YOU SHOULD ORDINARILY be shocked at the video in which Tabrez Ansari is seen beaten up and asked to say ‘Jai Shri Ram’ but Indians have long been inured to lynch mobs. He was a suspected thief and by common consensus in India, every time a thief gets caught everyone has a right to beat him. Once that principle is established there is no fear and it doesn’t take long for a mob to come together. I once interviewed a pickpocket who spoke about the dangers of getting caught in the Mumbai suburban locals where he operated. People would throw them out of running trains to certain death, something each one of those ordinary commuters would recoil from doing if they were alone.
How can ordinary humans so easily become like that? Precisely because when many cuts are made, each has no moral responsibility attached to it. In the case of Ansari, a few Hindutva thugs have been arrested but whose exactly was the blow that killed him during his long torture? None of them would know.
To act, a member of a lynch mob must feel what they are doing is right and good—to beat up a thief is to protect one’s property; to kill someone of a lower caste is to protect one’s caste, and so forth. The law and order mechanism of society must be rusty, so that there is a fair probability of them getting away with it.
Lynch mobs proliferate when society breaks down. In 2010, after an earthquake devastated Haiti and looting became rife, people gathered together to lynch the looters. In the US the phenomenon of lynching African Americans began in the early 19th century because in large swathes of the country there was support from the political and justice establishment. It took 150 years before lynching became an absolutely intolerable crime. The last lynching of an African American happened in 1981 when one of the killers was sentenced to death while others got long terms in prison.
In India, every time the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) comes to power, lynchings start making the headlines. Tabrez is the latest in that line. Cow vigilantes are the most common form of Hindutva lynch mobs. At their root is the belief that they have political sanction for violence to defend their religion. The BJP Government and its leaders could counter it by emphasising repeatedly that this sanction does not exist. But the fear of alienating the political base prevents extravagant denunciations. And so the headlines continue. A database by IndiaSpend put the number of cow vigilantism incidents since 2012 at 127 with 47 deaths, almost all of them after 2014 when the Government changed.
A peculiar feature of modern lynch mobs is technology. Social media and Whataspp spread clips of lynchings, as happened with Tabrez, and in this, they perform a service by outing the killers and making the authorities act. But they are also sometimes the cause of creating lynch mobs. Two years ago, fear of child abductions spread by Whatsapp led to, according to an Indian Express report, ‘the killing of 27 people in 15 cases of lynchings by frenzied mobs blinded by viral rumours of child-kidnappers on the prowl across nine states — from Assam to Tamil Nadu — in the last one year’. They found that each killing and every mob was unique in its dynamics. And some mobs were as large as 1,000 people. They were driven by fear and absence of trust in the police, showing that when society fails to temper the madness of the crowd, the lynch mob, like a volcano, can spontaneously erupt into being.