Many lynchings that make headlines in India today are related to what some call ‘beef terror’. Crucially, since the first ‘cow protection’ lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in 2015, the ruling government has offered a standard response. That the killings, while condemnable, are inevitable, for they are merely an emotional “reaction” of Hindus angered by the morally unacceptable behaviour of cow smugglers. It is a one-fits-all explanation: lynchings are ‘spontaneous’ acts of righteous anger; people have little recourse but to give in to their anger when faced with action that dishonours their religious beliefs or symbols. The case for spontaneous violence is spelt out in many different ways: “unfortunate accidents” and “reaction to x” are most popular. The ‘x’ may be replaced with any of the following: ‘high Muslim population’, ‘offensive behaviour’, ‘disrespect to religious sentiment’, ‘meat eating’ etc.
There is a clear political rationale behind terming every incident of crowd violence as ‘mob’ violence or an outcome of emotions. Attributing visceral motivations to attackers has remained a very successful strategy for politicians to shun accountability and wriggle out of inconvenient judicial trials. What can the state and its law enforcement do but stand and watch helplessly when faced with an enraged “mob”? How do we prosecute the guilty when their only crime was to give in to their impulse? The blame shifts from cognition to emotion. Coherent individuals, when assembled in a group, are termed “mobs” – a monolith of faceless, frenzied beasts – reinforcing the inevitability of the situation on hand. As a result, convictions in public violence in India are rare or extremely protracted.
But the myth of the “mob” has been refuted by social scientists since long. Randall Collins, noted for his microsociological studies of violence, has called it “misleading to fall into the rhetoric that the crowd has an emotion (such as righteous anger, vengeance etc.)” because “the idea that people become bestial in crowds, robs people of the meaningful nature of that behaviour”, as social psychologist Clifford Stott has further explained.
This makes sense for there is much evidence from studies across the world that acts of collective violence are often strategic and rational. In India especially, rationally-motivated violence is masqueraded as spontaneous acts motivated by righteous anger. Violence, therefore, becomes merely a means to a legitimate political end. The terminology is crucial here: well thought out violence is masqueraded as spontaneous, or a clash between antagonistic civilian groups whose members are overwhelmed by emotions. This is true of mass-scale riots as well as of extrajudicial killings, such as lynchings, none of which occur without the tacit approval of the ruling government.
This has an implicit logic: to sustain a functional democracy, it is critical that the state maintains a distance from explicitly mobilising crowds for attack or, rather, from giving the impression that the state has played a role in actively encouraging attackers. Whereas the act of lynching in itself is ritualistic, signalling the dominance of one group over another – thereby emotionally motivated – the sustained occurrence of lynchings cannot be devoid of institutional approval. Organisers of violence are rarely prosecuted for want of intent and the state deems itself as weak, incapacitated by low manpower, therefore unable to prevent the outburst of angry demonstrators.
Attributing spontaneity to violence against vulnerable members of the population is ingrained in India’s history, regardless of the party in power. In 2002, for example, Modi’s ruling government in the state of Gujarat blamed the emotional intensity of Hindus for perpetrating attacks on Muslims. Their heightened emotions were understandable, for, after all, theirs was a spontaneous reaction to the burning of the Sabarmati Express allegedly by Muslims when 59 Hindu karsevaks were killed. Narendra Modi had referred to Newton’s third law of motion to justify the killings (“action begets reaction”; see also, the VHP’s declaration); later, in 2013, he used the analogy of a puppy accidentally coming under the wheel of a car for the deaths of Muslims in 2002. By implication, the deaths were accidental not intentional.
In the context of the lynchings, Union home minister Rajnath Singh decided to draw an analogy of the cow-lynching deaths with the attacks on Sikhs in 1984, in the aftermath of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by two Sikh bodyguards. Around 3,000 Sikhs were “lynched”, to quote the minister, in Delhi on a single day. Singh’s allusion was to the Congress, which was the party in power in the center at the time and saw some of its own leaders accused of orchestrating the violence. Incidentally, Indira’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, who was later elected as prime minister, had also resorted to calling the anti-Sikh violence spontaneous, making eclectic references: “Once a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it shakes”. By blaming the “mob”, each government has managed to shun its core responsibility of ensuring judicial redress.
Note that minority groups are rarely defended by the ‘spontaneity’ thesis for it makes sense for the vote-seeking politician to hide behind the emotions of numerically dominant voters. To illustrate, a second type of lynching has simultaneously gone on in India besides cow vigilantism. These lynchings are unconnected with religion and religious beliefs (e.g. rumours about childlifting). Unlike the ‘cow killings’, the state law and order has been quick to condemn the perpetrators of the violence and issue advisories warning people to not take law into their hands. Similarly, back in 2002, the Modi government had declared the attacks on Muslims to be spontaneous, unlike the train fire which was declared a pre-meditated conspiracy.
“I have seen it before with my own eyes in 1947 and 1984,” writes Khushwant Singh in The End of India, referring to violence during Partition and against Sikhs. “The police stood by like tamashbeens [spectators] watching the carnage. They had been tipped off not to interfere but let looters and killers teach hapless men, women and children a lesson they would never forget. In Gujarat they went several steps further. Not only did the police remain inert, when the army arrived on the scene, it was not deployed…”. In Gujarat in 2002, my own research has shown that Muslims were found to be most vulnerable in places where the BJP faced the greatest electoral competition and less vulnerable where the BJP was weak, or surprisingly, dominant. Surprising because were the attacks spontaneous, it would be correct to expect the angriest people and subsequently, the worst violence in places where the BJP was most popular.
In India, popular perception rarely questions arguments of spontaneous violence, as they lend weight to already existing perceptions of a primordial hatred between religious groups, especially Hindus and Muslims. Maya Kodnani, a BJP minister in Modi’s government in Gujarat – the only elected minister in India’s long history of Hindu-Muslim violence to be convicted of organising anti-minority attacks – had once described the anti-Muslim violence as “natural” and “part of Gujarat’s nature (prakruti)”. There was nothing the State could do, she said, because “there was a natural ghrina (hatred) and aakrosh (anger) in the heart of every Hindu and we could not control it.”
While conducting fieldwork in Ahmedabad a few years ago, both Hindus and Muslims I spoke with would tirelessly favour the primordial argument. Hindus and Muslims fight, they would say, because “they are ancient enemies”. But rarely do “enemies” fight each other in all places at all times. If violence was primordial and viscerally motivated, anger would invariably manifest into violence. In reality, this is rare – violence is the exception not the rule, to further quote Collins. Violence is always conducted by a select few and not everyone who enters an emotional state goes through with violence. Nonetheless, political leaders relentlessly project the primordial or essentialist argument as a means to justify the high propensity of people to become violent out of anger or hatred. By implication, it becomes easier to manipulate evidence which in turn leads to protracted or lopsided judicial redress.
What happened in the West
In the US, after 1877, the government rarely prevented violence against blacks in the South when it looked for support from white Southerners. Lynchings of African Americans sharply increased in the period 1892 to 1896 with the greatest number of lynchings occurring in the closely fought Louisiana gubernatorial race of 1896. After World War II, on the other hand, the government restrained anti-minority violence because the votes of blacks had begun to matter.
Donald Trump’s politics has shown that racism never really left the US, but the state-approved political lynchings and large-scale anti-minority riots of the 19th and early 20th century are unlikely to return now. However, in the 21st century, politicians in India continue to earn electoral office using a similar strategy: tacitly approved anti-minority violence is passed off as a spontaneous clash between civilians, or an “emotional reaction” of the “mob”. It is time that people of India critically review political statements that blame their (alleged) impulsiveness for every incident of fatal violence. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent interview sounds promising: that the lynchings are a law and order problem. Let us hope our politicians and the perpetrators of public violence are held accountable to these words.
Raheel Dhattiwala is a sociologist trained at Oxford University. Her book with Cambridge University Press on mechanisms of decision-making and peacefulness during Hindu-Muslim violence in Gujarat is forthcoming later this year.