The Lynching of a Nation

Lynching is a modern form of tribalism, where enemies – differentiated by religion, race, caste or ideology – are bracketed for elimination.

Lynching is a modern form of tribalism, where enemies – differentiated by religion, race, caste or ideology – are bracketed for elimination.

Hundreds of people dragged a Bengali man, Syed Sarifuddin Khan, through the streets of Dimapur, Nagaland in 2015 before killing him. Credit: Reuters

Hundreds of people dragged a Bengali man, Syed Sarifuddin Khan, through the streets of Dimapur, Nagaland in 2015 before killing him. Credit: Reuters

Fascism is not defined by the number of its victims, but by the way it kills them.
~ Jean-Paul Sartre, 22 June, 1953.

Mobs are taking over civic spaces in India. Public lynching, a barbaric form of political expression, seems to have become the new normal in India since the Modi government came to power at the Centre. The latest incident took place in a Mathura-bound train on Thursday, June 22. A 16-year old Muslim boy from Haryana, Hafiz Junaid, was lynched to death and his three brothers attacked, as they were travelling back home from Delhi after shopping for Sunday’s Eid. According to reports, 15 men wanted four young Muslims to vacate their seats. Upon their refusal, the Muslim men were abused with communal slurs, accused of being beef-eaters, attacked and thrown off the train when it pulled into a station.

There can’t be a more dangerous irony when the railways, considered the nation’s lifeline, become life-threatening for minorities. If passengers travelling together turn into violent mobs, the meaning of a journey is destroyed. If religious differences become a norm for hate crimes, the culture of democracy is destroyed. Society turning fascist is a deeper moral crisis than the coming of a fascist state.  A society can resist a fascist state. How to resist a fascist society? One of the survivors told journalists that the police ignored his requests for intervention. If law enforcers are reluctant to save people from mobs, the state fails in its moral duty. Deliberate inaction is the key to a democratic state relapsing into a fascist one.

Barely a week ago, a 55-year-old CPI(M-L) activist from Rajasthan, Zafar Hussein, was beaten to death allegedly by civic officials, after he tried to stop them from photographing women, including his wife and daughter, defecating in the open. The officials are part of the ‘Swachh Bharat’ (Clean India) campaign, whose idea of encouraging women to use public toilets (which in this particular locality were actually unusable) is by shaming them.

Vasundhara Raje, the chief minister of Rajasthan, and the inspector general of police, Udaipur, preferred to use the word “demise” for Khan’s murder in their June 18 tweets. “Scientific evidence doesn’t suggest murder,” the inspector general tweeted. Human evidence, that can’t be manufactured in a laboratory, shows otherwise.

Repeated attacks against Muslims and Dalits

The problem of official evasiveness regarding incidents of lynching goes back to September 2015, when a Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched by a mob in Dadri for allegedly slaughtering a cow. After a gap of several days, Narendra Modi called Akhlaq’s murder, “sad and undesirable.” He was quick to clarify that the Central government had no role in it.  Having no role is one thing, having no responsibility, another. The prime minister added, “The BJP has always opposed pseudo-secularism. Today, when we are faced with such an unfortunate malady, the same debate has resurfaced. This can only be resolved through discussions”. The inconsistencies are glaring. The resolve doesn’t sound as fluent as the show of grief. The malady isn’t simply unfortunate, but politically constructed and not simply a condition, but a crime. There is silence on the question of punishing the guilty. Lynching isn’t occasion just for debate, but providing justice and reassurance. In August 2016, the prime minister did air his opinion about people indulging in “anti-social activities” in the name of cow-protection. But gau rakshaks seem to see themselves as moral vigilantes protecting a sacred order and the state has done little to disabuse them of that delusion.

The prime minister’s mention of “pseudo-secularism” earlier may sound puzzling in this context, but it reveals the heart of the problem. The secular objective of the Indian state is admired for surpassing the doctrine of neutrality, in an effort to safeguard the rights of minorities. But the Hindu Right considers it a “pseudo-secular” policy of “appeasement”. In contrast, the BJP proposes an anti-secular idea of secularism, where the state actively caters to Hindu sentiments. Since coming to power, the BJP government has unleashed the many dangers associated with majoritarian politics.

Students, writers, social activists and others holding dissenting views against the government’s ideology have been branded “anti-national”. In February 2016, the JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar, arrested on sedition charges, was beaten up by lawyers while he was being produced at Patiala House court. Exactly a year later, members of the ABVP attacked students and teachers conducting a seminar in a Delhi University college, and later violently disrupted a peaceful protest march, intimidating and beating up professor and student alike. These were clear signs of a lynch-mob syndrome disturbingly spreading into civil spaces. Demonising people as “anti-national” fans paranoia and hate that becomes a trigger for a herd mentality to develop. Lynching is a modern form of tribalism, where enemies – differentiated by religion, race, caste or ideology – are bracketed for elimination. It is a frightening scenario, when people turn into government and law at the same time, deciding for themselves who, why and how to kill. It is the rule of sentiments taking over the rule of law. The lynching of deputy superintendent of police Mohammed Ayub Pandith near the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar on June 23 is yet another spillover of this dangerous symptom where people lose their moral bearings. If a community erases the distinction between sentiments and crime, it quickly degenerates into a self-brutalising society.

No wonder, lynching has turned into a vigilante sport. In March 2016, two Muslim cattle traders were found hanging from a tree in Jharkhand, allegedly by cattle-protection vigilantes. In July the same year, cow vigilantes mercilessly beat up seven Dalit men for skinning a dead cow in Una district, Gujarat. More recently, in April 2017, Pehlu Khan succumbed to his injuries in Rajasthan after a mob attacked him for allegedly transporting cows. The Rajasthan home minister told reporters, “It is illegal to transport cows, but people ignore it and cow protectors are trying to stop such people from trafficking them.” The logic is chilling: Those who are lynched are on the wrong side of the law. Those who lynch are protecting the law. Using violence to protect the law was considered legal. The cow symbolises the sacred body of the nation, and extralegal measures will prevail against anyone even suspected of foul play.

The minister’s verdict puts all premises of law to shame. When people sense the government is willing to provide the alibi for murder, they become emboldened to take law into their hands. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his December 18, 1963 address at Western Michigan University, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me”, so even though “morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated.”

But what explains these repeated attacks against Muslims and Dalits? In Untouchables or The Children of India’s Ghetto, Ambedkar noted that even though “Roman law declared the slave was not a person”, the “religion of Rome refused to accept that principle.” Since “Hindu Law did not regard the Untouchable a person,” he added, “Hinduism refused to regard him as a human being fit for comradeship.” The denial of personhood is a key element to lynching. The body of the victim is denied any moral essence, deprived of rights, easily reduced to the body of a vulnerable animal. The denial of moral agency to the untouchable prevents Hindus from developing a sense of “public” or “social conscience”. That is why crimes like lynching are carried out with an easy absence of guilt. They are done in a spirit, to use Ambedkar’s words, “as though such lawlessness is lawful” (emphasis added). The new untouchables of this lynching nationalism are the Muslims and also those whose lives and ideas contradict and resist the Hindu nationalist project.

In May, this year, a bench in the capital’s high court pulled up the city police for its inaction when a woman dean of Delhi University, Ved Kumari, who was earlier abused and threatened by ABVP activists, was again held hostage in her office by students. The admonition had a Biblical ring to it: “You have thrown her to wolves. You are feeding wolves by not separating them from the sheep.” Lynch mobs, like wolves, prowl and hunt in packs. If nationalism is a Darwinian force that makes the law favour wolves, it will mean the constant fear and death of the sheep. The law and the government cannot sacrifice the nation’s sheep in the name of protecting its cows.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee teaches poetry at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. He is a frequent contributor to The Wire and has written for The Hindu, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Outlook and other publications.