Modern sociology like modern constitutional law posits a contrast between a state of nature and the state of society. Thomas Hobbes, the great contractarian had described the state of nature as a condition where the life of man was solitary, poor, nasty, short and brutish. A society was created for security, for survival, and for civility. A society and state guaranteed the rule of law. Yet when an epidemic of lynchings takes place all over India, one has to ask a few basic questions. What is lynching and what is it symptomatic of?
The surreal nature of lynching can be understood in six frames. In the beginning, there is a sense of lawlessness, there is anarchy but most of all there is a politics of anxiety and insecurity. The very anarchy of society needs the focus, someone the violence can zero on. Many societies created the idea of scapegoat, a stranger, a marginal, an alien who became the focus of violence. Society returns to normalcy after an orgy of blood-letting. The Jew played that role throughout most of European history. However, in these societies, the scapegoat is a fixed category.
Today the scapegoat is a floating signifier. It can be anyone. All one needs is a climate of suspicion, insecurity, and paranoia. Hate and anger surface and then die. In India, old and new stereotypes mix. We have fear of the child lifter, the cattle stealer, the spy and the alien. All the ritual of lynching demands is a mob and a target. Surreally, the act of lynching is not seen as a breakdown of law and order. The crowd fancies itself as restoring it. The crowd becomes the force of law and order. There is no role for reason, rationality, and dialogue. In one case in Bihar, the victim begs for mercy and keeps insisting it is a mistake. The crowd is deaf and beats him to death.
Violence is ritual; everyone participates it. Almost everyone will get the victim or enact out a chorus of approval, which is almost as violent as the physical act. All lynching needs is a rumor. The crowd needs to believe it is the primordial state. Violence is indiscriminate. The target can be Hindu, Muslim, Dalit or Pandit. The events might vary but the genre of violence is the same. The victim has to die a horrible death in the Republic of lynching. Often, he is innocent but there is no remorse from the crowd. The victim’s family is the only one who remembers the event. The silence and closure is amazing.
Oddly the state watches lynching as a spectacle. The policeman sits curiously as the orgy is enacted out. Violence has a quality of spectacle. The crowd pretends it is the state and enacts law and order as the substitute for the rule of law. The mob disappears, the memory fades till the next event. It is as if lynching has become the extension of the paranoid security state, where mob and state share a division of labour as a division of violence. The isomorph between crowd and state is worrying.
There is no use being politically correct and sane but some forms of violence are more equal than other. A policeman’s lynching and a cattle lifter’s lynching possess the same order of bestiality. In fact, part of the paradox of lynching is that it reflects the breakdown of the state and the irony of the crowd playing sovereign. There is a reciprocity here that we must understand as the national security state allows the circle of non-listeners to enforce its panopticon.
A lynching was to consolidate the power of the state. There is a complementarity between state brutality and the lynch squad. Only the mob might be more primordial. This return of the primordial is worrying. What is different is the aftermath. In a lynching ritual, the sequence is rumor, suspicion, scapegoat, orgy and then silence. In a legal society, one would argue the lynch squad is a thing of the past. What one senses in the contemporary nature of lynching is that it is a complement to the state apparatus. The two together create a balance of violence we call law and order. In this sense the lynch squad is not pathological but part of the normalcy of a paranoid society, of a politics of suspicion which has no purpose. Rumor becomes a way of processing anxiety. It is almost as if violence has a social function when law breaks down.
Law and lynching mirror each other in disorder and we pretend to call it society. In a society where old maps are gone and norms do not work, lynching becomes a desired mode of control. This is the irony of contemporary society. Editorials might deny it, but ground level narratives substantiate this new complicity of violence.
The word ‘vaccination; has its etymological root in the Latin word, vacca, which means cow. Edward Jenner, the father of Immunology, found the remedy for smallpox – a deadly disease at that point in time – in cowpox, a less virulent virus. It was noticed that the latter ailment had induced immunity against smallpox in milkmaids living in Jenner’s area. Interestingly, after experimenting and reworking on his thesis, Jenner concluded that the vaccination could work as a bulwark against a fatal attack of smallpox. And thus the first vaccine on earth came into existence. It is a generally held belief that this vaccination ‘has saved more lives than the work of any other human on Earth.’
It is one of the ironies of our times that the same vacca, which gave life to millions and millions of people, is being used as a pretext for brutally assaulting and killing Dalits and Muslims in contemporary India. The organisations which are committing these acts are either related to the Hindutva movement, or draw inspiration from its ideology.
The anti-Muslim spin that has been foisted on the idea of cow-as-holy-mother is making the rounds across India, and is being exploited to whip up communal frenzy. The idea of gau rakshiniappears only an abstract idea, which is being used to weave the centre and peripheries for widening the net of right-wing ideology. The Indian avatar of the American Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in saffron costume carries its own baggage of hatred based on Hindu supremacy and Hindu nationalism against its ‘Others’ in the forms of Adivasis, Christians, Dalits, and Muslims. The Saffron outfits use intimidation, violence, and killing while dealing with their ‘Others’.
The beating and killing of Mohsin Sadiq Shaikh in Pune has triggered as well as set the tone for such a spectacle. And it was the first act of the running series that took place immediately after the BJP came to power in 2014. The news of such gruesome acts, it seems, is not going to take a pause as news of more such acts has regularly been reported without let or hindrance. After the Pune incident, we witnessed Dadri (UP), Alwar (Rajasthan), Nagaon (Assam), Latehar (Jharkhand), Seraikela Kharsawa, East Singbhum and West Singbhum (Jharkhand). Attacks on Muslim men and women on charges of carrying beef have been reported from other parts of the country. The latest in this series of attack is on Ainul Ansari in Jharkhand. One could literally see what Edward Said has written in a different context – ‘free floating hostility’ – against Muslims today. People are being chased, harassed, strangulated, hanged or lynched by gau rakshaks or cow protection vigilantes.
All these harrowing incidents have stripped Muslims of all their complexities and reduced them to their primordial category of religion. The idea of ‘being a Muslim in contemporary India’, it could easily be inferred from happenings around us, is an ‘empty signifier’ where a Muslim could be one of these at a given place: a beef consumer, a trader of cows and calves, a child-lifter, a Romeo, a progeny of Babar, a Pakistani, a traitor, and, of course, a terrorist. More ‘signifieds’, it appears, are in the offing. Reduced to its most basic, alternatively, a Muslim has ontologically become an ‘evil’ that needs thorough thrashing for the past ‘mistakes’.
Tired tropes and reductive reading of Islam and Muslim history is being peddled by Hindutva outfits in order to justify acts of violence against Muslims and pander to ‘collective conscience’ of the nation. The saffron-tinted animal rights activists have also tagged along with gau rakshaks, providing justification to vigilantism.
The current lynching spree is also symptomatic of the BJP’s triumphalism born out of its landslide victory in the Parliamentary election of 2014. The Party’s victory in the UP Assembly election further reinforced its triumphalism.
The coming of BJP to power owes to a host of factors. Of all, the party and its parent organisation did their ground work quite well. The BJP is putting in a lot of effort to make inroads where it has been absent. It has been trying to push its agenda through its tried-and-tested tactic of pitting one community against the other. Doing this necessitates bringing up Hindu symbols, idioms and imageries that help the party in peddling hatred and mobilising masses. BJP has continuously been eyeing Bihar, besides other Indian states that have so far been impregnable to its idea of governance. In Bihar, Nitish Kumar formed an alliance with BJP; however, the latter did not have a free hand.
On a recent visit to Gaya in Bihar I saw the right-wingers’ efforts at penetrating the public sphere. A quick perusal of walls covered in graffiti in the market area in this small town shows that the activities of the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the BJP, have increased manifold. On a particular wall in the heart of town, a graffiti reads: Gaya ho ya Guwahati, apna desh apna maati. It is a no brainer to decipher the writing on the wall, that says only the Hindu sons of the soil own this nation.
I also got a chance to talk to a few people who live in the outskirts of Gaya and keep an eye on the dynamics that give shape to local power relations. One can easily get an idea from the conversation that cow vigilantism has slowly started affecting the rural areas. Of late, a band of people subscribing to Hindutva ideology was moving from village to village exhorting villagers not to sell cows and calves to Muslims. It also needs to be kept in mind that the Baqra Eid (Sacrifice Feast) is around the corner. Many people who drive trucks or other such vehicles – intra-state or inter-state – carrying livestock have distanced themselves from this profession as it could invite the wrath of the vigilante groups. It has also affected the income of these people. They used to get better wage in carrying animals than other goods. A few drivers who were carrying meat across the region were being chased by vigilantes. Such news is yet to be reported in the media.
To dig up a bit more I visited a good number of sites, too. Prominent shops in the town have got transparent boxes that ask visitors to contribute a sum of money for saving the holy cow. I asked many acquaintances of varying age if they had come across any such spectacle during their lifetime, and their response was in the negative. ‘Hamara Gaya tezi se badal raha hai (literally, our town is changing fast),’ a student of political science in the town told me, with a tinge of sadness in his voice.
This particular box and the message inscribed on it reminded me of a slice of history. Images from the history books started gushing out in my mind. Historically, the first Gaorakshini Sabha was formed by Dayanand Saraswati in Punjab in 1882. These sabhas were repositories of local mores and social conflicts. Just like today such posters and pamphlets were made available, asking for the protection of Mother Cow; the rowdy bands on streets used to snatch cows and bullocks from butchers and traders, and these sabhas targeted Muslims, untouchables, people of the low-caste, and Christian converts. The powerful trope of Cow and its equal importance among the traditionalist and reformist schools of Hinduism had helped in bringing people on a common platform. Moreover, it had also helped in linking rural and urban areas. Such a deployment of powerful trope by the Hindu nationalists had helped them in making easy for the majority community to think through and conceive of an Imagined Hindu Community.
Ramachandra Guha’s recent article mentions the impact of Hindu ‘liberals and modernisers’, through the 19th and 20th centuries, in ‘ridding Hinduism of regressive social practices’. A bit further he writes, ‘Inspired by these reformers, many Hindus across India learned to orient their actions according to reason and justice, rather than a blind adherence to tradition or scripture’. The write-up, in Guha’s own words, could be summed up as ‘The most emphatic evidence of the victory of Hindu bigotry over Hindu liberalism is the enormous importance given by the ruling party to the worship of the cow.’ However, Guha’s piece categorically forgot to mention the fact that deployment of the idea of cow in the political arena is not a new phenomenon that we are witnessing today. Scholarly works of Sandria Freitag and others on communalism inform us about the Cow Protection Movement of late 19th century and its role in the National movement. Taken together, the cow nationalism of our times appears to be a mere repetition of its past.
The RSS has been on the lookout for ripping subterranean petty differences of people – living in relatively peaceful environment – for making Bihar a powder keg and cashing in on the communal frenzy. The RSS has its presence in Gaya, and its affiliates perform mass drill and martial arts practices in Azad Park. It has a shakha or branch in the same area. However, cadres of the RSS recently marched in a procession through main roads showing their strength, and of course also implying the latent violence that this movement could unleash.
(Source: Via Anas Aman)
Lately Tej Pratap, Lalu Prasad’s elder son, launched a rath yatra in Patna and founded an organisation called the Dharmanirpeksha Sevak Sangh (DSS) to counter the extremist narrative propagated by the RSS. However, the language in which this party has couched its mission (combating Hindutva ideology in Bihar) appears problematic. Given the perceived secular credentials of Lalu, his son should fight such a battle on party’s own turf. Moreover, combating Hindutva on ground by rhetoric, rally, and road show is not going to alter the endeavour that has been set in motion for changing the landscape of Bihar.
I also happened to talk to the leader of the Ambedkar Sangarsh Morcha of the town, who did not look very optimistic regarding the possibility of an alliance between Dalits and Muslims. He does want an alliance, however, to this specific end. According to him, the Muslim leadership has to take an initiative which looks reluctant as of now, given the entanglement of vested interests with the dominant structure of this town as well as the local power dynamics. He cited the example of the protest that was staged in support of the Una movement, and mentioned that there were hardly fifteen people from the Muslim community. And these people were his colleagues. The impossibility of forging an alliance between Dalits and Muslims could be seen in terms of different genealogies of their oppression, discrimination, and marginalisation. At the present, such an idea appears to be implausible.
Now the question is: what is to be done when miasmic pall of murderous killing and lynching of Muslims in the current regime hangs on our head and whose threat is too thick in air?
It is not that the community lacks political agency for countering the menace of Hindutva as people belonging to particular quarters mull over and propagate. If issues of Triple Talaq, blasphemy, and others could stir the conscience of this community so much so that people could take time out of their busy schedule to deliberate on these issues in their villages and mohallas, why could they not then be mobilised for these grave issues too? I am yet to understand this culture of silence on part of the leaders – political as well as religious – of the Muslim community!
Unfortunately, countering the BJP in elections has so far been the only concern of the politically conscious sections of the Muslim community. Achieving this particular end calls for political socialisation, which ought not to be confined to only defeating the BJP in the elections – Parliamentary as well as Assembly polls.
If we do not construct a new framework – without distinguishing between its political and moral dimensions – through which people could carve out identities and relationship vis-à-vis marginalised groups and Indian democracy, there would never be any apposite political agency, much less any sustained political struggle.
Fahad Hashmi is an independent researcher, who holds an MPhil in Sociology from Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi. He regularly writes on political Islam, issues of minorities, and other issues of political and social concerns.