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Palghar Lynching Case has Exposed Deadly Cocktail of Communal Poison, Fake News & Mob Culture in India

Representative image.

Representative image.

We have to train our minds to escape this reductionist approach, which reduces the actual issue of injustice and inhumanity to a Hindu-Muslim binary.

The lynching of two sadhus and their driver in Maharashtra's Palghar area this month proves that everyone is equal in the eyes of a paranoid person. Everyone appears to be a threat. We have created a paranoid society. Rumours, false information and fake news are increasing the level of uncertainty.

Politics and some 24-hour news channels in India could not become neutral but our mobs seem to have moved on from being wretchedly partisan to being wretchedly neutral. Now the clothes of a target really don't matter. It's gone from aspirational lynching to reflexive lynching. Recently, we heard a few researchers discussing that now they will be scared to go to the field for data collection due to the fear of being lynched as now the mob is in autopilot mode.

The rumours of child-lifting are so common. The poor fruit, vegetable and merchandise hawkers often withstand the worst of these rumours.

Muslims and Hindus both are equally vulnerable as far as child-lifting rumours are concerned as was narrated by people from Dibai in Bulandshahr where most hawkers reside and move out to different parts of the country for work. They have described incidents where some of them escaped the mob and where they could not, irrespective of the religion of the person. Since many of these hawkers in small town are Muslims, they are not spared and easily become targets of lynch mobs. In such areas, some petty traders too believe and spread these rumours as they think these hawkers are eating into their businesses as they go to villages and sell items at very low prices. Political and economic games are constantly played at local levels, which often are the reasons of lynching. If seen as a continuum, this is happening on a larger canvas too.

India has been a witness to multiple stages of lynching. Lynching of Dalits and women has been done as a matter of right to correct them or punish them for deviance. Lynching of Muslims has been aspirational in the sense of political ideology. Now we have moved to another stage of lynching as a habit and as a reflex of paranoia. This paranoid society can lynch anyone irrespective of caste, creed, and gender. People have become xenophobes, where the idea of the 'other' has expanded from religious and cultural other to 'identityless other'. Now everyone is a suspect. Instead of the expansion of the 'we feeling', the idea of the ‘other’ has expanded. Everyone is becoming a stranger. Now the idea of a stranger evokes the image of a culprit. Strangers are seen as culprits worth attacking and eliminating, who don't even deserve the due process of justice. Validation for all wrongdoings is coming from the powerful, be it the politicians or the media.

Social boundaries and the values which discourage socialisation with other communities, genders, castes and classes have deepened the insecurities and paranoia which are manufactured from the above have made people scared of others and insensitive to the suffering of others. People don't mind brutally crushing their fellow beings. Beating and killing are not justified even when somebody has actually indulged in the act of theft or any other troublesome activity.

People are facing two negative parallel experiences. One, as already pointed out, institutions failing the people, and the second is that politicians and media are increasing the sense of insecurity. People don't wish to wait for the legal procedure as they think that the culprits deserve instant justice due to trust deficit in social relations and more so in institutions. The reasons of trust deficit in institutions are multiple. People have seen many accused getting off the hook because of lack of evidence or shabby investigation. The brutal killing of Christian missionary Graham Staines and his children in Odisha, the Pehlu Khan lynching case, the Priyadarshini Mattoo case or Nitish Katara murder case are glaring examples of long-pending cases, and people appear to have run out of patience. This is because people do not see justice happening around them. Many people are heard saying "ab masla court me jayega aur kaagazon me phans kar reh jayega (now the matter will go to court and remain stuck there in procedures)". If our institutions were fully functional then social relations would have strengthened. Public institutions would have helped in the process of trust-building. The sense should have gone out to the people that if some injustice happens, our institutions are empowered enough to deliver justice. But institutions have failed the people. A sense of insecurity has gone deep into the social psyche.

Media competition, in the blind marathon of breaking news, without any respect for ethics is also responsible for lynchings. Individuals cannot do fact-checking at this scale. We cannot expect an ordinary person to investigate after a tiring day at work. It's the media which is trained for fact-checking. Media organisations cannot say they don't have the time to verify details before putting out news in the public domain. They cannot evade their only responsibility. Their entire human resource and investment is for fact-checking. It's their full-time job.

Post Palghar, people are saying the media is not giving this lynching enough coverage. They are saying, “If any Muslim were lynched, the media would have gone berserk. Why is nobody speaking up on this issue?” People are saying this because there is a lack of education in understanding media manipulations. There is very limited understanding of the media. The question is why is the media silent on this issue? The media is silent as there are not enough eyeballs for this. This story might not be newsworthy for it. There is no Hindu-Muslim angle to the story. The media works on a simplistic understanding of issues. 'Hindu-Muslim' is easy to sell. Since the Palghar incident demands complex understanding, the media is not selling the story. News organisations highlight those incidents or issues which are easy to understand and easy to communicate, like the Hindu-Muslim binary. The media is not prepared to raise layered or complex issues. This is having a dumbing-down effect on the people. The media works on simple-minded frameworks. It has not developed an apt structure to capture the complexities of issues. It also seems to be lacking the intent to go into complexities. Labeling and fear mongering have become normal.

Media literacy should be part of our school and university curriculum. People need to study the role, responsibilities, manipulation and market compulsions of media houses. We have to train our minds to escape this reductionist approach, which reduces the actual issue of injustice and inhumanity to a Hindu-Muslim binary. The larger canvas of development and justice is forgotten.The idea of development dies many deaths the moment such incidents happen and worse when people refuse to see it that way. Hatred stalls the march of progress.

Hatred has grown so much that people start uploading videos of such killings on the internet. Lynching has been turned into a 'spectacle' where videos are uploaded for mass consumption with a sense of gratification.

In 2018, a 30-year-old tribal man, A Madhu, was lynched by a mob in Kerala after he was accused of stealing rice. The worst part was that selfies were taken before he died. Violence is taken as entertainment. It has reached another level of vulgarity and gratification. Again in 2018, then central minister Jayant Sinha garlanded and welcomed people who were out on bail in a lynching case in Jharkhand. One thing is clear that an atmosphere of hate was created intentionally. People's thinking was radicalised. They were transformed into a mobocracy. A specially booted memory chip was virtually inserted in people's minds. Perhaps the masters forgot that the chip could also get corrupted. Anything can happen when you pass the law into the hands of the mob. Today this chipped and programmed mob has become uncontrollable. First rumours are spread through WhatsApp, word of mouth and social media platforms, and then the mobs get swayed by the rumours to take the law into their own hands.

The Palghar incident has taught one thing that the mob no longer recognises the attire of the victim. For years, the mob was given doses of poison against a particular community. The media and politicians are still not heeding the warnings writ large on the wall. They still keep playing the Hindu-Muslim game. As soon as the Palghar incident happened, several politicians and political workers tried to give it a communal colour. They did not wait for the facts to emerge and arrived at conclusions without waiting for the investigation. When the investigation took place, it was found out that Muslims had nothing to do with this incident. Several of the people caught are associated with the BJP. There were lots of efforts made by the party to give it a religious colour. This forced the Maharashtra government to put out the names of the people involved in the lynching on social media only to show that it did not have a Hindu-Muslim angle. However, we are not in favour of putting out the names of accused because religion has nothing to do with crime. A criminal is a criminal and may be a believer of any religion.

Lynching is antithetical to the rule of law. Law should be equal for all. No action was taken against leaders who made polarising and hateful comments during this year's Delhi assembly elections. It is because of this that people's trust in the rule of law is eroding. This gives a boost to those who disobey the law. There should be a law on lynching, but it is also important that the law is equally applicable to all and not used selectively. Here we would like to emphasise that just making laws is not a solution to incidents of lynching. Along with law, society also has to heal from the poison served by politics and the media. Efforts will have to be made to bring down hate in society by the media and justice delivery system.

Disclaimer:Tarushikha Sarvesh is Assistant Professor (Sociology), Centre for Women’s Studies, Aligarh Muslim University, and Abdul Hafiz Gandhi is Assistant Professor of Law, Unity PG and Law College, Lucknow. Views expressed are personal.
first published:April 28, 2020, 12:35 IST