By Ashley Tellis
Every week now reports come in from several cities across the country of lynch mobs beating (often to death) “suspicious-looking” people whom they are convinced are part of child-abducting and child-kidnapping and child-raping networks that WhatsApp messages have informed them are on the prowl. Fourteen reported murders up to now and counting.
There are several narratives to unpack here, from the paranoia around child abuse to the xenophobic setting upon “outsiders” (Muslims, migrants, hijras, women) in relation to whom resentment has been simmering for long; from the atavistic violence lurking just beneath the surface in urban Indians and ready to emerge with no compunctions and no scruples (indeed with a great pride in the violence) to the lack of any public intervention in these medieval spectacles of stripping, beating and hammering to death (indeed ethical humans who do intervene like police inspector Gagandeep Singh did in another context get hate mail for doing so).
In this article, I want to deal with just one strand, always neglected because even sane and critical voices are afraid of an internet if not real lynching should they raise their concerns. In 2008, when I raised some of these questions, I was called a paedophile, it cost me a job, and I found myself in a dictionary of paedophiles produced by some nutter in the United States (pardon the tautology). That makes it doubly important to raise the question.
That is the question of the child. As is always the case, all the fears and anxieties around children are actually adult fears of themselves and what adults do to children. As usual, the most righteous among the lynchers are the most abusive of children themselves.
Indeed, in the Bangalore lynching, among the beaters of the man were many legal children, that is people below the age of 18, egged on and encouraged by the adults among them. That is the most obvious evidence of the great defenders of children being the biggest abusers.
But deeper investigations are in order. The fact is that most children are abused the most at home. Parents abuse children almost every day. The very unequal structure of the family ensures that abuse is the norm. Extended family are the next circle of abusers. Most child sexual abuse is at the hands of close relatives and this is well-known. The third circle of abusers are friends of family. So to pick on random outsiders based on fake WhatsApp messages is just a smokescreen to cover up this abuse that is internal.
But the deepest question is this: what are the anxieties and fears adults are projecting on to the figure of the child? Before we answer that it is important to acknowledge that the language of paranoia is borrowed hook like and sinker (like much else in contemporary urban India) from the United States. That great country based on family values where the family abuses children by the million meets this great country also obsessed with family values where the family abuses people even more.
But what are these fears and anxieties? That children have a sexuality. That children might speak up about abuse in the family. That children, God forbid, may have a voice (Every time I opened my mouth as a child, and I was a runt of a child), my grandmother would say sternly ‘Children should be seen and not heard’. I learnt that the hard way when I reported abuse at the hands of a priest, who was a family friend and she asked me to shut the fuck up and told me I was lying).
Yet the facts of the matter are that children do have a sexuality, children do have a voice. The challenge is to ensure that their voices are heard. They will not be heard if lynch mobs take over and train them how to beat and kill. They will not be heard if we lower the age of hanging from 18 to 16 because we have trained 16-year-olds to rape and kill. It will not happen by media trials of singers like Papon based on an envious psycho misreading an image and filing a complaint on the behalf of a child, who was perfectly capable of objecting herself had she felt violated.
Nevertheless, it is far easier to wreak violence upon others than on oneself; easier to mark an Other as enemy and not oneself. This is the truth behind the lynchings and killings we have been witnessing of late and the sooner we realise it the better. This is the result of no sex education in schools; this is the result of a sexually repressed society; this is the result of the internalised paranoia around children from the US.
But, most of all, this is the result of a society scared of mythical monsters created from Others near and far and are yet its denizens, across caste and class, unable to see that the monsters are in their mirrors.
Ashley Tellis is an LGBH, anti-communal, feminist, child, Dalit, adivasi, and minority rights activist. He lives and works in Hyderabad.
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