The organising principle of lynch mobs

The executors of violence know that strong-arm tactics send powerful signals of who belongs and who does not

July 04, 2017 12:02 am | Updated 12:05 am IST

What encourages Indians who subscribe to different religious persuasions, speak different languages, and hold different conceptions of the good to believe that they are equal members of a democratic political community? Many features bind us together: shared memories of a massive struggle against colonialism, the spectacle of and general enthusiasm for elections, love of cricket and fascination with Bollywood. The most important bond that welds disparate people into a political community is, arguably, constitutional democracy and the fundamental rights granted by the Constitution.

About the right to life

Logically, the one right that enables us to possess and exercise other rights is the right to life granted by Article 21 of the Fundamental Rights Chapter of the Constitution. It states explicitly that no person shall be deprived of her life or personal liberty, save by procedure established by law. In 1950, the Supreme Court, in the case of A.K. Gopalan vs the State of Madras , interpreted the phrase “procedure established by law” as any procedure laid down in a statute enacted by a competent legislature. For 23 years, the court did not interpret the right to life as a principle of natural justice, but as a fragile right that could be taken away by arbitrary legislation.


Over the years the Supreme Court changed its stance. In 1973, in the case of Prabhu Dayal Deorah vs the District Magistrate, Kamrup , the court ruled that anti-social activities can never be reason to invade the personal liberty of citizens. The history of personal liberty is the history of observance of procedures; this is the only bastion against ‘wanton’ infringements of personal liberty. In the Maneka Gandhi case (1977), the court ruled that the right to life had to be read along with the right to equality and the right to freedom, granted by Articles 14 and 19 of the Fundamental Rights Chapter. Any procedure that could possibly infringe on the right to life and personal liberty had to be right, just, and fair, and not arbitrary, fanciful and oppressive. The court would decide whether a procedure is just.

Watching in silence

According to this interpretation, the recent spate of attacks on Indian citizens, the lynchings and slaughter , can be rightfully construed as ‘wanton’ assaults on personal liberty and the right to life. What is worrying is that individuals are emboldened to perform acts of indescribable violence on bodies of fellow citizens. They have reason to know that they will get away with these repulsive violations of a primary fundamental right.

In most cases, police personnel prefer to look elsewhere. Elected ministers of State governments defend actions that maim and murder on flimsy and unsubstantiated grounds, such as transportation of cattle. In a recent case, a young man was brutally killed because he was reportedly carrying meat. Surely those who design and execute violence should be penalised severely for breaching the basic right to life and liberty. But our democratically elected Central government watches in near silence even as its citizens are subjected to reiterative brutality.


Elusive expressions of distress by politicians who command immense power, and who possess control over the means of coercion, is simply not enough. Perpetrators of violence must be punished, aspirant wrongdoers must be deterred, and civil liberties must be restored. If India has some claim to constitutional democracy, the sanctity of fundamental rights must be upheld by our power elites.

Markers of protest

It is precisely this message that for the past three years has been delivered by Indian citizens. Writers, poets, and dramatists returned honours given by the state. Citizens march to protest against atrocities perpetrated on our students, on our own people who are Muslims or Dalits, and on our democratic sensibilities. Last week thousands of Indians assembled across the country to state unambiguously: ‘Not in My Name.’ The marker of the protest can be read in two ways. It can be interpreted as distancing ourselves from the barbarism that has been unleashed on vulnerable Indians. But this reading is untenable. This form of protest is one of the most spectacular expressions of loss of confidence in elected leaderships, a mass no-confidence motion. We are no longer ‘the people’ in whose name you rule.

Democratic citizens need to deepen protests, because lynching and murders are not random or isolated incidents. The link between the issue of cow protection and Hindu-Muslim communal violence has been clear since the late nineteenth century. Worship of the cow was one of the reasons why Muslims felt excluded from the construction of an overtly ‘Hindu’ nation, built around pure and impure food and the consequence of consumption.

A project of consolidation

Today, the project of consolidating a Hindu nation has been stepped up. The larger intention of the Hindutva project is to cast a miasma of fear and trepidation over entire regions, and to put minorities and the so-called lower castes ‘in their place’. The project seems to have worked. Now people have to be careful where they live, and how they travel, for anyone, anywhere can be subjected to intimidation.

The prospect is frightening. We are going to live in desolate cities, because vulnerable communities, in search of protection, will migrate to ghettos overflowing with their own people. We will be living and working in blank and bleak urban (and some rural) spaces, where no one reaches out to the members of another community. They simply do not know what the outcome is going to be.

This is the exact fate of Ahmedabad, a once bustling textile town. Though repeated communal violence led to ghettoisation in 1969, some Hindus and Muslims continued to live in mixed neighbourhoods. By the 1990s only a few mixed neighbourhoods remained. Spatial segregation was almost complete after 2002. The fate of a ghettoised city is depressing. Residential exclusion narrows the cultural and political horizons of communities, closes off options, pre-empts creative mingling of perspectives and prevents solidarity.


Rituals of random violence have their own rationale, the maintenance and reproduction of dread of the unknown, or even of the known. The consequences are clear. People in search of protection cluster together. The political community fragments, and the collective self of India is once again fractured. We are set back a hundred years when neighbours turn on neighbours. Today, matters are worse, because people video-record the torture of their neighbours in the name of cow-protection. They then post these videos on the social media. What could be more perverse and more threatening?

The splitting up of the political community in India and the dissolution of solidarity, spatial segregation as the vulnerable seek shelter, and mindless violence seem to be part of a larger project of the extreme right. The executors of violence know that strong-arm tactics send powerful signals of who belongs and who does not. These seemingly indiscriminate and arbitrary instances of violence, murder, and mayhem are not isolated. They add up to a project that is politically dangerous because it threatens defenceless people. In 1947, India was partitioned into two countries. In the 21st century, Indian society seems to be fated to undergo another sort of partition, spatial segregation born out of fear. The right to life has lost meaning in an India where vigilante groups rule who will be targeted and how.


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