How Not to Become a Mob: A Five Question Guide for Progressive Movements

Justice can never lie in vigilante groups or the state using the threat of force.

5 min read
Hindi Female

In my book Fearless Freedom, I discussed the striking protest by Manipur’s Meira Paibis (women torchbearers) against the custodial rape and murder of a young woman by a battalion of the Assam Rifles in 2004.

Movements like those of the Mothers of Manipur, the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons in Kashmir, Argentina’s Mothers of Plaza de Mayo (movements against custodial killings and disappearances), and the movement against dowry killings in Delhi in the 1980s, I felt, drew on the actual human pain of loving and losing a child.

Such movements, I thought, might offer us a better political imagination of motherhood and parenthood than the violent majoritarian politics that disguises calls for violence against India’s minorities, as a call to defend the Mother Nation.

Reports emerging from Manipur include considerable evidence of the role of the Meira Paibis in Meitei-chauvinist mob violence against the Kuki-Zo minority, especially Kuki women. These reports are disturbing and confusing to many.

The picture of Meira Paibis confronting Assam Rifles to challenge impunity for custodial rape and killing is a noble one. The same picture appears grotesquely distorted when Meira Paibis today block the path of armed forces, to keep them from being able to reach Kuki villages on time to protect them from Meitei-chauvinist mobs.

A story by Tora Agarwala, a journalist with wide experience covering North East India, spoke to Meira Paibis to try and find answers to the question many of us are asking: are they “feminist icons or violent vigilantes”? This excellent account helps us understand the social and political character of the Meira Paibis, and I shall not attempt to add anything to it.

Instead, I want to think about what our sense of disquiet about the Meira Paibis can teach us about ourselves, and our own understanding of social and political collectives.


Justice Can Never Lie in Vigilante Groups

What’s true of Meira Paibis – their capacity to be a courageous collective in some contexts, a hate-filled sectarian mob in other contexts – is true of other women’s groups and social movements in India. If this disturbs us, what questions must we ask of the collectives with which we identify (whether it’s a self-help Group or union; a Gulabi Gang, a Left-led women’s group; a group of university students; or organisations of women farmers)?

We ought to be wary of any collective that approves of vigilante violence for causes it deems to be righteous. Painful experiences have made me aware that a mob that thrashes a sexual harasser today, can thrash a woman for an affair next time.

A village known for its revolutionary resistance to oppressive caste and class violence, if it feels morally justified in lynching a landlord, or a thief, may well end up lynching its own beloved and iconic leader because they mistake him in the dead of night, for a landlord or a thief. If mob lynching is justified in one context, it makes it possible and probable in other contexts.

Alcoholism and addiction in men no doubt blight the lives of women. The Meira Paibis, like so many other women’s collectives in India, are known for their movements demanding prohibition. In villages and slums all over India, prohibition is a popular demand among women; parties that promise prohibition laws get women’s votes. But such movements invariably enforce violent moral policing against individual alcoholics and against oppressed communities where brewing and consuming alcohol is accepted.

Marxist, Gandhian, Lohiaite, and Ambedkarite groups committed to non-violence or social and economic justice, fail to see how their movements demanding and enforcing prohibition are soaked in a deeply violent and punitive, majoritarian, patriarchal, and Brahminical moralism.

In women’s organisations, including those on the Left, that see themselves as non-feminist, I have always felt the same uneasy shadow of moral surveillance by “senior” women, that every young woman experiences in her own community. Young women escape the pressure to conform to patriarchal surveillance and discipline in their homes to join these organisations.

They are dismayed to find the leaders of women’s organisations policing their relationships, pressuring them to marry their first boyfriend, and casting a gaze that is both prudish and prurient on their clothes and conduct. If young women express their hurt and anger at toxic or violent boyfriends, they are often pressured to marry those same toxic and violent men; because it is incomprehensible that a woman would want anything but marriage at the end of a sexual relationship.

Some of the best social movements in our country, see anti-patriarchal, sex-positive, LGBTQ-inclusive feminist principles as liberal elite dilettantism exactly as far-right organisations do.

The only democratic principle of justice that can truly be universal is the duty to protect every individual, every socially subjugated social group from mob coercion – justice can never lie in vigilante groups or the state using the threat of force to coerce individuals or groups (to stop consuming alcohol or defecating in the open, or bearing fewer children for instance).


The Five Questions for Progressive Movements

I offer here five questions that I have tried to ask myself in the course of some three decades in progressive social and political movements.

1. As a women’s (or any other) collective, who and what are we defending, who and what are we resisting, and why? Can our collective actions to resist oppression and assert the dignity of one’s own oppressed community, slide into collective violence against some other community? What forms of solidarity can expand our sense of “our community” and inoculate us against this possibility?

2. Does our collective which defends the rights and dignity of an exploited or oppressed class of people, recognise, respect, and defend the autonomy, dignity, and privacy of every individual? Should we (ab)use our power as a women’s collective to violate an individual’s right to privacy, even for a cause we believe to be just – for instance, when we shame or thrash a man for drinking alcohol, or prohibit the consumption of alcohol in our community?

Can a women’s collective have a response to alcoholism and addiction that does not invite the state to treat these as moral failings and crimes rather than as diseases? Can a progressive collective, offer (and demand from the state) support and care for alcoholics/addicts to help them overcome their illness, rather than violently enforce a social and/or legal ban on drinking?

3. Can we support survivors of domestic violence without vigilante violence against their husbands or in-laws; survivors of sexual harassment without acting as vigilante “gangs” thrashing the accused men? Will the lasting social change be better achieved by threats and thrashings – or when the perpetrators see victim-blaming and social rationalisations for domestic and sexual violence dwindle, and social solidarity for survivors' resistance grow?

4. Can our actions be guided by what Dr Ambedkar called “constitutional morality” (that defends the rights of the minority community, a minority opinion, or even a single individual)? Instead of the social morality of the majority, which uses mob power to ostracise and punish inter-caste lovers, homosexuals, and sex workers, or shame attire or behaviour that do not conform to dominant codes of gender and morality?

5. Can our collective be organised on democratic and egalitarian principles rather than like a military detachment or a coercive and arbitrary community council of elders? Can joining the collective be a voluntary decision of an individual - not a rule every household must obey on pain of punishment? Can individuals within the group express their views independently of the view of the majority?

Perhaps you may find these questions useful too, whether the collective to which you belong is a mohalla committee or a Residents’ Welfare Association, or a people’s movement challenging injustice.

(Kavita Krishnan is a women's rights activist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Manipur violence 

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