In BJP's Reaction to the Attack on Swami Agnivesh, a Message For Lynch Mobs

By blaming the victim, a clear signal has been sent to lynch mobs that their cause would be championed by the government and the ruling party even if they strategically distance themselves from the actual act.

The premeditated attack on Swami Agnivesh in Pakur in Jharkhand by an organised mob came on the same day as the Supreme Court judgment calling mob lynching unacceptable and holding the local administration, and the state and central governments responsible for preventing it.

Agnivesh was there on the invitation of a Paharia tribal organisation. The youth front affiliated with the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha – had announced that it would show black flags to him. Its leaders accepted that they had planned to protest Agnivesh’s presence because they believed he justified eating beef and was a Naxal supporter. After he was viciously attacked, they denied the involvement of their members while, in the same breath, rationalising it by saying that the violence was a natural reaction to what Agnivesh has been doing.

Even by the standards of the ‘new India’ we are now accustomed to, what unfolded was horrendous. A 78 year old man was shoved, pushed and beaten by nearly a hundred musclemen. His clothes were torn and his turban pulled off his head. To look at the picture of a shaken and disheveled Agnivesh was itself torture.

Swami Agnivesh lies on the ground after being attacked by right-wing activists. Credit: Twitter/Video grab

It reminded one of a similar attack on Medha Patkar at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad in 2002. The attackers belonged to the same organisational network.

It is very clear that the assault on Agnivesh was not a spontaneous outburst of the local people as is being sought to be portrayed. The manner in which leaders of the BJYM and the BJP are justifying the assault is consistent with their stance in all cases of mob lynching done in the name of beef eating or illegal cow trading. They deny their involvement but defend the “offended” people . They put the entire blame on the victims themselves, who by their alleged sacrilegious acts goaded the otherwise peace loving assailants in to commiting the crime. Thus those who have been wronged are charged with a double crime: causing offence, and then provoking people into doing something they are incapable of.

The BJYM alleges that Agnivesh was there as part of a conspiracy to brainwash the gullible Paharias, to convert them into Christianity, to spread unrest, etc. While explaining their stand on the attack, they blamed the swami for not informing the administration and police about his visit and minute-to-minute programme. Even if this were true, how does it become a cause for attack? The abject failure of the police in not only not preventing the the attack and after that not apprehending the criminals who can easily be identified through the CCTV recordings is glaring.

How then does one view the attack on Swami Agnivesh? Why would it be wrong to call it an instance of mob lynching? Why should it also not give us an understanding of how mobs are formed?

One has to see the audacity of the attackers. Agnivesh is a national figure. If he can be assaulted in this manner with impunity, all political and social workers are vulnerable. The affiliates of the ruling party think that they are the police and army of this country and it is for them to identify the anti-state and anti-nationals, judge them and also punish them. Since they act in the name of the nation, their act cannot be called criminal.

Let us pause for a minute and take stock. One central minister thinks it fit to congratulate men convicted of lynching a Muslim just because they managed to secure bail by the high court. One goes to the family of the accused in another case of lynching and weeps at his own supposed helplessness in defending “Hindus”.  A third minister attends the funeral of a murder accused and salutes him while his body is draped with the national flag. What is the message that goes out to those who plan and execute these lynchings when ministers behave this way? Would it be wrong to say that the mob is in fact one with the government or that the government is going all out to show that it is one with the mob?

The message has been sent to the lynch mobs that their cause would be championed by the government and the ruling party even if they strategically distance themselves from the actual act. The mob understands the constraints of the party and the government. Gopal Godse wrote that his brother Nathuram and others involved in the plot to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi didn’t want to embarrass their organisation and therefore they didn’t make their association with it an issue. Rather, they didn’t object when the organisation distanced itself from him and his brother. Similarly, the act of the demolition of the Babri Masjid was disowned by the RSS and the BJP but the cause itself was defended.

One needs to understand that mob lynching is one of the forms of violence perfected by such forces. How would you differentiate the violence done to the Babri mosque from the violence done to Akhlaq or Pahlu Khan or Qasim or Swami Agnivesh? In a fundamental way, they belong to the same category. Most of the instances of violence against Muslims and Christians are premeditated. Mobs are prepared and a spontaneity given to them to make them look like a reaction at the spur of the moment to some offence. There is an organisational machinery working overtime to prepare the ground for such spontaneity to strike root and flourish.

The Supreme Court has rightly taken a strong view of the epidemic of mob lynching in the country. What appears spontaneous is in fact  deeply political. To turn people into mobs – an unthinking multitude that will do the unthinkable – is the main project of this politics. It keeps creating diverse causes for this violent streak of the people to take hold. It keeps arousing their baser instincts. Once they get caught in such a situation, they lose their sense of discrimination. They become complicit in an act of violence. They find that they have turned into criminals.

This politics of violence thus criminalises the masses. They become a prisoner of this situation. Those who speak out against this criminality are considered enemies. They are thus caught in a vicious circle.

The attack on Swami Agnivesh took place on the same day as the Supreme Court reprimand. It has also been legitimised by the ruling establishment. How can then such violence be stopped? Laws can have an impact but this is about a political culture which thrives on violence. As long as the patrons and leaders of this culture enjoy political power, it will be impossible to implement what the Supreme Court wants.

Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.