India Today - - UPFRONT - THOMAS BLOM HANSEN Thomas Blom Hansen is pro­fes­sor of An­thro­pol­ogy at Stan­ford Univer­sity

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

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