Of late, incidences of mob violence are becoming increasingly common. On 8th June, 2018, two youngsters from Assam were lynched to death in Panjuri Kachari village of Karbi Anglong district, on the pretext of a rumour about xopadhoras. Xopadhora loosely translates into child-lifter, and is used to describe a man from outside the community donning long hair and carrying a bag to put the kidnapped children in. It is myth used as a disciplining tactic for children to make them sleep on time, eat properly, and so on. But the myth, too, has found some factual concerns at current times. According to National Crime Records Bureau (2015), Assam accounts for 22% of human trafficking and 38% of child trafficking, with regard to national data. The most vulnerable communities are the tea garden communities, groups from conflict-stricken areas and areas affected by flood. While the fear of xopadhora might have been understandable among the poorer and more vulnerable communities of the state, what is to be noted here is the recourse to lynching to death seen as a ‘public responsibility’.
There have been about 13 deaths so far (reported) as a consequence of mob lynching in 2018. From a 25-year old migrant worker in Rajasthan, to Madhu, a tribal man from Kerala to the 2 Muslim men lynched on suspicion of cattle theft in Jharkhand – the data is spread all over the country, and not simply an endemic issue (Alexander and Jacob, 2018).
What is of interest here is to trace the psychological and social basis for such heinous acts, where the formal criminal justice system is completely overlooked and the ‘matter’ is taken into ‘public hands’. If data is analyzed, the victims mostly belong to the disadvantaged or minority communities, more commonly, the Dalits and the Muslims. It could be theorized that certain dominant communities feel that power and/or resources belong solely to them, by the natural order, and any infringement upon this unsaid norm by members of the other communities is forbidden. It, however, goes unquestioned as to how this norm came to establish itself as natural order in the first place.
Tripathi (2016) states that collective violence occurs as a by-product of processes involved in the construction of a social identity, whereby members of different groups are in constant contestation with each other. These contestations arise from the members’ need to prove their loyalty to a community, a nation or a culture. The process of ‘othering’, as propagated by Spivak (1985) essentially looks at how construction of one’s identity in a social group is possible only with the construction of a group termed as the ‘other’. The other is completely different from the self, exists outside the in-group and should be put down or condemned in order to establish one’s own identity as part of the in-group. The psychological construction of the other is such that the other is unnatural and to be eradicated from existence. Thus, to be a true Hindu, one must condemn the un-naturalness of Muslims. Anything that is an aberration of this view is seen as violation of the group norm, as in case of anti-national.
The process of othering also brings with it a heightened sense of self-group. Positive values, beliefs and identity are ascribed to one’s own group, which is then internalized to form personal identity. Suppose, in a (not-so) hypothetical situation, the government of the country itself seems to latently propagate a particular religion to mobilize people, criticizing the government – which is a fundamental right – becomes close to impossible, because it would mean that I am criticizing the religion, and not the government’s actions. Given that religion forms the core of most people’s personal as well as collective identity, it is treated as a threat to that identity. Then follows a process of protecting it through violence, even if it means lynching and killing the members of the other.
This is the crux of the Hindu versus Muslim riots, or even the lynching. As for the two Assamese men, the Karbi Anglong district, despite having its own autonomous council, has been suffering from extremes of poverty and lack of resources (Kashyap, 2018). Therefore, to witness two rich youths from the city, led to a process of Othering, as they felt alien to them. The person who had incited the violence, namely Timung, had a rift with the two men, before calling in the villagers and falsely implicating them as child kidnappers. Timung has been involved in inciting two other similar cases of lynching and murder in the region.
Despite such explanation, one question still persists – what makes an individual in a crowd commit a murder, even though his/her personal conscience would never allow it. This could be explained through one of the earliest theories of crowd psychology, given by LeBon (1896). He stated that individuals, when they become a part of a crowd, lose their personal identity and merge into the crowd. S/he seems to come under a ‘hypnosis or trance’, whereby, the group mentality forms a single being. LeBon also states that when people come together in a (often mindless) collection, they tend to seek a leader, or the ‘ring-master’, to guide their behavior. Thus, to situate it in the present circumstances, the ring-master achieves the ‘God-like’ status, worshipped by the crowd. In contrast to LeBon, Floyd Allport (1924) believed that people do not lose their individuality in a crowd; rather it is accentuated. Hence, violent crowd is a result of like-minded violent people. Once, the group is formed, self-preservation that occurs as a part of our evolutionary past, extends to the in-group, at the expense of killing members of the out-group.
While these theories are helpful in understanding the phenomenon, it provides a very grim picture of what is to come. Solution is almost impossible to be arrived at, if indeed violence and self-preservation are ingrained in human beings through evolution and adaptation. History is witness to the fact there have been no such time as the ‘peaceful time’. The only remedy that could be thought of is the un-Othering of the out-group. This process of un-Othering comes from a reflexive undertaking, whereby one comes to realize that there is no other, which is not a part of the self; and that self itself has an Other. However, for this to occur at a collective level seems to be close to implausible, unless there is a ‘ring-master’ which guides the crowd in this direction. But with power often corrupting the ring-master, the possibilities seem bleak.
Ahmed, S. (2018, June 12). In Assam, a Myth, WhatsApp and Lack of Faith in Justice System Have Fuelled Lynchings. The Wire. Retrieved from https://thewire.in/rights/assam-lynching- child-lifting-rumours
Alexander, S. and Jacob, J. (2018, June 13). At least 15 Deaths Due To Mob Lynching In 2018 So Far, NCRB To Address Data Gap. Retrieved from https://www.boomlive.in/at-least-15-deaths-due-to-mob-lynching-in-2018-so-far-ncrb-to-address-data-gap/
Assam emerges as India’s hub of human trafficking. (2016, September 6). Hindustan Times. Retrieved from https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/assam-emerges-as-india-s-hub-of-human- trafficking/story-Ri2FegX9myvFWQxvKOk0sM.html
Azad, A.K. (2018, February 26). What Explains Mob Lynchings Becoming the New Normal in India. The Wire. Retrieved from https://thewire.in/caste/what-explains-mob-lynchings-becoming-the- new-normal-in-india
Kashyap, A. (2018, June 15). Assam lynching reflects state's evolving reality, one where marginalisation and poverty can trigger senseless violence. Retrieved from https://www.firstpost.com/india/assam-lynching-reflects-states-evolving-reality-one-where- marginalisation-and-poverty-can-trigger-senseless-violence-4514591.html
Kumbhar, K. (2017, March 15). Goondaism, Mob Violence and the Perils of Remaining Meek. The Wire. Retrieved from https://thewire.in/culture/mob-violence-india-shiv-sena
Mancino, M. and Joella, E. (2014). Crowd Violence Analysis [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://mmancinoblog.files.wordpress.com.
Tripathi, R. C. (2016). Violence and the Other: Contestations in Multicultural Societies. In Perspectives on Violence and Othering in India. 3-28. Springer, New Delhi.
Image credit: Amit Dave/Reuters
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