Murderous attacks on helpless victims have become fairly common in India. In the last three years, there have been 88 incidents of mob violence across the country in which 68 people have been killed. The grounds for killing the victims have varied, often fuelled by suspicion and rumours. While some people have been killed after being suspected of being ‘child kidnappers’, in most cases the grounds for killing have been cow slaughter and cattle smuggling. The reason for attacks on suspected ‘child-lifters’ has been fear of ‘strangers’ triggered by WhatsApp messages; in the case of Muslims killed by ideologically-driven cow vigilantes, suspicion and rumours have been immediate triggers and hate has been the central motif.
Whether it is the fear of ‘strangers’ or antipathy towards minorities, the pattern that emerges in most cases is that violent attacks on defenceless victims are far from being spontaneous public reactions. On the contrary, the triggers for violence, particularly in cow vigilante cases, are a result of an ecosystem of fear and hate that has been created with careful dissemination of messages over the last few years. It’s not difficult to guess the origin of prejudiced and hate-filled posts against minorities, especially Muslims, on social media, if you know who has been using the social media quite skilfully and ruthlessly against those who are ideologically opposed to the BJP and its brand of Hindutva.
According to data collated by NDTV in April, the use of hateful and divisive language by high ranking politicians has increased 500 per cent in the last four years. The politicians making a hateful comment, either in the language of bigotry or calling for violence include MPs, ministers, MLAs or even chief ministers. The rise in use of social media by politicians has amplified this disturbing trend. Based on the data from May 2014 to April 2018, the channel found that there have been 124 instances of VIP hate speech by 45 politicians, compared to 21 instances under UPA-2. Of the 45 political leaders who made hateful comments, 35 politicians, or 78 per cent, are from the BJP. The remaining 10 politicians, or 22 per cent of the offenders, are from other political parties.
Is it surprising, therefore, that the proliferation, magnitude and ferocity of mob violence did not register a firm response from the government? Had the government acted firmly against the perpetrators of violence, the judiciary would not have been required to intervene in the matter. Responding to a clutch of petitions on mob violence and lynching related to cow protection, love jihad and child abduction, the Supreme Court (SC) on July 17 came down heavily on the ‘new normal’ of recurring incidents of mob lynching and recommended that the parliament should take up the job of enacting a new anti-lynching law to instil fear and preserve rule of law in a pluralistic society.
Blaming the frequent instances of lynching on the ‘rising intolerance and polarisation’, the top court laid down guidelines, binding on the central and state governments, to prevent, remedy and punish crimes of mob violence and lynching. Observing that ‘lynching is an affront to the rule of law and to the exalted values of the Constitution itself’, the apex court said that ‘lynching by unruly mobs and barbaric violence arising out of incitement and instigation cannot be allowed to become the order of the day’. Giving the central and state governments a month to implement the judgment and file compliance reports, the three-judge bench further said that ‘hate crimes as a product of intolerance, ideological dominance and prejudice ought not to be tolerated’.
What’s surprising is that while the SC realised the gravity of lynching menace, the government’s silence has been in stark contrast, thus giving credence to suspicion that maybe mob lynching related to cow protection has implicit support of certain ruling party functionaries. The suspicion gets further credence if one considers how various senior members of the BJP have reacted to incidents of lynching. In many cases, not only have the alleged criminals received the support of senior members of the BJP, but the blame has often been shifted to the victims. There is no ambiguity about what the lynchings are all about. But when a central minister – Jayant Sinha – felicitates a lynching accused and the prime minister keeps aloof from such recurring incidents, except to make a stray remark condemning those killings, it sends a wrong message down the line.
What has happened in the last three years is gradual normalisation of hate. It started with demonisation of minorities, liberals and seculars and rising intolerance. When hate gets normalised, can mob lynching triggered by rumours and WhatsApp forwards be far behind? Keeping a check on fake news and motivated hate messages may not control mobs running amok without fear of law because it’s the ecosystem of hate that drives mobs to beat victims to death. So, what’s the government done to control the new ‘normal’? It has urged WhatsApp to take action against misinformation circulating on its platform. Will that help in absence of strict enforcement of law? Does it suffice for the central government to say that law and order is a state subject?
It’s for this reason that the SC’s preventive, punitive and remedial directives to curb mob violence that the central and state governments must undertake stand out because there has been no official accountability so far. With the state being a hopeless bystander, the biggest hurdles to addressing mob violence against vulnerable people, therefore, has been the indifference or complicity of law enforcement agencies. As a result, lynching has become the stand out feature of the last three years. Eminent economist Amartya Sen’s recent observation that India, despite being the fastest-growing economy, has taken a ‘quantum jump in the wrong direction’ since 2014 is highly relevant in this context. Referring to the SC’s observation on mob lynching, Sen said, “Mobocracy and despotism make people live in fear. It is a terrible thing to happen, whether or not it affects the economy. The central issue is that of liberty and democracy.”
After coming to power in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that the Constitution is his holy book and the Parliament his temple. Therefore, his silence is quite disturbing because he has failed to stop the madness of mob lynching that has continued far too long with alarming regularity. What’s also worrying is the silence of the so-called educated middle class, which was quite vocal in its protest against corruption during the previous regime but has not shown any visible sign of outrage against mob lynching.
A L I Chougule is an independent senior journalist.