Lynching, a symptom of a larger urban malaise

Narendar Pani | Updated on June 22, 2018 Published on June 22, 2018

Hatred spills over Fear in the city   -  THE HINDU

The abhorrent phenomenon is fuelled by politics and also by the boundaries people erect between themselves

News stories of lynching in India are becoming far too frequent for any civilised society to keep brushing them under the carpet. A significant part of this phenomenon is undoubtedly political. The stories of lynching related to beef are on the rise, and this may not cover the entire political spectrum of lynching. A number of what are classified as political murders are also very likely to be cases of mob lynching.

Yet to see the problem as entirely one of the levels Indian politics has descended to would not be entirely accurate. There are also reports of lynching for other stated causes. The cases of lynching on suspicion of child lifting are also quite frequent and come from a variety of urban centres including metropolitan cities.

Going beyond politics

Even as it is tempting to add lynching to the many sins of Indian politicians, we would sooner or later have to come to terms with the fact that it is a part of the larger urban crisis.

In keeping with the premium we place on rationality there is an almost intuitive search for rational justifications for this phenomenon. An obvious candidate is the delays that are an intrinsic part of the functioning of the judicial system in India. Substantial delays in the legal process can reduce the faith of common people in the ability of the law to effectively prosecute the guilty. If nothing else this allows for the more articulate in the mob and its supporters to explain, if not justify, lynching.

The sheer brutality of lynching, though, suggests that it may not always be the result of a cold rational process. There would undoubtedly be cases where lynching is the final step of a coldly rational ideological process. Followers of ideologies ranging from the extreme right to the extreme left can be convinced that there is a larger cause for which they must be willing to kill. And even those who are not entirely convinced may allow their hatred for a particular group to take over when they are part of a mob.

The hatred that results in lynching need not, however, always be the result of cold ruthless political calculations. It could also be the consequence of widely felt fears and the angry frustration of not being able to overcome them. The lynching of innocent men and women on the basis of mere rumours that they are child lifters is sometimes the result of such fears. And there are several aspects of our cities that generate such fears. The fear of the other in a largely anonymous city typically leads to the building of boundaries. These boundaries can be physical. In the modern Indian metropolis, this is most prominent when citizens decide to create a gated community of their own. And those who do not have the economic resources to build protected physical barriers around themselves often find other ways to establish their autonomy.

Villages that have been absorbed into Indian cities, for instance, have demonstrated an ability to retain a considerable degree of autonomy in their functioning for decades after they have become urban. These boundaries can also be mobile. What adds to the intensity of mob behaviour is that these boundaries are not mere physical demarcations. More often than not they come with discourses about life on the other side of the boundary. These discourses emerge in a context of aggressive competition between groups for the city’s scarce resources. The competition adds to a general economic insecurity, a fear of not being able to live up to the aspirations of the individual and her family. And the discourses about life on the other side of the boundary — often based on no more than rumours — can generate anger, with sustained anger in turn resulting in hate.

The process leading from the creation of boundaries to the generation of angry hatred can take a variety of forms. It can influence individual behaviour as in the case of road rage when a driver who sees her vehicle as her boundary reacts angrily to any perceived infringement of that boundary. Or it could take the form of a group that carries out an organised protest. There could be times when the formation of the group is spontaneous and uncontrolled, setting no norms for individual behaviour. And such mobs could result in extreme actions, including lynching.

Lynching is thus a reflection of a larger urban malaise and must be seen as such. Indian cities need to find ways to deal with their combustible mixture of individualism and aggressive, even violent, competition between autonomous groups.

The writer is Professor at National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru


Published on June 22, 2018
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