No mob has ever been just

Last Updated: Fri, Sep 06, 2019 15:58 hrs
Mob lynching

A spate of rumours about bands of kidnappers abducting children spread on social media last year, and the consequences were dire – hundreds of people, mostly migrants, were attacked across India, and at least 27 died.

Now, the rumours are back, and incidents of lynching have occurred several times in the last month. On August 25, five people including an 8-year-old child were wounded by a mob in Gaya district of Bihar over suspicions of child-lifting. The car they were travelling in crashed while they were trying to flee the mob, and they were pulled out and beaten by the attackers.

On August 27, two men in Sambhal district of Uttar Pradesh were attacked while travelling with their nephew for his medical treatment.

A report on the website factchecker.in says there have been 88 incidents of mob lynching over child lifting, with 174 victims and 44 deaths since 2012, the majority of them in the last three years.

The states mentioned in the report are Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, West Bengal, Assam, Manipur, Maharashtra, Tripura, Gujarat, Telangana, Chhatisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Kerala, and Jharkhand.

But there have been media reports of lynching over kidnapping rumours in other states too.

A pregnant deaf-mute woman was attacked by a mob this week in Harsh Vihar area of Delhi.

While state governments and police departments have issued several statements quashing these rumours, mobs don’t appear willing to believe them.

Last year, the WhatsApp forwards about migrant groups scouring the streets for children spread to such an extent that the Tripura government temporarily shut down mobile internet services.

The Central government tried to convince WhatsApp to allow users to be traced, but the network has not obliged, although it did roll out an update that identified which messages were forwards.

However, a mob that is out for blood does not care whether a message is an original work of fiction or forwarded. They want to believe it, and they do. They also believe they are carrying out justice that the authorities cannot or will not.

The notion of vigilantes was romanticised for graphic novels in the superhero genre. At some point, the vigilantes started working with the authorities, one catching the bad guys and the other putting them behind bars.

But no vigilante ever led a mob, and no vigilante worked independent of the law of the land.

Mobs do not have a leader. Mobs do not rule by logic. Mobs are not ruled by law. Justice has no relevance to a mob.

Lynching has always been a terrifying idea. There were “witch-burnings” in the middle ages, and racist hate crimes in later centuries, where mobs would outnumber their victims and kill them in the most brutal ways.

In India, the history of mobs goes back to Partition, to the horror they wreaked across the subcontinent.

But the phrase “mob justice” is likely used without irony only in this country.

Lynch mobs call themselves gau rakshaks. They call themselves patriots. They call themselves protectors of children. They call themselves the guardians of culture. And when a mob stops short of killing people, we praise its discipline – a case in point is the mob which took over Marina Beach and large stretches of Madras to agitate for the bloodbath that is jallikattu. People who spoke against the brutal “sport” were harassed both on social media and in person. But just as long as no one was killed, it was a mob that was worthy of praise.

Attempts to stop the spread of rumours on social media will not work as long as there are mobs and as long as there is hatred.

It is remarkable that in an age when crimes are recorded on mobile phones by their perpetrators for the purpose of boasting about having committed them, the authorities continue to believe that no one killed their victims.

The film Article 15 had its failings, but it did show something that rings true – in the film, a policeman tells the new Assistant Commissioner of Police, “You will be transferred and you’ll be fine, but we have to continue to live here.”

One wonders how many shoddy investigations owe their quality to the fear of those conducting the investigation.

When a lawmaker calls it “honouring law” to garland convicts in a lynching case to congratulate them on receiving bail, there is reasonable justification for such fear.

There will be a time to argue about the semantics of “mob justice”, but lynching will only end when politicians as well as the police understand that they must be the ones delivering justice.

No mob ever understood the idea of justice, and unless we replace the garlands with shackles, the lynching will not stop.

More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:

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When Kamal Haasan endorsed harassment

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India's culture of worship has to end




Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com