Lynch mobs appear in many parts of the world, but as the late Harvard anthropologist Stanley Tambiah pointed out 20 years ago, collective violence has a particularly deep history in South Asia. The regular incidence of seemingly spontaneous mass violence we today call ‘communal riots’ found its contemporary form across the new towns and cities of 19th century India as various communities vied for economic opportunity, political clout and cultural pride. Each violent event hardened community boundaries, none more so than the widening divide between Hindus and Muslims.
Colonial officials saw riots as outbursts of extreme passion among the uneducated and gullible masses. Then, as now, the police responded with harsh violence and curfews to stop the circulation of malignant rumour. The ‘spreading of enmity between communities’ became defined as a criminal offence in the Indian Penal Code, but in practice, mob violence was rarely prosecuted as a crime. Instead, throughout the 20th century, mob violence was invariably seen as a symptom of a deeper social malaise, an excessive, spontaneous anger that had to be defused and contained by responsible and caring leaders. Mob violence, as common sense had it for many decades, stemmed from ignorance and would recede with education and modernity.
Many reactions to the recent lynchings in Jharkhand run along these lines. However, such a view of mob violence—as a collective crime of passion—blinds us to two uncomfortable features of collective violence in contemporary India.
Firstly, the rumours and stories that are circulated prior to violent events are invariably about cruelty, abduction and rape committed by ‘the other’ community—almost always Muslim. The content of these fears and prejudices—now circulating on social media—has been remarkably stable since the 19th century, across class and caste. Just like racial stereotypes, communal stereotypes thrive when left unaddressed. People in South Africa, Brazil and other diverse societies know that living together requires that one confronts stereotypes and prejudice as a problem— in schools, police departments, streets, workplaces. The Sachar Committee report of 2006 showed the devastating effects of systematic discrimination against Muslims. The problem—the persistence of anti-Muslim stereotypes and resentment among Hindus, educated and illiterate alike—was left unaddressed. As a society, India has not yet acknowledged that there may be a problem. After the lynching incidents in Jharkhand, there was a scramble to determine if the incidents were communal, if the victims were Hindu or Muslim. Why? Because Hindu and Muslim lives have different values in the broader public perception.
Secondly, mob violence is not an illegitimate form of politics in India’s increasingly non-liberal democracy. Performing anger, destroying public property, ransacking offices of opponents and media outlets, beating up opponents—these are all standard techniques of popular politics in India, which are rarely prosecuted or even treated as crimes. It was Bal Thackeray and his supporters who turned mob violence and the threat of violence into an effective language of daily politics in Mumbai. The police stood by, careful not to interfere with the majority community while routinely countering both Muslim and Dalit protesters with lethal force. Today, that is a common pattern in many parts of India. The ferocity of the threats and the size of the crowd have today become an index of the depths and authenticity of a grievance. Only a spontaneously angry crowd gets taken seriously, especially if it is Hindu. Muslim crowds in Kashmir and elsewhere are routinely dismissed as ‘staged’ or ‘instigated’ by dark, hidden forces. The management and staging of spontaneous popular anger is one of the key political techniques in contemporary India and no other political force masters this better than the BJP and its allies. Constantly refreshing the deep historical archive of anti-Muslim and caste stereotypes, the BJP has ‘weaponised’ civil society by making a faceless vigilante ‘Hindu anger’ an ever-present threat. In perverse historical loop, ‘spontaneous’ anger and violence is back: not as irrationality, but as the most legitimate expression of a Hindu majoritarian nation.
Today, the ferocity of threats and crowd size indicate the authenticity and depth of a grievance. Only a spontaneously angry crowd gets taken seriously, especially if it is Hindu