not be tools of power and competition, but of real humble service.

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