The brave new world of lynch mobs

This is what happens when majoritarianism and vigilantism are not roundly condemned

For the past few weeks, I have been watching the news coming out of Donald Trump’s America with an endless fascination, and a growing unease. The fascination stems in part from the racist overtones in a country that is trying hard to wish away its history of hatred and bigotry; the unease from the striking parallels it holds to our own situation in India.

Lynching was a word often heard in the America of the 19th century, when members of the Ku Klux Klan rounded up black people and hanged them from trees — a gruesome outcome of slavery. Americans recently recalled the last lynching that happened almost a hundred years ago, with prayer, sadness and the fervent hope that it would never be repeated. In contrast, in India, less than 100 days ago, a 15-year-old Muslim was knifed to death in a crowded passenger train. But the incident brought no public outcry, no prayer, no such emotion. Lynching is now an Indian word, not just taken from the diction of American slavery, but actively used to attack Muslims, Christians and Dalits. Unlike the American lynchings, these don’t occur under the cover of darkness; neither are they carried out by hooded people unwilling to reveal their identity. They are perpetrated by ordinary, well-meaning citizens, who carry out the acts in full public view at busy road intersections or crowded markets. One person was lynched by his neighbours; another was stabbed in a train; more than 30 people were killed in Panchkula by mobs given a free reign by the state — such acts have begun to be considered normal.

Charlottesville and after

In the week after the neo-Nazi rally, almost every politician in the U.S. unequivocally denounced hate; members of Mr. Trump’s business council resigned; many Generals and Navy Admirals penned their messages on social media; and newspapers and television criticised the President for his racist stance in blaming ‘both sides’ for the violence. These public words and actions were directed not just at defusing a volatile situation, but righting a moral wrong. However, when India saw its own Charlottesville-type situations — be it following the killing of Mohammad Akhlaq by a mob in Dadri, or rioting by the followers of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh — it was business as usual. Neither the Prime Minister, nor any elected official unequivocally condemned the hate crimes.


In both countries, the preferential treatment meted out to the majority may not fall within the standard references of Constitution and law, but scores on other ideological grounds. Mr. Trump refused to acknowledge that only the neo-Nazis were to blame at Charlottesville, thereby ensuring a friendly nod from the Alt-Right. Mr. Modi’s absence of clear reprimand following the killings by the purported gau rakshaks ensured an equivalent approval from the RSS.

Similarities also exist in the manner in which the state deals with race in America and religion in India — but there are clear differences in perceptions. While African Americans may endure an undercurrent of racial tensions, the overt message in public life makes no allowance for discrimination. However, people belonging to the minority communities in India are made to tolerate indignities and live in constant fear.

Perhaps, more troubling is that both the American President and the Indian Prime Minister value a private form of authoritarianism over democratic largesse. Mr. Trump has openly expressed his admiration for people like Vladimir Putin, and Rodrigo Duterte. Mr. Modi’s historical reach doesn’t go beyond the border, remaining enmeshed in a despotic strain of Hindu nationalism. His political agenda is infused with a form of patriotism not endorsed by everyone. Consequently, both of them use the symbolism behind the statue and the monument to further their ideological aims. Mr. Modi’s nationalist heroes are all Hindus, so, in his mind, they must be heroes to all Indians. Such reasoning finds echoes in Mr. Trump’s assertion that Confederate heroes of the civil war must be venerated. While one proposes the erection of statues to Shivaji and Patel, the other balks at the removal of monuments to those southern heroes who promoted slavery. The incipient majoritarianism in both acts is visible and clear.

However, there is one stark difference. The American minority is shielded from the lynch mob by both the Constitution and a morality that relies on political correctness. The voices that reverberated out of Charlottesville were shrill in their denunciation of hate. Here, by contrast, there is never any public outcry over a killing prompted by religion or caste. The Indian stand relies on the Constitution in name only, and condemnations never come, or — as with the Panchkula violence — come too late. For public justification, there is always the religious sentiment, something that gives a free reign to the lynch mob.

Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and sculptor

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 3:07:11 AM |

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