Fear and Loathing in New India: The Assam Lynching and Its Aftermath

Mob killings do not occur in a social vacuum. They become possible because conditions are created for the perpetrators to dehumanise a fellow human being.

Observing the present scenario in India, one would be tempted to ask if the spectre of the ‘other’ is veritably created to lynch. The brutal mob lynching of two youths from Assam – Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath – on June 8 seems to indicate just that.

While on a visit to the Kanthilangsho waterfall in the Karbi Anglong district where they were attacked by a crowd on the suspicion of being ‘child lifters’. The killing is said to have been sparked by fake news circulated on WhatsApp about a group of child lifters entering Assam from Bihar. However, latest evidence suggests that it was an altercation between Alphajos Timung, the primary accused, and the victims that may just be the real cause.

Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath were lynched in Karbi Anglong. Credit: Justice for Nilotpal and Abhijeet Facebook Page

This incident perfectly captures several elements which characterise the new normal in India – video graphic evidence of mob killings, often taken by the perpetrators themselves; crowds who take “justice” into their own hands; the discourse of the “outsider” and the large-scale propagation of fake news via social media.

The outrage following the incident reveals a dangerous progression of mounting racist tensions and bigotry. The nature of the furore reveals an endemic problem in our society, which perhaps explains how lynchings have become commonplace. A video was widely circulated showing the last moments of the two deceased where Nilotpal Das is seen pleading for his life repeating, “Moi Axomiya” (I am Assamese).

A screenshot of a post calling for an economic blockade of the Karbi Anglong district.

Social media was soon flooded with angst ridden hate messages calling for counter-violence and revenge. A popular status called for an economic blockade of the Karbi Anglong district while others wanted to inflict counter revenge by capturing any random Karbi person and hacking them to death.

Egged on by others who ‘like’ and ‘share’ the same sentiment, it becomes perfectly normal to condemn a person simply because they are ‘Karbi’. These jingoistic aggressions have to seen in tandem to the socio-political conditions of the state and the Karbi Anglong district in particular.

Socio-political demography of Assam

The Assamese community is made up of various tribal and non-tribal groups such as the Karbis, Bodos, Mishings, Tiwas, Kalitas, and Brahmins, among others. Many groups in Assam have a tribal historical background and were later absorbed into the Brahmanical fold. Despite a significant numerical tribal populace, the ‘surplus producing’ non-tribal communities are culturally and economically dominant. They hegemonise the public discourse.

Karbi Anglong is an autonomous district and also one of the most backward in the country. The Karbis have historically been demanding autonomy from Assam. The isolation of this hill district is both cultural and geographic. The reactions of the people consequent to the incident revealed an ‘us versus them’, a tribal versus non-tribal dynamic.

The privilege of the dominant group to denounce an entire section of people as “uncivilised junglees” reflects that the “civilising” effect of Brahmanical notions still functions in 21st century Assam. A lot of the public outcry was generated over the fact that the mob had dared to kill two Assamese men in their own state as opposed to a more general condemnation of the deaths of two innocents.

This hate-fuelled atmosphere soon spilled over to the streets. Karbi students in several places were hounded by locals seeking revenge. Some paying guests were asked to vacate their accommodations, and immediately a red alert was announced in certain zones of Guwahati.

A predictable pattern of xenophobia

A well-known incident in Nagaon was widely circulated through a video which shows a group of boys trying to stop buses from going to Diphu, Karbi Anglong while asking for Ids to determine which passengers were Karbi. The video has since been deleted as the police have arrested such miscreants. The next few days remained tense as the police was on high alert at the possibility of communal riots.

It is clear that mob killings do not occur in a social vacuum. It is perhaps a violent, overt reaction of tensions in society.

As Abdul Kalam Azad wrote for The Wire: 

For a human being, killing a fellow human is not easy….It requires a special environment to overcome the inhibitions to carry out horrific crimes like a public lynching….. The perpetrators ceased to recognise the victims as the member of their moral group or as a fellow human being, which legitimises their cruelty against the victims.”

Thus, mob violence becomes possible because conditions are created for the perpetrators to dehumanise a fellow human being. This dehumanisation is conditioned by the social, economic and political conditions of a society at a particular moment in time. The increasing cases of mob violence in India have to be analysed within these frameworks.

Mass access to visual violence and the psychological effect on society

The video recording of hate crimes to be circulated for the world to see with an almost gleeful anticipation is a cringing reality of our society now. The human fascination with witnessing barbaric violence inflicted on fellow men predates the invention of videography and social media. Be it the mesmerised crowds watching gladiators fight to death or the thrill-seeking audience who came to witness public executions; the idea of death as a spectacle is not new.

A participant shows a placard during the ‘Not in My Name’ protest held to highlight the pattern of attacks on minorities in the country, in Delhi. Credit: PTI

But, never before did we see a man hacking another man and then burning him alive on camera like the murder of a Bengali Muslim labourer, Afrazul, by 37-year-old Shambhulal Regar in the town of Rajsamand in Rajasthan..

In the context of the 21st century, this perverse instinct is exemplified by video recordings of horrific acts. Facebook has reported an increase of graphic violence posts in 2018. In the race for more likes and shares, more outrageous content garners more publicity.

The mob lynchings in India indicate a similar psychological mania: the killers are often the ones who show no remorse in recording and publicising their crime. In the lynching of June 8, a policeman was recording the crime (albeit with good intentions) instead of taking any concrete measures to save the two victims. This indicates a chillier dimension to the bystander effect.

These incidents can also be ascribed as a failure of the state machinery and the loss of faith in the judiciary by the public. The district administration’s inaction in addressing the tension created by the rumour of child-lifters indicates a serious lapse on their part.

It is time to question why people feel the need to take “justice” into their own hands instead of relying on the judiciary. Protests, observed in various places across the state as well as in Delhi and Russia, reveal a sense of despondency at receiving justice by legal means.

The Dainik Janambhoomi, on June 13, reported that 26 had been arrested in connection to the crime and more than 30 people have been arrested for spreading fake news on social media and making hateful comments that could further fuel unrest. Haren Saikia, the father of Jhankar Saikia, who was also lynched in 2013 in Karbi Anglong, took to Facebook to express how the government had failed to provide justice and how his son’s killers are still roaming free. Civil society and the family members of the victims are demanding absolute justice and no mercy for the killers.

A section of people, particularly from the opposition, were quick to blame the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for the role of the BJP IT cell in creating fake news and spreading superstition. Some, like Akhil Gogoi, are apprehensive that incidents such as this are manufactured by the BJP through communally tinted fake news to divert people’s attention from issues like the Citizen Amendment Bill, 2016.

The myriad cases of identitarian mob violence post 2014 does seem to indicate a normalisation of hatred towards minorities which could not have been sustained in an absence of political motivations.

Notwithstanding the merits of these accusations, one cannot discount the unique cultural politics of Assam which played a role in this instance. The chauvinistic nature of Assamese society, the Karbi resentment towards the Assamese, the tribal-non tribal binary; these divisive forces were existent much prior to the rise of the BJP.

The Sarbananda Sonawal government has announced an awareness programme ‘Sanskaar-Maanuhe Maanuhor Babe’ with an aim to root out superstitious beliefs in rural areas. The state is no stranger to horrific cases of mob violence fuelled by superstitions and rumours. As many as around 300 had been killed in Assam on the suspicion of being witches from 2001 to 2006. It is difficult to predict if ‘Sanskaar’ would be more successful in curbing superstitions where many have earlier failed. As the incident and aftermath reveals, the problem is not merely a lack of education. There is a need to introspect and address the noxious xenophobic prejudices which make it possible to ‘otherise’ and create dissensions.

Sampurna Bordoloi is a post-graduation scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Pinak Pani Datta writes at www.urbangaonwala.com and can be contacted at [email protected]