By Soumya Sundar Chowdhury
Mob lynching is now a new bane in Indian society, apparently. In last few years, since the Modi government took oath in May 2014, mob lynching related news surfaced from every corner of the Indian state. Not surprisingly, lynching related to ‘cow vigilantism’ has been the centerpiece for all the debates. Some blame the amount of fake news over social media by a new wave of ‘Hindutva’ warriors, while some others blame the rise of the BJP and its tacit political support towards the making of Muslims second-class citizens through intimidation. Various kinds of data are available to prove and disprove these theories. Unfortunately, most data points only reflect the cow vigilante related incidents.
Lynching is not new to the human society; it’s common in every society in every country. Mob justice is prevalent in every place, where expectation of real justice is either futile or fear of law enforcement is non-existent. Unfortunately, both are true in the Indian subcontinent. The problem has only magnified as access to information has rapidly increased.
The reality is, mob justice has been part of Indian culture, and Modi regime has very little to do with it. While growing up in an urban center like Kolkata, seeing mob beating up young men accused of pickpocketing was very common. I remember an incident, which may illuminate the cultural side of it better. I was in high school then. On our way back to my boarding school, we were walking towards an auto-rickshaw stand. All on a sudden, there was this loud cheer because an alleged thief was caught. I saw an otherwise nonchalant Bengali gentleman sitting in a rickshaw, asking his rickshaw-puller to stop. Getting off, he joined the mob in beating the captivated alleged criminal, only to come back to board the rickshaw after enjoying delivering some solid slaps to the hapless so-called thief. People disagreeing with this experience should read recent reports of a migrant worker being tortured to death in Kerala and the news of another worker killed for allegedly stealing hen in Kerala.
The culture of instant mob justice is so deep-rooted that Indian comedians crack jokes about how belligerent men of certain cities make threats of mob violence, whenever they feel the need to either show off their strength or feel humiliated by their peers.
This deep-rooted problem now has two new allies: viral (fake/real) news on social media, and genuine grievances of victimhood. This deadly combination has made parts of Indian society as scary as neighboring Pakistan or Bangladesh, where a mere rumor of insult of Islam incites mob violence against non-Muslims on a regular basis.
For long, cow smuggling has been a problem in rural India. As most parts of Europe and America have laws against killing horses or consuming horsemeat, Indian states also have similar laws for protection of cows and oxen. Yet illegal abattoirs have mushroomed for producing beef across Indian states, so much so that India has become world’s largest supplier of beef. Even though most of these abattoirs claim to produce only buffalo meat, the clandestine reality of it is well-known to everybody. Due to legal obstructions, cows and oxen are not reared for meat. Naturally, the supply of cows to the slaughter-houses or to the off-street roadside butcher shops depend heavily on the smuggled cows and oxen. This has given rise to the cow-smugglers. As it has been profitable to many in the administration as well as in the political spheres, cow-thieves/smugglers run amuck without any fear of law. In a country where 70% of the rural population depend on agriculture and dairy products, they treat their bovine properties as family members, in addition to their religious belief in the sanctity of cows. This is how cow vigilante groups have become a reality, which work as protection groups to fend off threats from armed cow smugglers. The rise of ‘Hindutva’ narrative across India may have emboldened some of these groups. Some may have fallen in the trap of wrong information, but it has certainly created a political storm. Lack of fear of law enforcement for the cow smugglers (see this NYT report on the rise of cow thefts in India) and absence of trust in law enforcement by the cow vigilante groups have only compounded the problem.
Pub-brawl is a common form of mob justice across the world in urban centers. But stronger law enforcement practices deter fatalities. Unfortunately, rural India has little to no access to justice through law enforcement. The problem is dire with political interferences based on caste, religion, etc. The result is, vigilante mob justice. This is why Indian law enforcement needs more teeth. People in the West lament the fact that the police have too much power. If they ever see Indian police constables engaging armed criminal in a duel with wooden sticks in their rickety hands, they may well change their opinion.
Every death is condemnable. It is time ordinary Indians start fearing the law and believing that law enforcement can deliver them justice. Otherwise, lynching will only be about political sloganeering.
Soumya Sundar Chowdhury is a Civil Engineer by profession. He completed undergraduate degree in Construction Engineering at Jadavpur University and graduate studies at West Virginia University in Civil Engineering. An avid follower of Indian and world politics, his opinions are personal and mostly right-leaning. He tweets at: @sundarsoumya
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