When They Lynch, It’s the 'Best Fun' – Whether in the US or India

Lynchings are now nearly daily news in India. Suspicions that fuel them spread swiftly in that very 21st century style, via WhatsApp.

In the small Texas town of Center on August 3, 1920, it might have been easy to spot Lige Daniels. He was wearing a white shirt, torn pants and was barefoot. He was hanging from a tree.

Charged with murdering a woman, Daniels was in custody awaiting trial. That day, several hundred of Center’s residents swarmed the jail, broke down its door and grabbed Daniels. They beat the life out of him and strung him from a southern red oak outside the courthouse. They stood around his limp body, posing for photographs. One of those became a postcard that people bought and put in the mail – much like your Aunt Shaila might write to you from her holiday in Lakshadweep.

One card carried this handwritten note: “This is where they lynched a negro the other day. They don’t know who done it. I guess they don’t care much. I don’t, do you?” Another says: “He killed Earl’s grandma. She was Florence’s mother. Give this to Bud. From Aunt Myrtle.”

Not quite what your Shaila mavshi might write to you from her holiday in Lakshadweep.

These lines tell us about the photograph itself:

“Beneath [Lige] are a mass of white men, many looking at the camera and smiling. The camera catches one boy, possibly twelve or thirteen years old, looking up at the lynched sixteen year-old. His smile and glee at the scene are clear. It’s probably the best fun he has had all that long, hot summer vacation from school.”

‘The best fun’. Remember those words.

Daniels was black. The woman was white. Thus Daniels was lynched. Between 1882 and 1968, there were nearly 5,000 such lynchings recorded in the US, and it’s estimated at least that many were never recorded. Growing up in Bombay in the 1970s, I read a fair deal about the black experience in the US – Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, slavery, the blues…and lynching. The bigotry those thousands of murders speak of, I grew up believing, made lynching a uniquely American atrocity, but one that had – with the enlightenment the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s wrought – passed into history. So you would today only find lynching documented in books like James Allen’s Without Sanctuary (where the quote above is from).

The last few years have shown how naïve those impressions were. If you need a reminder: We Indians have lynched men on suspicion of eating beef, like in Dadri. Of transporting beef, in Rajasthan and elsewhere. Of killing cows, in Una, though those men were only skinning the animals after they had died. Of raping a woman; like with Daniels, a mob broke down the gates of a jail in Dimapur, dragged away a man imprisoned for rape and beat him to death.

Most recently, several men – in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand and Assam – have been lynched because villagers suspected they were child traffickers.

Lynchings are now nearly daily news in India. Suspicions that fuel them spread swiftly in that very 21st-century style, via WhatsApp. That’s exactly how stories of trafficking riled community after community in those states. Finding a mob to act on the rumours, then, is also just a matter of pressing a WhatsApp “send” button.

So it was that in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district last week, trafficking rumours so filled the air that a ghastly calamity was only a small spark away. The spark came on the evening of June 8, in the form of two young men, Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath. After visiting a nearby waterfall, they drove into the village Panjuri Kachari, whose residents were inflamed by WhatsApp-fed stories of two men taking a child away in a black SUV. Das and Nath were in just such a car. The villagers insisted on searching it. Not finding a child didn’t pacify them. They dragged the pair out and began thrashing them.

In the video – always a video – a bloodied Das pleads with his attackers in Assamese: “Do not kill me! I am an Assamese. Please let me go!” He tells them his parents’ names. Nothing works. The lynchers’ suspicions were only heightened, some reports said, by Das’s dreadlocks. That, by the perverse logic of a bloodthirsty mob, meant the pair had to be “outsiders”. By extension, they had to be the rumoured child traffickers. No desperate appeal from Das would penetrate that fevered conviction.

Before long, both men were dead. Not only were they not “outsiders” in any but the narrowest sense, they were also not traffickers – but the trafficking was just a rumour. There were no recent reports of children abducted from the area.

So it’s not just an American atrocity. We in India lynch too. And while there were no smartphones in Center in 1920, their widespread presence today signals one more parallel. In Center, a photographer set up his camera afterward to take pictures. In India today, nearly every lynching is captured in real time and promptly shared, naturally, on WhatsApp – for sending postcards, didn’t you know, is so 20th century.

In a photograph of the Dimapur lynching, you see a small forest of smartphones, held up to record the horror. The camera also catches a young man, looking at the lynched man and pointing. His smile and glee at the scene are clear. It’s probably the best fun he has ever had.