‘In a crowd… a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation. Isolated, he
may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian—that is, a creature
acting by instinct’ — Gustave Le Bon, 19th century French sociologist
CONSIDER FOR A moment a Mumbai local train at rush hour. It’s a suffocating and uncomfortable atmosphere, and commuters are always surly towards one another. Sometimes even fights break out. This is not a crowd. It is just a bunch of individual people who have nothing in common except for the fact that they happen to be momentarily travelling, packed in a single compartment, on the same route. But give them a connection, a sort of shared identity, and they will suddenly transform into a crowd with its own larger psychology. Picture a monsoon downpour, for instance, that brings the train to a halt. The same people cursing each other until a few minutes ago now launch into joint jeremiads against the government over the crumbling infrastructure, perhaps passing bottles of drinking water around. This phenomenon, as psychologists will point out, can influence the individual in myriad ways, from the peaceful and generous to the disruptive and riotous. He may block a train and vandalise railway property, things that one man alone would never consider.
In recent times, several such people across India have been grouping together to form lynch mobs. In earlier instances, they would set upon those they suspected of cow slaughter. More recent mobs have been lynching people incited by rumours of child abductions and organ-harvesting rings. The blame for the latest round of violence has been laid at the doorstep of messaging platforms like WhatsApp, with even the Government asking them to quell dangerous rumours.
These incidents have led the Supreme Court to recommend the framing of a strong anti-lynching law, with the Chief Justice-led panel’s order saying that these ‘horrendous acts of mobocracy cannot be permitted to inundate the law of the land’, that the recurring pattern of violence ‘cannot be allowed to become the new normal’.
Why is it that dark online whispers of child abductors can turn a mob murderous? Wouldn’t the obvious response to suspicions be to inform the police or check the bona fides of the suspects? Several analysts argue that lynchings take place because these people are mostly tech-illiterate and gullible. That with cheaper handsets and inexpensive data packages, millions of rural Indians are going online for the first time and are unable to distinguish fake from genuine news. But is mass gullibility really the primary problem here? Are people being prodded to kill by WhatsApp forwards? Or is the messaging tool simply making a primitive urge more efficient— allowing people to gather a mob faster and more effectively than before?
A vast post-colonial country like India is a complicated entity, with divisions that lofty ideals like ‘unity in diversity’ cannot always paper over. There is anguish over past injustices, real or imagined, which contemporary leaders like to stoke and keep alive. There is shame. There is humiliation. There is an empty bravado about oneself. And there is a constant fear of the other.
We are all made up of various psychological neuroses and ticks. Alone, as individuals, we can keep them at bay. We may dislike something but would not consider harming another. But as part of a larger whole, an anonymous unit in a collective, these neuroses can get unleashed together, powered by impulse and unafraid of consequences. The lynch mob makes the individual lose his sense of moral responsibility. Any idea in such a crowd— even murder—can turn contagious.