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

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

There is ‘blood at the root’ of the Hindutva movement whenever it refuses to see Muslims and other minorities as fully Indian

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’

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

We have been keeping you up-to-date with information on the developments in India and the world that have a bearing on our health and wellbeing, our lives and livelihoods, during these difficult times. To enable wide dissemination of news that is in public interest, we have increased the number of articles that can be read free, and extended free trial periods. However, we have a request for those who can afford to subscribe: please do. As we fight disinformation and misinformation, and keep apace with the happenings, we need to commit greater resources to news gathering operations. We promise to deliver quality journalism that stays away from vested interest and political propaganda.

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | May 22, 2020 1:04:10 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-pathology-of-lynching/article19150641.ece

In Depth
Children cover their nose as they walk away from smoke shells fired by police during clashes in Srinagar on July 8, 2017.
Curfew in Valley on Wani's death anniversary
Stone-throwing in Kashmir on the wane: CRPF
Burhan anniversary forces early vacation in J&K
Cannabis plants being destroyed in Awantipora.
The anonymous addicts
You are reading
The pathology of lynching
A CRPF Jawan stands guard outside the Jamia Masjid.
Police officer Mohammed Ayub Pandith lynched outside Srinagar's Jamia Masjid
Kashmir unrest
As turmoil mounts in Valley, policemen at a crossroads
Pellet guns plastic bullets
‘Plastic bullets’ sent to Kashmir
Negotiations the only option, says Geelani
On terror funding trail, NIA conducts raids on separatists
Valley unrest takes a toll on Pandits’ festival
Slain militant Burhan Wani’s successor killed in encounter
"I did not throw stones. I was kept thirsty from 10.45 a.m. till 7.30 p.m."
Fresh protests erupt in Kashmir Valley
Hizb ‘commander’ quits over ideological differences
Kashmir militants kill unarmed Kulgam Army officer on leave
IS, al-Qaeda have no role in Kashmir: separatists
More locals take to militancy in Kashmir Valley
Kashmir’s unending tragedy
J&K suspends 22 social media sites
Women students join anti-police protests in Srinagar
Srinagar, where campuses simmer with anger and anxiety
A grab from the video, purportedly shot in Budgam on April 9, showing a youth tied to an Army vehicle.
Army uses civilian as  shield, sparks outrage
Only 2% turnout recorded in Srinagar
Bypolls in Kashmir: A prolonged protest
It’s school time again in Valley
Tral in a trance over young Shaheera Akhtar’s 498/500
Wani’s kin not paid compensation
J&K suffered Rs 16,000 cr loss during Kashmir unrest
A pellet victim undergoing treatment in SMHS Hospital in Srinagar.
J&K govt. announces ex gratia payment of Rs. 5 lakh to kin of deceased in 2016 unrest
Hope becomes the biggest casualty in restive Jammu and Kashmir
A year of living dangerously
The new abnormal in Kashmir
Kashmir Valley back to life after shutdown
‘All pass’ for 9 lakh students in Valley
Students take exams amid shutdown in Valley
Army launches ‘School Chalo’ operation in South Kashmir
Amnesty slams burning of schools in Valley
More than a hundred days later
In 100 days, India’s facade crumbled: Geelani
Gun-snatching in Valley worries Army
Forebodings come true in Valley’s season of violence
3,000 more soldiers deployed in Valley
Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti address a press conference in Srinagar on Thursday. Photo: Nissar Ahmad
Rajnath promises alternative to pellet guns, says he is willing to talk to all
Junaid undergoing treatment in Srinagar on Sunday after being hit by pellets in the chest. Photo: Nissar Ahmad
14% of pellet gun victims in Kashmir are below 15
A ‘Kashmir Ki Kali’ poster wakes world to pellet blind spot
A morphed image of Shah Rukh Khan.
‘Pellet-hit’ images of leaders and stars go viral in Valley
Newspapers in Kashmir refuse to publish
Last week, about 2,800 CRPF troops were sent to the State. Photo: Nissar Ahmad
Centre rushes 2,000 additional troops to Kashmir
The Supreme Court on Friday refused to entertain a plea for Governor’s rule in the strife-ridden State of Jammu and Kashmir.
Behind the rage in south Kashmir
Mehbooba govt. gags media, blocks cable TV
Women too bear the brunt of pellet guns
J&K Education Minister Naeem Akhtar. File photo
Will relook into circumstances leading to Burhan’s killing: J&K govt.
A woman requests a policeman cross the road in Srinagar on Tuesday. A curfew remained in place in most parts of Kashmir for the fourth consecutive day as authorities struggled to contain protests following the killing of top militant commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani. Photo: Nissar Ahmad
Living in denial on Kashmir
A woman and her daughter cross a deserted bridge in Srinagar on Tuesday.
Restrictions are still in force in most parts of the Kashmir Valley after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani.
PM asks security forces in J&K to exercise absolute restraint
Calming the Valley
Boys walk in front of closed shops during a curfew in Srinagar on Monday. —Photo: Nissar Ahmad
The rise of Kashmir’s rock star ultras
Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. File photo.
Sharif attacks India after Opposition ire
An injured man at the SMHS hospital in Srinagar on Sunday. — Photo: Nissar Ahmad
19 men injured by pellets may lose vision
Burhan's funeral: Dangerous writing on the wall
Securitymen patrol a deserted street at Maisuma area in Srinagar on Saturday. Photo: Nissar Bhat
Burhan Wani killing: Amarnath Yatra suspended
Stone pelting incidents were reported from many areas of north Kashmir’s Baramulla district. Photo: Nissar Ahmad
Wani’s death triggers fury, 11 killed, 200 hurt in Kashmir
Screenshot from a video of Burhan Wani, commander of terror group Hizbul Mujahideen.
Burhan Wani, Hizbul poster boy, killed in encounter
Screenshot from a video of Burhan Wani, commander of terror group Hizbul Mujahideen.
Amarnath pilgrims won’t be harmed: Hizbul
These young militants are selfie buffs and trendy
Next Story