Book Excerpt: Lynch mobs point towards a society that has distanced itself from the normal
The idea of lynching as a form of justice is nothing but a pathology of the normal.
In the summer of 2017 Eid ul Fitr came with a grim reminder of 1975. It was the first time since Emergency that the Muslim community had decided to abstain from celebrating the festival that marks the culmination of 30 days of fasting in Ramzan. Back in 1975, the community had protested vehemently against Sanjay Gandhi's relocation and sterilization campaigns. Women stood guard for men chosen for sterilization at Dujana House in the old city. And hundreds of women and children sat on the road to prevent demolition of their colonies near Turkman Gate.
Imam Abdullah Bukhari of Old Delhi's historic Jama Masjid had asked the men who had gathered for Eid namaaz to offer their prayers, and go back home quiet and sombre without the traditional pomp and gaiety. Arm bands were not so popular then, instead some black flags were waved at the mosque. This was the community's retaliation for a series of often-done-under duress sterilization or relocation to far-flung Trilokpuri or Mangolpuri.
The year 2017 offered a different challenge. Young Junaid, not out of teenage yet, and already a haafiz (one who had memorised the Quran) was lynched aboard a Delhi-Mathura train in the presence of his elder brother, and friends. The attackers, actually fellow passengers, threw him out of the train. He was dubbed a beef eater, hence deserving of death. None of the fellow passengers came to his rescue. This in a country where until not long ago, it was not unusual for non-Muslim passengers to make room for a Muslim passenger to offer his namaaz sitting on the seat, or even a group to offer a quick prayer in congregation.
In fact, our trains were a miniature replica of persistent foreign invasions in our history. With each invader there was initial resistance; then grudging accommodation, before there came about a more cordial exchange. It was the same from the Aryans to the Mughals, via the Delhi Sultans. On our trains too, in the years gone by, there would be general melee for a seat as soon as the train arrived at the railway station. In the unreserved section, people would rush to get to a seat. Grabbing one was an achievement it itself.
It left the aged, and the less agile, pacing up and down in search of an elusive seat. However, as the train moved, some families would 'adjust' a little bit to accommodate a lady or an old man standing there. After some time, the occupants would start chatting, gradually warming up to each other to the extent that they would talk of exploring job opportunities, matrimonial alliances, etc. Of course, they would offer food to each other, exchange phone numbers, and then alight at their respective stations. In between, they would usually move their trunks or a shoulder bag further below the seat, and huddle up on one seat so that the bearded maulana next to them could offer his Maghrib (sunset) prayer on the other seat. No one ever objected. It was common courtesy. For a few minutes that the maulana said his prayers, all the chit-chat would stop. Everybody would make sure that the prayer would not be disturbed.
In 2017, that was a fading memory, as the passengers on the Delhi-Mathura train stood as mute witness as Junaid was subjected to worst communal abuses, hit repeatedly by a group of young men, taunted for his alleged food habits, before finally being killed, thrown off at a platform. Just as nobody on the train uttered a word for the defenseless Junaid, the Prime Minister of India remained unmoved; his selective silence a stain upon speech. His party leaders objected to raising a voice for Junaid with their Whataboutery of Pashmiri Pandits, etc. Upset, dejected, and hurt, the Muslim community expressed its anguish by wearing black arm bands to Eid prayers. The celebrations were muted, the faces grim. In fact, many mosques in Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur reported lower than usual attendance for Eid prayers.
The shopkeepers, likewise, reported a lull in sales on 'Chand ki raat', eve of Eid, when Muslim women usually step out in groups for last minute shopping which often culminates with application of henna on young girls' hands. Fear and anger had gripped the community. A community already feeling hemmed in, retreated further into its shell.
Like in 1975, the community looked for a ray of hope.
It was not forthcoming. Back then Indira Gandhi was inaccessible and arrogant. Now, Narendra Modi was distant and aloof.
Junaid's was not the only instance when a helpless Muslim man had been cornered by a murderous mob, and had death delivered to him without prior warning, in the most brutal of ways. There was Pehlu Khan, a dairy farmer, who was hit for full 90 minutes in Alwar by the so-called gau rakshaks, actually murderers under the cloak of cow protectors. The middle-aged man could not take constant torture and humiliation. He succumbed to his injuries soon after, but not before he had named his attackers.
As the nation in general, and the Muslim community in particular waited along with Pehlu's family for arrest, and maybe, exemplary punishment for the attackers, an air of dismay soon followed. All the men accused of murder were declared innocent by the Rajasthan police despite a dying man's declaration having the value of evidence.
It was New India. You could kill a Muslim man in bright daylight on a highway, and hope to walk free. This travesty would have surprised only those who had forgotten the Chittorgarh stripping, and assault incident of a young Muslim man and his companions. The man was videographed lying naked on a barren piece of land, two gau rakshaks' feet planted firmly on his face. Later, he was paraded naked around the town. People watched, and went back to business. Attacking and humiliating Muslims was the new normal. The media remained largely oblivious. Humiliating and stripping a Muslim was deemed not news-worthy.
Then there were assaults on Muslim dairy farmers and meat merchants in states like Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh. In each of the states, a man was killed by cow vigilantes. The script was familiar: a man would be accused of cow slaughter, a mob would lynch him, the police will file an FIR against the victims, even the dead, and file another one against random or unnamed attackers who would soon be given bail.
In this orchestrated violence, no Muslim was safe in the rural belt; from Akhlaq dragged out of his bedroom in Dadri and done to death, to Mazloom and Imtiaz kidnapped with their livestock in Jharkhand, to Junaid going back home by train after Eid shopping, and on to Qasim going to purchase goats with all his savings, two days after Eid in Hapur.
There was another common factor: the men would be attacked either a little before Eid, or a little after it, making sure that the community approached the festival with lurking fear, foreboding and danger. Clearly, joy had been snuffed out of their lives ever since a temple in Dadri rallied people on its public announcement system, telling them a calf had been slaughtered. No evidence was ever presented, but Akhlaq paid with his life for the allegation; cruelty and brutality marking his end in September, 2015.
There was nothing spontaneous about lynching. Though apparently spontaneous, all such actions were well organised affairs, where the perpetrators knew before hand that their public display of violence or even its recording or sharing it with a larger audience on the social media was not going to have an adverse impact on their life.
Most of the cases happened in states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its associates, pointing to political complicity in the actions. The niggling suspicion being proved right when the Union minister Mahesh Sharma, who had only cursorily visited the family of Akhlaq following his murder, sent one of the murder accused on his last journey wrapped in the national Tricolour.
Killing a Muslim was akin to fighting on the border, and deserving of equal rewards for the 'valour'! Not surprising that his colleagues in Jharkhand and Rajasthan did not acquit themselves any better. The Harvard-educated Union minister Jayant Sinha did not deem it inappropriate to garland the men convicted of the murder of Alimuddin Ansari in Jharkhand's Ramgarh.
And Rajasthan MLA Gyan Dev Ahuja, never accused of sobriety or secularism, pronounced the men accused of killing Rakbar as “innocent”, and sought their immediate release. He waited for no investigation, no court order. In the political vocabulary of our times, a lynch victim was never a victim alone. He was also the instigator, the one who provoked the mob into killing him, almost like inviting death home. Clearly, in political lexicon, a Muslim could be killed for no crime except that he was a Muslim. Amidst this blatant defense of the indefensible, the number of lynching cases piled up. From Kashmir to Madhya Pradesh, from Rajasthan to Jharkhand, men were called called cow killers, and killed by gau rakshaks!
As the political bosses ho-hummed, dilly-dallied, IndiaSpend took the lid off the entire exercise: its two data bases on mob violence – due to child-lifting rumours and bovine-related hate violence – recorded 80 cases where attackers outnumbered the victims, and 41 deaths by such lynchings between 2014 and March 2018.
Soon, Qasim and Rakbar were added to the casualty list. These figures ran parallel to Government figures, It was revealed by the Home Ministry that “Between 2014 and March 3, 2018, 45 persons were killed in 40 cases of mob lynching across nine states, and at least 217 persons had been arrested.” Considering a number of states like Bihar, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi had not provided the data for their states, the actual figures were likely to be much higher.
IndiaSpend rubbed it in, “Since 2010, 86 attacks fuelled by the suspicion of cow slaughter or beef consumption, have been reported in English media across the country. About 98 per cent of these attacks occurred post-May 2014, after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed power. At least 33 persons were killed in these attacks – 29 or 88% of whom were Muslim.”
The constant cruelty inflicted on Muslims has not been the only occasion of the society hitting out at those on the margins. The Dalits too have been at the receiving end. It started barely a couple of weeks after Akhlaq's sad end. We had a tearful case of a 90-year-old Dalit man being denied access to a temple in Hamirpur in Uttar Pradesh. He had set out with his wife and younger brother for a 'darshan' at an upper caste temple when he was stopped by a dominant caste man. Upon his refusal, he was first attacked with an axe, then set on fire.
However, the incident failed to rouse us from slumber. That was accomplished when four Dalit boys were subjected to ignominy of public stripping and thrashing after being found skinning a dead cow in Una in Gujarat. Later, the members of the Gau Raksha Dal took them to nearby town and again thrashed them with sticks and iron rods after tying them to a vehicle. They were also paraded half-naked on the road. The photograph of the four man tied to a jeep, and being attacked with rods and belts went viral. It evoked the kind of sympathy that people came the way of Ansari, the man who, in 2002, became the symbol of Gujarat violence with his picture of tears in his eyes, fear on his face, and folded hands.
The Dalit boys won a reprieve of sorts thanks to the prompt and aggressive response of the community members who took out a rally in support of the victims, and refused to skin dead cows. Later, the Dalit men refused to dispose of the dead animals, with an activist like Bezwada Wilson clearly arguing that if the cow, when alive, was a mother to Brahmins, she cannot be the responsibility of the Dalits when dead. Upcoming leader Jignesh Mevani instilled in the community a sense of power, a sense of belonging. The robust response to Una ensured that no more Dalit lynching incidents were reported for the next couple of years.
Of course it did not mean that the society had started nursing notions of egalitarianism. There were grassroots incidents of humiliation of the community. Like when an old man was forced to lick the saliva of an upper caste man. Or a Dalit woman forced carry her slippers in her hand when passing in front of the house of an upper caste man. There was violence too when a Dalit boy, astride a horse, took out his wedding procession from the locality of upper castes. The community though was saved more lynching after Una, unlike the Muslims where first Mohsin Shaikh, then Akhlaq opened the gateway to hate violence.
With such mayhem all around, the word 'Lynch' entered the vocabulary of the common Indian. People went back to their dictionaries to search for the exact meaning of the term 'lynch', and discovered it means, “to kill someone for an alleged offense without a legal trial.” Incidentally, the origin of the term goes back to the mid-18th and 19th Century America. It became a more common way of doling out perceived justice by a mob around the mid-19th Century in America. The instances occurred both before the Civil War (1861) and after it. Before the Civil War, the Blacks who attempted to free themselves of slavery were often caught and lynched.
After the Civil War, some Whites too were lynched for opposing slavery of the Blacks. In each case of lynching, a man was first thrashed, had to endure multiple fractures due to heavy beating, public humiliation before being hanged. It is estimated that there were around 2,400 lynching incidents in America between 1880 and 1930. In India though, lynching was unheard of till this century though there were plenty of incidents of the mob attacking a thief or a rapist, and giving him a sound thrashing in small town India. In the current spate of lynching, only the case of Mazloom Ansari and 12-year-old Imtiaz comes close to the American model; both the men were first attacked when they were moving with their livestock towards a cattle fair, walked some distance by their attackers even as they bled and groaned, then hanged by a tree.
In all other cases, the Right Wing extremists charted a course uniquely their own which brings us to the dominant religion ideology being practised with unabashed grandeur in India since 2014. Our Constitution gives us Right to Equality and the State does not discriminate on the basis of religion, race, gender, caste or creed. Yet in real life, the way things have panned out in recent years, it appears there is only one way of being an Indian, everybody is supposed to eat the same stuff, speak the same language, and maybe, even profess the same faith.
For those who don't there is clear 'Othering', the men and women whose pitrabhoomi (fatherland) and punyabhoomi (sacred land) are not the same, they are the ones to be marginalised; allowed to stay here only at the sweet will of the majority community, just as M.S. Golwalkar preached. In contemporary India, the Establishment ideology legitimizes violence because of its innate belief in majoritarian or religious nationalism. Under this thumb rule, majority communalism is nationalism, minority communalism is just communalism. This majoritarian nationalism is centred on the concept of violence, violence that is inflicted on 'Others', and evolves a way of looking at them through a maize of hate, suspicion, condemnation.
That is why, the Muslim for whom people, in the past, happily made space on a moving train to offer his prayers, is today regarded with suspicion, almost like an alien, “not people like us”. Today, the same Muslim's family members or friends call him not to offer prayers on train, or carry non-vegetarian biryani and kababs for fear of being lynched as a beef-eater. India is teetering on the brink.
We are witness too to an organized ideological apparatus – often perpetuated through toxic social media, hate speeches by all sorts of 'leaders', and open or latent support to this hate campaign by the ruling party – that spreads poison, generating a psychology of hatred and violence. With the success of each hate campaign, with the uploading of each lynching video, Mahatma Gandhi's India slips into greater danger.
Under the circumstances, the activism of the Supreme Court is welcome. Indeed, the court's proactive approach – for instance it immediately admitted a petition on the Hapur lynching case after a private channel recorded the accused boasting of killing Qasim – could yet save the day for the nation. A new law to deal with lynching may be debatable, but it puts in black and white the punishment for the crime. And may force the assailants to think twice between they hunt for their new victim.
Lynching is not a temporary deviance from the normal, a departure from being a good society. It is the pathology of normalcy; the rot has entered into the deepest crevices of our society, and the blood stream of a sizable section of our population. For proof one merely needs to see how the society and polity reacted to lynchings in Dadri and Una earlier, and the more recent case of Rakbar in Alwar. Back in 2015, there was a sense of anger, betrayal, shock, as people bridged the distances and divide. There was even a NotInMyName campaign by the common citizens keen to dissociate themselves from killings in the name of Hindutva. In 2016, the campaign attracted people across 16 cities, and got prime space in the media. Men, women , even children gathered at Jantar Mantar and other public square. They had nothingin common except their humanity and nationality.
They were all outraged at this pubic cruelty towards others. When the same campaign was sought to be revived after Qasim's lynching in Hapur in 2018, the response was lukewarm at best. In other words, lynching was the new normal for many of us; it happened to 'Others', not people like us.
Today, we have a section that is probably using cow slaughter as an excuse to settle age-old scores, to avenge the battles lost in ancient or medieval India. Today, men are being killed not because they killed a cow. They are being killed simply because they are Muslims and Dalits, again the two communities said to be principal beef-eaters of our society. And living as we do in times of dominant culture, it is just not acceptable to followers of dominant caste or religion. The soul of India is being challenged.
At one time Golwalkar intended to use the vexed issue of cow slaughter to unite the country. Today, the same issue has driven a wedge down the middle. With each lynching incident, the chasm gets deeper. India stands divided.
As Harsh Mander wrote in The Indian Express (March 24, 2018), "Muslims are today's castaways, today's political orphans with no home. This despite India being home to a tenth of world's Muslims, around 180 million people, making it the largest Muslim country after Indonesia and Pakistan. There has never been a harder time to be a Muslim in India, not since the stormy months that followed India's Partition.
Today, the large majority of Muslims feel even more profoundly alone n abandoned. Open expressions of hatred and bigotry against Muslims have become the new normal, from schools to universities, workplaces to living rooms, internet to political rallies."
Golwalkar's 'Others' are reduced to almost aliens.
(The author is a senior journalist with Frontline. This excerpt is taken from his book Lynch Files, brought out by Sage Publications. The excerpt has been published with the author's permission.)