An App to Prevent Lynching, and Other Fantasies from the Edge of the Precipice

We can only be assured of a peaceful future if we see some commitment from the highest levels of the Indian government that the law will be enforced. Platitudes regarding communal harmony will only encourage the lawbreakers.

On the precipice. Credit: Mike_TN/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On the edge. Credit: Mike_TN/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I wish Mohammed Akhlaq had an App on his mobile that could have prevented him from being killed when a mob in Bisara village near Delhi dragged him out of his house following rumours that he had eaten beef. Or better still, an App that would have saved him even if he had eaten beef. Since our political leaders don’t seem overly concerned by his murder, there is no harm in hoping ‘Digital India’ will eventually deliver us from evil.

The changes in social discourse in India over the past few years, the targeting of minorities around the country and the incidents of violence in factories and industrial sites reminds me of some passages from the book Die Massenpsychologie des Faschismus. Wilhelm Reich published the book in Germany in the early 1930s and warned against the mass appeal of politics promoting intolerance and prejudice in the name of nationalism and development. But his warnings went largely unheeded.

Theodore P. Wolfe translated the book into English in 1946 as Mass Psychology of Fascism. Some of us read it in the 1960s and 1970s, trying to understand why western democracies supported dictatorial regimes in Asia and South America and who their local supporters were. I wonder if many young people in India have even heard of the book today.

The world has changed in many ways since Reich wrote his book, but the political methods used to influence large swathes of people by spokespersons of nationalism and by the ‘majority religion under threat’ wallahs haven’t. How influential these methods are can be seen on most of our TV channels and newspapers. While some writers and columnists continue to criticise violence and the profiling of minorities (as they should), the editors haven’t changed the way their reporters present news, caricaturing minorities and repeating unsubstantiated claims of state and non-state spokespersons. Important members of the governing system are even termed ‘fringe elements’ when they go too far. A pretty clever camouflage if there was one.

Some years ago, the American sociologist William Cousins explained how easy it is to create a ghettoised violent community. A person takes a marker with indelible black ink, goes to a junction and marks a dozen people randomly with crosses on their foreheads. He does this for a few days. Out of the dozens of people he has marked, just by chance alone, one could turn out to be a pickpocket. As soon as he commits his next crime witnesses will report that the perpetrator had a cross on the forehead. A few weeks later, again by chance, a person with a cross on the forehead (PWCF) will get into an argument and beat up a shopkeeper and sometime later one might even rape someone. Now the newspapers will report that PWCFs are becoming a social menace and must be put in their place. This development prompts the PWCFs – who have nothing to do with each other – to call a meeting for starting a solidarity society. Their frequent meetings eventually attract the attention of intelligence agencies and one of them gets arrested for possessing anti-social literature. The public then asks for the society of PWCFs to be banned, leading to violence and retaliation.

Wilhelm Reich tells us in turgid prose how jingoist nationalism can push the middle classes toward accepting intolerant modes of social organisation through the spread of fear and creation of an enemy. On the other hand, Cousins informs us though a very simple and elegant thought experiment how we can get sucked in to supporting demands for greater policing and revenge taking. All this can go along very well with a strong ‘development’ agenda.

Civil discussion of many issues is becoming difficult. Thought control through fear of censure has become common.

We may well be heading toward such a situation. Recently, a police officer from the Special Branch of Delhi Police visited a friend of mine who runs a small, insignificant NGO. He wanted all kinds of details about the NGO. When  my friend insisted he be informed of the reason for the visit,  the policeman said they had got instructions from high up that the NGO must be investigated because its members criticise the government and get funds from left leaning organisations! If an almost unknown NGO has suffered this fate for doing nothing wrong according to the laws of the land, there must be thousands of others across the country who are also being harassed. The writer Ganesh Devy, who returned his Sahitya Akademi award in protest at the murder of MM Kalburgi, received a visit soon after by an intelligence official who asked why he was “causing disaffection”.

This is why civil discussion of many issues is becoming difficult. Thought control through fear of censure has become common. Disruptions of exhibitions, movies, seminars and plays, vandalising of newspaper offices and burning of books have had their desired effect. Now students and teachers in academic institutions are scared of discussing any “sensitive” topic formally and in public. While some government universities may still enjoy some freedom, many of our technical institutions and private colleges operate under a reasonably strict code of self-censorship.

Difficult problems do not always have easy answers. For normalcy to return, fear has to reduce. This means those who indulge in violence in the public space must be controlled. The state has to insist that no one can indulge in violence to express displeasure and anyone who does so will be dealt with according to law. And this should include state agents also. Those initiating violence have to be apprehended immediately and there are enough sections in the Indian Penal Code to do so.

Today, persons holding official responsibilities are giving excuses for violence in the name of hurt sentiments. They must be asked to resign. We can only be assured of a peaceful future if we see some commitment from the highest levels of the Indian government that the law will be enforced. Platitudes regarding communal harmony will only encourage the lawbreakers. Morality plays have tragic endings and must not be allowed in the public space.

Dinesh Mohan was a Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

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  • Carpe Diem

    I wonder though if a protest will happen. Living in urban India amongst the minuscule middle and upper middle class, one sees a deep sense of apathy and a strong aspiration level ready to turn a blind eye to humanity as long as it is not on their doorsteps, a sort of dismissal of violence and death of a few at the altar of development. The only way the masses will be pushed to act is if the development promise does not deliver otherwise humanity alone will not start a protest