Alwar to Jharkhand, the Lynch Doctrine Is Gathering Steam
A video went viral this week. It was the video of a man on his knees, his clothes torn and drenched in blood, begging for his life with folded hands. It was the face of a man moments before he was bludgeoned to death while his attackers stood in a tight circle around him and the cops who hovered nearby watched mutely.
The man was Mohammad Naeem, 35, one of four cattle traders lynched in Sobhapur in Jharkhand on 18 May on suspicion of being a child-lifter. Three other men were similarly beaten to death on the same day in Bagbera some 20 kilometres away.
Mob Justice Rules the Roost
For days, WhatsApp messages went around warning people about child-lifters roaming in the area. No one knew who sent them or which child had gone missing. But the flood of messages was enough to work people up into a frenzy and make them pounce upon seven innocent men and beat them to death.
A stray atrocity? A momentary madness in which bloodthirsty mobs erupted in a barbaric dance of death?
Not at all. The Jharkhand lynchings were only the latest in a series of horrific incidents of mob “justice” that have taken place in utter violation of the rule of law.
Indeed, lynchings seem to have become a part of India’s daily cultural narrative — a perfectly routine consequence of murderous outrage over something or the other. Be it over lack of respect for the cow or communal sanctities or virulent nationalism, or be it over a fake WhatsApp message, the outrage is so extreme, so seemingly righteous, that retributive killings are but a short step from it.
Rumours Spark Killings
In the last two months there have been as many as five incidents of lynching. On 1 April, cow vigilantes waylaid Pehlu Khan, a 55-year-old dairy farmer in Alwar, Rajasthan, alleging that he was smuggling cows, and beat him up mercilessly. Khan, who had valid papers for the cows he had purchased, died in hospital two days later.
On 30 April, two men were lynched in Nagaon in Assam on suspicion of being cattle thieves. In early May, an elderly Muslim man was beaten to death in Bulandshahr by alleged members of Hindu Yuva Vahini – a right-wing group founded by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath – because they felt he had helped a Muslim boy elope with a Hindu girl.
And then came the two Jharkhand lynchings. As far as lynching events go, these were epical in scale, one where seven people were kicked and pounded until their lives were snuffed out. Even as the police (after standing by and watching the carnage) were rounding up suspects, one more man was thrashed near Ranchi on Monday because the mob felt that he too was going around stealing children.
A rumour is enough. Or a fake WhatsApp message. It’s enough to make people descend into an orgy of collective fury and commit acts of unspeakable brutality.
Lynch Doctrine: The New Order in Force
Some may moan that people are taking the law into their hands because they have lost respect for the rule of law. However, the truth is that these lynchings are a product of their respect for a newfound doctrine which insists that a new order is in force now – one that supersedes existing notions of right and wrong, legal and illegal.
And this new law is propagated and finessed every day both through clever messaging, as well as administrative apathy. After each incident, the criminal justice system does kick in eventually and suspects are arrested, but the element of licence and incitement to violence is clear and present all the time.
Not About the Fringe Anymore
Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not condemn the Dadri lynching for weeks, while those the media indulgently refers to as “Hindutva hotheads” went about making incendiary communal statements. After the lynching in Alwar, Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje avoided referring to the incident for 23 days. This, while her home minister Gulab Chand Kataria tried to justify the atrocity and described the victim as a “cow smuggler”, in effect, supporting his assailants.
Even the public flogging of four Dalit youths for skinning a dead cow in Una, Gujarat, in July last year had its apologists. Raja Singh, a BJP MLA from Hyderabad, tried to justify the horrific act in a Facebook post where he said, “Jo Dalit gai ke maas ko le ja raha tha, jo uski pitai hui hai, woh bohut hi achhi hui hai”(Those Dalits who were taking the cow meat, those who were beaten, it was a very good thing to happen.)
Mind you, this is not a random man shooting his mouth off at a village square. This is a legislator belonging to the party in power at the Centre.
This week actor Paresh Rawal tweeted that the army ought to tie writer Arundhati Roy to a jeep as a shield against stone pelters in Kashmir.
While Rawal advocated violence against a civilian and blew the dog whistle to bring on the Twitter lynch mobs, the Army awarded a medal of commendation to Major Gogoi, the man who had taken the controversial step of using a human shield during a military operation in strife-torn Kashmir.
The Time for Action is Now
The trouble is, brutalisation breeds brutalisation. Once lawlessness is let out of the bottle, it may not be possible to calibrate it to further this or that political and cultural end. It may spin totally out of control.
In the name of nationalism or cow protection, we are in fact giving birth to a nation of lawless, murderous thugs. If not checked right now, they may put India into a terminal civilisational decline much like ISIS has done to large parts of West Asia.
The bloodied face of Mohammad Naeem could be a terrifying prelude to that.