Burhan Wani's death and a year of living dangerously

The pathology of lynching

Battling the vigilantes: A protest at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, in October 2015 against the Dadri lynching   | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

I first heard the famous Billie Holiday version of the song ‘Strange fruit’ (1939) quite late, as I had grown up in a small town of Bihar, where the choice of music was rather limited. I must have been in junior college then. By then I had read of the song, and the tragic history behind it; I still recall the tingling feeling as Billie Holiday’s powerful rendition literally made my hair stand on end:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,

blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Described by record producer Ahmet Ertegun as “the beginning of the civil rights movement”, this powerful song was written as a poem by Abel Meeropol, and first performed in public by his wife (a singer) in 1937.

Meeropol was writing about more than 1,500 African Americans (‘Black bodies’) lynched by white American mobs around the turn of the 20th century. In particular, he was reacting to a photo taken by Lawrence Beitler of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith on August 7, 1930: these two African Americans were accused, without any evidence, of murdering a white man and raping his companion, and they were lynched by a crowd of racists in front of the local police.

Violence by vigilante groups

You can see the connections to the kind of murders of Muslims that have taken place recently in North India — violence that, actually, also connects to a longer history of the murder of Dalits and aborigines by mobs of casteist Hindus. Yes, I allude specifically to such violence. The lynching of a (Muslim) police officer by (Muslim) separatists in Srinagar is by definition a criminal act, and its perpetrators will be prosecuted by the government as required. But violence by vigilante groups in the name of the law is another matter — because it seeks not just to attack the state but also to circuitously involve it in its own demise.

These are the elements: rumour and hearsay lead to a mob breaking the law of the country in the name of justice; the mob has already condemned the ‘guilty’ because of who they are and how they look; the authorities look the other way, and later describe it as simply a law and order breakdown. (‘It was just an argument over a train seat,’ we were told after the recent lynching of a 17-year-old boy in Haryana.)

There is no attempt to look at the larger disease of hatred and prejudice behind such ‘incidents’. Because, of course, as the first stanza of the song tells us, for there to be ‘blood on the leaves’, there also has to be ‘blood at the root’.


There is ‘blood at the root’ of the Hindutva movement whenever it refuses to see Muslims and other minorities as fully Indian. In this sense, to lynch a man on the suspicion (or, for that matter, even the evidence) of eating beef is the logical outcome of statements like those dismissing the Taj Mahal as not an Indian building. There is no point pretending otherwise. And I suspect that it is not the so-called Hindutva loony fringe that pretends otherwise; it is all the others who refuse to countenance the true nature of the fruits hanging from our beautiful and historical Indian trees.

The problem with such blindness is that it can end up hollowing out the rule of law and order. The Indian government has to act decisively and visibly against lynching and mob violence because, if it fails to do so, it fails to govern. And if it fails to govern long enough, there might not be much left to govern.

Law and order are there to stop citizens from inflicting ‘justice’ on each other; the state is there to break the endless cycles of personal, family and group revenge that have been at the root of violence in all traditional societies. That way lies chaos! Any government that fails to see this does India the greatest disservice possible, for it enables the hollowing out of governance in India, and hence the rise of anarchy.

A strange and bitter crop

Meeropol’s poem, as sung by Billie Holiday (and, later, by singers like Sting, Diana Ross and Annie Lennox), ends with a memorable line: “Here is a strange and bitter crop.”

This image alludes to the longer consequences of such acts of vigilante justice: it is not just the tragic breakdown of law in that particular instant; it is also the sowing of a bitter crop that will return again and again. I shudder to think of the consequences of the bitterness of a minority population of 180 million people in India, more so as the ‘laws’ for which such lynchings are taking place do not even represent the beliefs of the majority of Hindus.

But that is the silver lining in our dark cloud, just as it was the silver lining in the tumultuous clouds of lynching in the American south a century ago: Abel Meeropol, the writer of ‘Strange Fruit’, was not an African American. He was Jewish and a socialist who believed in order, equality and justice. He was moved not because he was Black, but because he was human and humane. I believe that India contains many millions of Abel Meeropols, and that they will make their voices heard.

Tabish Khair’s latest novel is ‘Jihadi Jane’

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Printable version | Jun 12, 2021 10:04:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-pathology-of-lynching/article19150641.ece

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