There seems to be an overwhelming sense for many of ‘us’ – who look towards the rest of the country from some sort of vantage point, that something fundamental has broken down in India. Almost every day, we learn of some incident with shocking violence, most of it captured on camera and thus begins the cycle of outrage continued only until the next incident and over and over again. The horror of law and order breaking down, and the descent into violence by an undefinable mass is perfectly captured by the word ‘lynching’. The word has its origins in late 18th century America, brought about by violence directed against the black population. Of late, in India, the term has come to connote communal violence usually directed against Muslims and Dalits. The identity of the perpetrators and the victims are clearly identifiable. Unfortunately, the same word ‘lynching’ is now increasingly been used to refer to the violence fueled by rumours of child and/or kidney theft across much of rural and now increasingly urban India. In the latter case, the word lynching accurately describes violence committed by a group of people but it is completely inadequate as an indicator of deliberate malice against a specific group identified by religion, caste, gender, race, ethnicity etc. The only qualifier that warrants violence in this phenomenon is the ‘outsider’.
In media reportage and in everyday conversation, the use of the word lynching typically tends to conflate all kinds of violence.
As I have already written elsewhere, there are long standing social and structural reasons that can be discerned in the spreading of rumours related to kidney and child theft. It is wrong to confuse this, in a causal sense, with other kinds of deliberate violence. In many villages in Chhattisgarh for example, the people are not sleeping in their homes but huddle together in the night while some are put on guard duty. Many have stopped going for daily wage labour fearing their family is at risk. Clearly these are not signs of hate but rather of fear and desperation. There are no discernible patterns in the profile of the victims while many of the perpetrators of violence themselves adivasis and Dalits, are now languishing in jails without legal representation or protection. Intellectuals, in a hurry to attack the BJP are perfectly willing to club them as lynchers motivated or in the payroll of the current dispensation.
On the other hand, those engaged in communal and caste violence, in case you haven’t noticed, are shouting about it from the rooftops. They are out on the streets, organised as various ‘cultural’ bodies, and dominate ‘debate’ on the internet (with or without being paid). Their own identity, the identities of their victims and their intention – all are abundantly on display. Further, they have full protection from the State apparatuses and from the BJP – remember the rally taken out in support of the Kathua rape accused and Jayant Sinha garlanding those convicted of lynching Alimuddin Ansari, or the people planting a saffron flag on the Rajasthan High Court when Shambu Lal Regar was brought there for trial. Where are the rallies, garlanding, saffron flags and bail for those convicted of killing people for kidney and jail rumours?
I am not for one minute absolving the government or the Sangh Parivar.
Finally, we come to the issue of the intermediaries (like WhatsApp and Facebook) and how to think about their role and their responsibility in society.
Enough of the complaining. If the government is truly concerned about the role of WhatsApp and Facebook in spreading rumours and violence, then let them create an independent Media Diversity Fund. These hugely profitable corporations can divest a small part of their profit to fund local independent media and support media literacy integration with formal and non-formal education. There is simply no need to resort to censorship and/or increase surveillance. In the short term, to mitigate violence around kidney and child theft, the administration must undertake a range of measures – a 24 hour helpline, public service messaging on television and media, and create new WhatsApp groups as well as enlist on popular existing WhatsApp groups to seed messages that reassure the people.
In the long term, vigilante lynching based on religion and caste can only be overcome through political change and cultural change. Bringing in new laws will be necessary but not sufficient. Opposition parties must be clear about their intentions to punish vigilante groups if voted to power; must promise to restore anti-caste atrocity legislation to its original form, must be clear about its denouncing of cow protection as a ploy for murder. It is only then that there will be genuine political opposition, an alternative for the people. Symbolic regime change without a hard support of constitutionalism will continue to encourage and provide implicit protection for vigilantism. Long term mitigation of other kinds of violence – surrounding kidney and child theft for example, need a more equitable distribution of wealth and dignity. These incidents of violence, which should actually be seen as social mutations (rather than conspiracy), reflect the need for a social revolution, not a purely political one.