The Man and the Mob

Is the lynch mob a mere complement to the brutal might of the state – and our leader – or a signifier of the disorder that exists in our society?

Mob is essentially a pejorative word. So is crowd, but with a difference. A mob’s action leads to ‘mobocracy’; a crowd, with its anonymous collective and instantaneous gathering, can become ‘unruly’ – not necessarily but usually so. A crowd, as is often said, ‘gathers’; it appears from nowhere. People, quite literally, creep towards an event; they collect around a person. These are, however, points of finer difference meant for seminar rooms. In the arena of politics, as it is unfolding in spaces ranging from streets to WhatsApp, mob and crowd are synonymous.

Road accidents in India are the best examples of this spontaneous crowd-making. The curious onlookers simply ‘gather’. People start gravitating towards the source of the noise or the shouts of help and scream. Those who are on the move stop to watch, those who watch become privileged witnesses. Some remain passive; others see in these moments an opportunity to intervene.

Representative image: Policemen disperse a mob that allegedly barged into a police station over Ram Navami clashes in Murshidabad. Credit: PTI File Photo

It throws up the option for one to take the lead – to become a leader. He (and it is usually a ‘he’ in such moments) intervenes, commands, mediates and resolves the dispute. The dispute itself can be of any magnificence – from a ‘normal’ slap to a ‘proper’ thrashing.

In South Asian cities and villages, we have all witnessed the enactment of such a ‘scene’. A driver being thrashed for running over someone on the road, a thief caught range-haath, red-handed, in the streets and lynched. Usually, from the same crowd, that leader figure also emerges for rescue and mediation. He does the ‘settlement’. The crowd disperses with some remorse but also glee. The spectacle is over and its spiced-up tell-tales linger on the next days’ streets and bazaars’ rumours and gossips.

The new characteristics

If public beating and thrashing is so common in South Asia as a form of retributive justice or public spectacle, then what is new in the recent epidemic of lynching? Few things can be pointed out straight away.

One, the scale has changed. The gullies, the streets and the bazaars have been replaced by the space of the nation-state. In other words, the nation-state has become the staging ground for the performance of the spectacle. As a result, the retellings are not limited to the word-of-the-mouth reporting and small talk that happens locally. They occupy the centre-stage of national discussion and news channels’ prime times.

Two, the spectacle has become a routine affair. The routinisation of this spectacle has created an ever-downward spiralling of the new normal. The video recordings of killings and thrashings, shared with aplomb and circulated with audacity, have stopped shocking the nation. The nation or a sizeable section of believers either turn their eyes towards the filmi-style extravaganza of the live-telecast of highway inauguration or gaze into the future promise of a thrill ride in bullet trains. If nothing, it rejoices in the coming of an institute of eminence which exists only on paper. Conversely, it either applauds or remains silent on the piecemeal destruction of the existing public institutions.

Three, the combination of the new national spectacle and the new normal has given rise to a new leader. The on-the-spot creation of a leader as it happened in local forms of lynching has been replaced by the leader of the nation-state. Incidentally, at this national stage too, the current leader happens to be a ‘he’.

A cut out of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The question then is: is he intervening, commanding, mediating and resolving these series of lynching or is he just a mute spectator to all of this? While being the leader, is he simply behaving as one in the crowd who sees and observes but does not come forward to challenge and mediate? Is this a new kind of a leader unlike the instantly crowd-thrown hero of the crowd who instantly reacts to the situation to acquire momentary fame?

Or, perhaps, it is befitting to ask if he really is mute or simply speaking in forked tongue, the echoes of which are so muddled that they become inaudible and indistinct to separate? Is this new leader strategically speaking and remains calculatedly silent? Is the Janus feature of this auditory intervention craftily presented to address different segments of the society in different tongues?

The forked language

What has happened to the crowd? If the spectacle has changed, the scale has changed, the leader has changed, has the crowd remained the same? It would perhaps be stretching the point a bit too far if we say that the whole nation has become a crowd. This would demean those who watch but do not approve.

And then there are those who approve of one fork of the tongue and remain silent on the other, perhaps just like their leader. Those who get impressed by the weight of the piggy-bag of development, the buzzword of Indian politics – vikas – can take away some brownie points from demonetisation and GST (the ‘glitches’ of the policy can always be blamed on the methods of implementation but the ‘intention’ behind them, as the faithful followers would remind us, was ‘pure like gold’). But they remain silent when human beings are tied and beaten, dragged and burnt in the name of caste and religion.

Has the nation been hijacked by the hollow-meaning, shrill cacophony created around the buzzword of vikas or has vikas itself become the hand-boy of the new national, which brutally silences and discredits the present?

Arguments of change and development are framed around the new taglines of old policies. Schemes such as direct cash transfers, foreign investment and digital India have been packaged in a new form. Of late, school textbooks have also been recruited to advertise the leader’s flagship policies. Arguments shift as goalposts constantly shift, as we witnessed in the case of demonetisation. From cleansing the nation of the counterfeit currencies and ‘black’ money, it changed to making India a ‘cashless’ economy. While the figures of money deposited in the banks made the claim of unaccountable black money seized absolutely hollow, the use of cards for transactions did not require the pretension of ‘surgical’ strike. Since the early 2000s, it was already on its way and would have kept growing without selling a disruptive policy under the label of vikas.

The sound of vikas is part of the loud call given out for change and progress. It is rallied in arguments in TV newsrooms and WhatsApp conversations. Oft-repeated, it is a word which is fast losing its meaning. Like many jumlas coined to ‘showcase’ vikas, vikas itself has become a jumla. It has become a new political vocabulary emptied of any substantial content due to two reasons: first, there is no structured blueprint of how this vikas would come and to whom with a commitment to social equity and inclusiveness; and second, it is fast becoming a tool of legitimation to scare people of not asking uncomfortable questions.

We must, therefore, not raise the issue of toxic deaths due to manual cleaning of manholes. We must not mention the death of women and elderly due to the unavailability of proper health services. Such deaths happened earlier too – did we raise it then, we are asked. If we raise it now, then we are motivated, driven by agenda, unfaithful to the nation, disrespectful to the leader, and not least, divisive in just highlighting the issue of deaths that is part of the long institutional depravity. Such questions betray disloyalty towards the leader and his buzzword of vikas.

We must, in another related instance, participate in the national mission of taking selfies while wielding a jhaadu in our hands. But we must not ask if there have been fundamental changes made to restructure the ways cities are cleaned, the way houses have to deposit their waste. We must not ask if the sanitation workers have been adequately provided for, if their social status through better wages and education are in any targeted manner addressed. We must also not ask for the roadmap to abolish manual scavenging, which would liberate millions from this abominable caste practice.

Even the leader’s followers in various cities of India would recognise that the usual piles of waste stand at the same place where they stood 20 years ago. But they and their idea of nation does not entertain such questions. They are in a hurry to post the jhaadu selfie on their Twitter and Facebook accounts. The leader has set the mark – the nation must follow.

PM Narendra Modi launching the Swachh Bharat Mission. Credit: PTI

Raising the questions of sweepers and waste-cleaners, of the poor and deprived, of institutional change and targeted policies will distract the nation from its merry-go-round journey of happy selfie moments to the feel-good faith systems. These are anyway part of the old-world talks, the problems of the infant nation, the gheesi-peeti baatein. The time has now come to speak about the glazed malls and the eight-lane highways which symbolise the passage of the nation from its infancy to maturity. The social sections left behind in this passage are either to remain silent or unquestionably ‘serve’ the new modernity.

This situation forces one to wonder at the relationship between the nation and the claim of vikas itself. Who has hijacked whom? Has the nation been hijacked by the hollow-meaning, shrill cacophony created around the buzzword of vikas or has vikas itself become the hand-boy of the new national, which brutally silences and discredits the present?

Between the claims of the glorious past and the promises of the shining future, the nation has stopped living in the present. The everyday has lost its meaning in the spectacle of the politics as if the spectacle-ridden performance from sartorial to mimicry has itself become the norm of the everyday. A new mode of political mobilisation has set in which does not speak about the ordinariness of lives. It does not concretely address the growing class hierarchies and income differentials in society or how social outcastes and marginals languish behind in the making of this new nation. The new normal does not allow one to ask normal questions of the present.

Political mobilisation based on time-tested strategies has taken a beating. Class and communitarian forms of politics are finding it impossible to secure a space amongst the lynch mobs. Massive strikes led by farmers, workers and teachers are being reduced to a footnote amidst the spectral violence of the mob. The TRPs of the ‘news shows’ are determined by the decibel level of screams and not by issues of education, job and health.

A groundswell based on a heady cocktail of vikas solely defined by the leader and acts of quotidian violence has become the political norm. Well, the only significant thing the nation has recently done is to stand in the queue for fulfilling the commands of its leader. Those who stood hours and days must honestly ask what they gained by it, and what gains it brought to the system of governance.

The leader and the led

In the mix of these claims, there is something deeper that is changing. Let us return to the mob and the crowd. Is the lynch mob a mere complement to the brutal might of the state or a signifier of the disorder that exists in our society?

Much of the political commentaries have focussed on the bestiality of the acts and the irrational violence that has acquired legitimacy within the current political regime. The ‘sane-r’ voices amongst the believers would claim it to be the act of fringe elements. Whether they truly believe in this core-fringe division or simply gloss over it by reducing violence to the non-core segments is debatable, but many recent investigative accounts have questioned this binary convincingly.

The modern-liberals, on the other hand, would perhaps be content in blaming the leader. Reducing the spiralling scale of violence to the question of impunity runs the risk of not engaging with the changes in the relationship between the leadership and the led.

There is a new architecture of this relationship whose effects are more pernicious than they appear. This is not just limited to the domain of politics – the centralisation of power in the hands of a chosen few or the revamping of important institutions to make them subservient to the current ruling dispensation. It has engulfed the public at large. It is the social which is at stake as much as the political.

Between the claims of the glorious past and the promises of the shining future, the nation has stopped living in the present.

Earlier models explaining the relationship between the leader and the people posited the urban/rural poor as a bunch of misguided souls who were led by agent provocateurs to commit forms of actions that transcended the existing limits of permissible political activity. Here, the figure of the political intermediary, be it the intellectual or the activist, was seen to guide the sadharan janta, the common (wo)man, to an orchestrated political spectacle. This sadharan janta was meant to listen to fiery speeches, assemble in crowds and take darshan, a view, of the leaders.

While this janta was tutored to mimic dominant political tendencies, they could also practice their own brand of politics. They could script their own interpretations. They could do things starkly opposite of what they were asked to. The peasants of the national movement ‘looted’ the shops while chanting the slogan of Gandhi baba ki jai.

Yet this relationship between the leader and the masses was structured within the logic of mediation. Both the acts of mimesis as well as the political dissonances shared the premise of the expert, who would appear in the form of a leader, political broker, television anchor, activist or intellectual and bring politics to our neighbourhoods, mohallas, universities and living rooms. Mediation was as much the necessity as the syntax of the political grammar.

The centralisation of power often leads to erosion of layers of mediators. It could lead to the decimation of the system of mediation. This is clearly visible in the current architecture of power. The new leader is an unmediated leader. Of course, he puts across his mann ki baat to people but from behind a mic, through a script. He reaches out to millions. The millions simply hear his voice.

Modi’s ‘Mann Ki Baat’ is a monthly monologue session rather than a dialogue. Credit: www.narendramodi.in

The direct communication is without dialogue. Questions are not asked in the spirit of dialogue and accountability. It is perhaps unprecedented that our leader has not held a single press conference in four years. In rare occasions when questions are asked – through an appointed interviewer ­– the stage, the medium, the show and the persona, all become a form of spectacle.

The new social

So what are the features of this new social and the new links of the relationship between the mob and the leader?

The new social is bold and brazen. It uses ‘historical wrongs’ to justify the present aggression. A nation whose majority of people are in the age group of mid-twenties to mid-thirties is perhaps bound to be bold, but ironically, the expression of this aggression is based upon the blind worship of fear. The expression of freedom is based upon the practice of instilling fear in others.

The new social is variegated. It is a layered formation whose trajectories are enmeshed, but all its origins are linked either to the words or the silences of the leader. One section of it thrives on social media as trolls, another as vigilantes doing night patrols. The third, as a combination of both, collects and gathers around messages shared on WhatsApp and indulges in the ‘social service’ of lynching. The form of the violence is old, but its organisation and expressions are new.

This new organisation reflects the making of the new social. This is not the sadharan janta or the aam aadmi that requires political tutelage. It is the fusion of the leader and the mob that creates oneness of this constituency. The crowd wearing the mask of the leader is the best visual example of this fusion. The nation’s identity is dissolved in its leader.

This crowd needs no overt political mediation. Of course, we know of the covert ways – the IT cells, the paid news channels and the propaganda machinery churning out memes to feed the hunger for derision and humour of the political opponents and provide justification for the leader’s acts. These memes have become more powerful than editorial columns of newspapers written by experts. The funded mischief and truth fabrication are parts of the same coin.

PM Narendra Modi’s supporters at a ‘parivartan’ rally in Uttar Pradesh. Credit: PTI

It would be wrong to think of this new social as a-ideological. The youth waiting to reap the benefits of vikas, interspersed at different layers of this new formation, are armed with fake news and alternative facts. There are those who often comment that in India the right-wing political dispensation has few intellectuals. We contend that this new social does not require any intellectual. Globally, truth is moving towards post-fact; in India, the social-political life has shifted towards a post-intellectual phase. The janta has reincarnated itself as trolls and crowd, with an army of news anchors to lace them with ‘facts’ and arguments.

The anti-intellectual wave is here to stay. And so is the nature of this new social. The textbook controversies of the previous NDA regime and the Ayodhya dispute required experts to sift through evidence and make claims and counter-claims. The conceptual overturning of secularism into pseudo-secularism was a case in point. It needed publicists and clever, intelligent spin doctors to show the ‘hurt’ sentiments of the majority.

The nation’s identity is dissolved in its leader.

The new phase can thrive without any of these. People are already convinced of the ‘villainous’ nature of the institutions that have nurtured ‘intellectualism’. Opinions are no more required. Those coming from the opposing voices are anyway discredited, the ones from sympathisers have also lost the utility. In general, the janta has outgrown the intelligentsia and come on its own. Propaganda is enough to move people. It seeps into their everyday quotidian existence and connects with existing social tensions like never before, so much so that it acquires a life of its own.

Propaganda has allowed people to connect diverse sets of issues and turn some of them into a lynch mob. The enemies are clearly identifiable, which no amount of historical and sociological analysis can explain. Memes and messages are the new texts of history and sociology.

We do not contend that one has to inevitably return to the older forms of mediation to ensure the business of governance. We also do not contend that the intellectualism of the earlier era was not untouched by shades of elitism. Perhaps, those older forms were also the breeding ground for nepotism and corruption, nurturing a practice of doling out favours to a band of chaaploos, hangers-on.

But the ‘trollisation’ of the society and the ‘organisation’ of the crowd (there is no deviant fringe and pious core, let us be clear) is definitely a new phenomenon, and those who are part of this, either as mask-wearing followers or as ‘argumentative’ Indians who rely on memes and alternative facts, must ask one thing: Do they want to even question their leader on matters they think right or they want to become like him practicing the art of forked tongue?

Nitin Sinha is a senior research fellow at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin. He is a historian of early modern and modern India.

Vidhya Raveendranathan is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Goettingen, Germany.