Most people who consider themselves members of a civilised society, tend to see instances of lynching – mobs driven by bloodlust to kill individuals as a way of handing down ‘instant justice’ for some presumed offence – as an aberration.
They see such heinous acts as the handiwork of ‘anti-social’ or criminal elements that can be addressed by the strictest application of the law of the land and the most punishing sentences.
But is that really so?
It is an issue I have reflected upon in my capacity as an educator. However, this question has assumed greater significance for me in the last one year – since August 28, 2019, to be precise, when I was almost lynched by a group of respectable, well-qualified men, in a restaurant in the heart of Jaipur.
It took virtually no time for friends gathered for a convivial evening, to become a lynch mob intent on depriving me of my dignity so as to dehumanise me and inflicting physical pain to the extent of killing me.
That evening, I went to the restaurant – located near Rangoli Plaza, in Vaishali Nagar – on the spur of the moment. I had been in Jaipur for over a year, working as a researcher for an organisation which focuses on the state of prison systems in India.
As I was leaving the restaurant, two men seated at a table nearby called me over and asked my name. My reply did not satisfy them; they said that with my long beard, I could not be anything other than a Muslim. They were convinced that I was faking my identity.
I showed them my passport (I used to carry it with me as I did not have an Aadhar card then) but like it happens with photographs taken at some point in time, I did not have a beard then. The men concluded that it was not my passport.
Suddenly, the 15-20 people who were in the restaurant, had gathered around me, wanting to find ‘proof’ of my being a Hindu — like a janeu, which I don’t wear, or the ability to chant some mantras, which I couldn’t.
The next step was to strip me of my clothes to see whether I had a circumcised penis or not. The entire incident was captured on video.
The shoving and jostling turned into brutal kicking and hitting, with the mob alleging that I was a Pakistani terrorist with a plan and hence was faking my identity. With my heavily accented Hindi I could even be a Kashmiri, they said.
Rummaging through my office bag they found my work diary, with some information I had collected from the National Crime Records Bureau website. To the mob the jottings were ‘confirmation’ that I was a terrorist with a dastardly plan. The punches and kicks got more vicious.
The entire incident was being recorded by CCTV cameras, but the mob was not bothered.
Completely surrounded, completely helpless and at the mercy of men who refused to listen, I waited for the police to come and rescue me. Then one of the men suggested that it was perhaps time to call the police.
The cops arrived and hauled me away to Karni Vihar Police Station, Jaipur (West). The mob followed the police vehicle, shouting ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’.
Any hopes of being rescued by the police evaporated as soon as the Thana in-charge started hitting me, demanding to know my ‘real’ name. He was not interested in seeing the passport I was holding out to him, to check my credentials. In fact, he was flanked by the men who had attacked me in the restaurant.
As one of them started filming the thrashing I was receiving at his hands, a lower-level policeman made him delete that strand, saying that human rights activists would create a ruckus.
An FIR was filed against me under Section 107 (‘disrupting public tranquility’) and I was asked to sign it. I protested, saying I was the one who was the victim of an attack by a Hindu mob. The thana in-charge thrashed me again and forcefully made me sign the FIR.
Not only did they not heed my request to let my office know where I was, I was stripped of my clothes and thrown into the police lock-up at around 10 pm.
The following morning, I kept requesting the thana in-charge to inform my office, but no one paid any heed. I was kept in lock-up till 4 pm on August 29. It was only because I was to be taken to the court of the chief judicial magistrate (CJM) sometime after 4 pm that I was finally allowed to call my office so that I could arrange for bail.
I was taken to the CJM court where I was completely alone. There was no one to stand by my side. The ordeal appeared to be unending.
Then everything changed. I was taken to the restaurant by the police, the CCTV footage was collected and, ultimately, on the basis of an FIR lodged by me (607/August 29, 2019), the perpetrators were apprehended and charged under Section 323, 341, 143, and 67A of the Indian Penal Code.
My harrowing experience made me realise two things: I had got out of the mess primarily because of where I was placed in life at that time – I was fortunate that I could count on the support of my office team.
Secondly, the incident showed the apathy on the part of the administration to address the spread of majoritarian sentiments among ordinary citizens. How can I forget that the men who seamlessly transformed into a mob had got together for dinner at an upscale restaurant!
From my conversations with their family members following their arrest, I discovered that none of the accused had any previous criminal record – far from it. One is an engineer working for an IT firm, another an MBA professional in a marketing job. Among the others who were part of the mob were the owner of a posh beauty parlour, a high court lawyer, a student pursuing his studies in Australia, a businessman, and government employees. That is as respectable as one can become in our society.
Recently, I received a call from an unknown number, with the person claiming to be from the office of one of the perpetuators. He said that the accused was prepared to offer me money and a written apology if I withdrew the case.
I refused, pointing out the brutal nature of the crime and explaining that it was the state which was pursuing the case against the accused. Talk about compounding the crime!
Clearly, in my case, the accused don’t fit our conventional notions of people likely to participate in a mob lynching. But, these too can be the descriptions of the perpetrators of lynching.
What makes a common citizen of this country, without any previous criminal history, indulge in a brutal and dehumanising crime such as lynching? According to IndiaSpend, as many as 25 Indians were killed by mobs in 60 incidents over cow-related issues between 2010-2017, with 97% of these killings taking place after the BJP came to rule at the Centre in May 2014.
With the BJP-Sangh parivar combine in control at the Centre, their task of polarising society as a way of political mobilisation for their Hindutva agenda has gathered pace. So much so that the range of aggression/violence that accompanies the expression of majoritarian sentiments has become almost normalised across all walks of life, be it individuals or institutions.
Also, while expressing our outrage at instances of mob lynching, we tend to forget the systemic violence that pervades our society, be it the violence of caste, gender, community, or class discrimination.
In a society where a Dalit can be attacked for keeping a ‘proud’ moustache, youngsters who marry outside their caste are hunted down for ‘honour’, infanticide and female foeticide exist, and women experience brutal levels of sexual violence, mob lynching is normal.
As I personally experienced, prejudice carried to the extreme can turn even people from ‘good families’ into a baying mob. All it needs is a trigger – religious, cultural, ethnic or and socio-economic.
In the case of Akhlaq or Pehlu Khan or Junaid or Tabrez, the mobs enacted the language of communal hatred against a minority. In my case, too, the mob got after me because of my long ‘Muslim’ beard. They had also thought I could be a Kashmiri (Muslim), which added another layer of prejudice. I wonder, were these men among those who had expressed a desire, after the reading down of Article 370, to marry Kashmiri women and buy land there as a triumphalist gesture?
In the case of Abhijeet and Nilotpal, there was an ethnic dimension. As for Rituparna Pegu’s lynching, a trivial issue escalated due to the element of machismo and violence that frequently accompany arguments in the name of pride in our cultures.
It is not just society that believes in retributive justice. The fact that several death sentences have been handed down by the apex court in the name of assuaging the collective conscience of the community, ends up playing into the popular impulse for vendetta.
The killing of four rape-accused in an encounter by Hyderabad police in December 2019 or the hanging of Dhananjay Chatterjee (2004) and Afzal Guru (2013) were also instances of seeking to assuage the collective conscience of society, which clamoured for revenge.
What then prevents other groups, or mobs, from assuming the role of dispensers of instant justice on the grounds that it is what society demands?
I barely escaped being lynched by a mob, but I do question the idea that rigorous sentences for perpetrators alone will curb such acts. It is equally if not more important to address deeper issues such as the conditioned mindsets that made the men in the restaurant become hate-filled figures at the mere sight of a long beard.
This is not just about Prasun Goswami and the men who almost lynched him. It is about understanding the juncture we are in and the deeper power-dynamics at work which is mirrored in the act of lynching.
Prasun Goswami is an educator and rights activist based out of Northeast India. He has worked in the conflict zones of India in various issues for over half a decade.