Fifth column: What lynching means

Lynching has a specific context. It does not mean a riot, it does not mean any old act of public violence, it means a public hanging or stoning to death by a mob. It means punishing someone in such a manner that others will see it as a warning and a lesson.

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, when the RSS chief addressed his troops on the auspicious occasion of Vijayadashmi, people like me paid no attention. This is no longer possible. The RSS is now seen as a vital player in the decisions made by the Government of India. So I have learned to pay attention to what the RSS chief says. When Mohan Bhagwat held a huge press conference in Vigyan Bhawan last year, I made it a point to be there and listened carefully as he articulated his worldview. It cheered me up enormously when he announced that the thoughts of Guru Golwalkar were no longer considered sacrosanct and that the RSS did not believe any more in a Hitlerian final solution to our ‘Muslim problem’.

So it came as a disappointment to hear his views on lynchings last week. He said the word did not exist in any Indian language and that it was being used to malign India’s fair image by people with a vested interest in making India look bad. The word probably does not exist, which is why when Hindi newspapers write about the newest victim of mob violence, they use the word in English. But, can we at least begin by admitting that ever since a former member of the RSS became prime minister, a certain kind of mob violence in the name of saving cows has become a routine feature of Indian life?

The RSS chief is not alone in believing that these ‘so-called lynchings’ are actually just routine breakdowns in law and order. After listening to his speech, I tweeted, “Call it lynching, call it murder, these incidents shame India. There is no ‘conspiracy’ by the West to defame India Mr Bhagwat. It is savagery by violent mobs against helpless victims that defames India”. As usual, I was inundated with angry responses. The efficient, wrathful and vigilant army of BJP trolls went nuclear. They attacked me for not being a good enough Indian and for only noticing incidents when the victims were Muslims. They said they had noticed that I was unconcerned about Hindus being killed in similar fashion. And, some posted pictures of the bloodied bodies of an RSS family that had just been murdered by a Muslim mob. In my view that is just murder.

The truth is, I have not so far come across a video of a Hindu being forced to yell ‘Allah o Akbar’ while being beaten to death. I have seen many, many horrific videos of Muslims killing Hindus, and they are very upsetting. But, a lynching has a specific context. It does not mean a riot, it does not mean any old act of public violence, it means a public hanging or stoning to death by a mob. It means punishing someone in such a manner that others will see it as a warning and a lesson. When two Dalit children were beaten to death for defecating in the open last month, it was plain and simple murder, not a lynching. And, yet many reporters used the word ‘lynching’ to describe what happened. This is probably why the RSS chief is confused.

All acts of public violence indicate a breakdown in law and order, but not all acts of public violence mean a breakdown in the rule of law. That happens only when punishment is delivered for some imagined crime by a mob made up of people who believe they have the right to judge and punish someone because they are so certain of his guilt. In Behror, when I went to the place where Pehlu Khan was beaten to death, I asked people what they thought about what they had done. They said he deserved what he got and it was only when this kind of public killing came as punishment would Muslims stop smuggling cattle. When I asked about due process, they said that they did not believe in it. They were telling the truth. Pehlu Khan’s family has been attacked and shot at when they have tried coming to the Behror courthouse for a hearing. It is such things Mr Bhagwat that have truly defamed our dear Bharat Mata.

If after Mohammad Akhlaq was dragged out of his house and beaten to death in the village of Bishada in Dadri district, there had been firm words of disapproval expressed by the leader of the RSS, there might have been no more. Since these words of disapproval never came, the vigilantes who have made it their cause to kill Muslims who they think might be smuggling cows or eating beef have not hesitated to admit proudly why they are doing the things they do. In some excellent investigative journalism by India Today reporters, vigilantes were filmed admitting on (hidden?) camera that the reason why they beat their victims so badly was not to kill them but to disable them for life. Victims who survive a lynching suffer from all sorts of injuries even when they live to tell the tale.

So Mr Bhagwat, your belief that this talk of lynchings is just an attempt to defame India is wrong. It is true that India’s image in the world has suffered in recent years, but it is not because of some sinister plot but because too many people have seen too many times on uploaded videos the terrified eyes of men who know they are about to be beaten to death. Speak up against this kind of violence Mr Bhagwat, and not just the image of India but the image of the RSS will improve. And, next time you want to understand what a lynching is, remember that it is always something that happens in public to create terror and to revive the most primitive kind of imagined justice.

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