Lynching has become the leitmotif of the last four years, ever since the Narendra Modi government came to power. Just as ‘scam’ is the word that will forever be associated with the second iteration of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA, looking back, the one ‘standout feature’ of recent years has been lynching. Not just the odd breakout of crowd violence here or there, quickly squashed and as swiftly dealt with, but lynching on an almost industrial scale, taking place in different parts of the country with the state being a hopeless bystander and sometimes even tacitly nudging it along.
The ardent devotees of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will undoubtedly rise up in protest and declare that the Manmohan Singh government’s ministers were caught on corruption charges and no minister of the present BJP regime has actually gone out and lynched anybody. They will also bring up 1984, when Sikhs were brutally killed, the mobs led by Congress leaders. Those killings were contemptible and Rajiv Gandhi indeed made an unspeakable comment, but Congress ministers then or since then have not come out and supported the lynchers, much less implied that the victims had it coming. Lynchings of the past – against Dalits, for example – were not justified and celebrated, by word or deed.
Now consider how various senior members of the BJP and the larger Sangh parivar have reacted to such incidents. Right from the first major incident, the brutal lynching of Akhlaq Khan, caught and thrashed for keeping beef in his fridge, the alleged criminals have more often received the unstinted and open support of senior, elected officials of the ruling party. Union minister Mahesh Sharma visited the village of the main accused in the Akhlaq Khan case. Since then, ministers, MPs, MLAs have firmly kept the focus on the victim’s transgressions rather than acted to bring the perpetrators to book. At best, they have issued the usual bromides (all violence is bad; justice must be done; the law must be the same for everybody), followed immediately by the firmer declaration that cow slaughter must be stopped, as Yogi Adityanath has said. RSS leader Indresh Kumar too has said much the same thing. The blame shifts to the victims, who have been mainly Muslims.
Jayant Sinha, for all his elite education and pedigree, will always carry the stain of having felicitated a lynching accused. He may express regret now, but is there any doubt that he will always be remembered for this one act of his? As for the prime minister, he has made the stray remark condemning those killing in the name of protecting the cow, but has not firmly declared that this kind of anti-minority violence will not be tolerated. Such a reaction is tangential at best. For the most part he has remained aloof and that sets the tone and sends a message down the line, which the party faithfuls are quick to understand.
The media hasn’t helped with its absurdly false equivalence that damns all parties as being guilty. Watch any television ‘debate’, in which the most outrageous extremists will be on the panel balanced by an ‘objective’ journalist or analyst, and it ends with more sound than light on the matter. Can there be two opinions about the killing of a helpless man by a mob? Is there any ambiguity about what the lynchings are all about? Giving a platform to hate mongers, whether they scream or sound more reasonable – with the ‘right’ accents too – is a travesty of the professional mantra that all sides of a story need to be heard. It normalises even a heinous act like lynching.
Perhaps, the most worrying part of this normalisation is the fact that such shocking acts do not seem to have bothered the middle classes, at least not enough to register their disgust in any significant and continuing way. The ‘Not in My Name’ marches last year, while heartening, remained at best localised affairs.
It was the middle classes who had come out in large numbers to support Anna Hazare in 2011 when he had first gone on a fast to demand the Lokpal Bill in the aftermath of the 2G scam. That enthusiasm, coupled with non-stop media coverage and the presence of high profile names – V.K. Singh, Anupam Kher, Kiran Bedi – turned the fast into a ‘movement’ which enthused urban, educated people. This demographic has always loved the idea of cleansing a rotten system and is forever on the lookout for a messiah with a magic wand. Narendra Modi reaped windfall gains by continuing on that theme. His ‘na khaunga, na khaane doonga,’ claims and promises of bringing back all black money and depositing Rs 15 lakh in each bank account sounded outlandish, but voters were ready to give him a chance.
Real acts of communal violence, especially against Muslims, do not seem to ‘excite’ the same middle class the way allegations of corruption did. There are no fasts, no marches and maybe, no anger. The political parties too haven’t taken the lead by unequivocally coming out against the lynchers and against the government and the Sangh parivar’s attitude towards the incidents. Perhaps they sense there is no electoral benefit to be gained. Some of the best coverage of these horrific acts has been in the foreign media – and for readers of those newspapers and viewers of those channels, India is now a place where lynchings happen with alarming regularity. In the Indian media, coverage has been episodic – after yet another incident is written about, the media moves on. For really trenchant criticism, one has to turn to social media, where ordinary citizens, with no access to the big media or any other platform, are expressing themselves with great vigour and candour.
No one can predict with certainty how all this will play out in the electoral stakes. The UPA, especially the Congress party, had to pay a heavy price in the elections, mainly because of the perception that it was a scam-ridden government. Rural India is seething, but will lynchings per se change people’s minds about who to vote for? Indeed, there may be those who may not necessarily be against such violence.
Yet this is not about voting or elections. It is about law and justice and plain humanity. The BJP and the larger Sangh parivar may know a thing or two about the elections and the psyche of the voter, the committed Hindutva type and also the smooth talking, urbane professional. It may be sanguine about the electoral fallout and it may be right. But even if the party does come back with or without the same leader, for a long time to come, its rule will be remembered as the era of lynchings.