What lynchings say about the Indian state
Failing to respond to mob violence in line with constitutional principles further erodes the state’s capacity to keep society’s worst impulses in check
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Last Thursday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a public statement condemning killing in the name of cow protection. On the same day, a small mob lynched a man in Jharkhand. Alimuddin was dragged out of his vehicle and beaten to death for allegedly carrying beef. The juxtaposition sums up a dangerously ugly moment in the nation’s public life.
Mohammad Akhlaq’s lynching in September 2015 near Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, has cast a long shadow. In the two years since, incidents of mob justice have come to light time and again. The state response has been conspicuously lacking more often than not. The situation is deplorable both for the cumulative effect on the moral life of the nation—a term that should be used cautiously given its misappropriation by the lynch mobs and those who excuse them—and the troubling message it sends about the state’s abilities and prerogatives.
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There are two aspects to this problem. The first is the one most widely debated today: the majoritarian nature of many of the lynchings, perpetrated by self-styled gau rakshaks. Cow protection has been a symbol in these incidents—a means of acting against the victims for reasons that have to do either with religion or caste. Muslims and Dalits have been targeted repeatedly on the flimsiest of pretexts. The Junaid Khan murder late last month makes this clear by stripping away even the pretext of gau raksha; what seems to have started out as a quarrel over seats aboard a train swiftly devolved into a mob targeting the victims for their faith.
Governments at both the Central and state levels must share some of the blame for this. They have often looked away, and in some instances, been direct enablers, either victim-blaming or equivocating. Rajasthan home minister Gulab Chand Kataria’s is perhaps the most egregious example. When Pehlu Khan was lynched in Rajasthan in April for allegedly transporting cows, Kataria said, “It is illegal to transport cows, but people ignore it and cow protectors are trying to stop such people from trafficking them.” And Union minister of state for culture and tourism Mahesh Sharma’s turning up to pay his respects after the death of one of Akhlaq’s killers last year—after all but holding Akhlaq responsible for his own murder—was problematic, to say the least.
The judiciary—the bulwark of a liberal democratic state—has not always played its role adequately either. Consider the absurdities of Mahesh Chandra Sharma’s Jago Janta Society v. State of Rajasthan & Ors, 2017 ruling in the Rajasthan high court. His laundry list of the cow’s virtues included its urine washing away the sins of the past life when consumed and cow dung keeping away radiation. More dangerously, he recommended making the cow the national animal, and life imprisonment for cow slaughter—and made it clear that his ruling was informed by religion.
Union home secretary Rajiv Mehrishi pointed out the second, deeper aspect of the problem when he recently said that hate crimes and lynchings were not “new in India. It is feudal in nature.” His accompanying suggestion that lynchings should be given less attention was risible, but he is correct in the rest. Viewing the problem of mob justice solely through the prism of cow vigilantism is more than reductive; it is flat out wrong.
This elevation of individual notions of justice in its crudest form over the constitutional ideal is a deep-rooted problem in Indian polity. It serves various pathologies—anti-state, as in the lynching of Mohammad Ayub Pandith in Kashmir last month; political, as in the decades of Left-orchestrated violence in West Bengal and the current killings targeting Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh members in Kerala; social conservatism, as seen in the spate of khap panchayat killings during the United Progressive Alliance’s time at the Centre; and old-fashioned mob justice, as seen in the lynching of an alleged rapist in Dimapur in 2015.
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More, perhaps, than any of the other founders of the republic, B.R. Ambedkar was aware of this—society’s capacity for oppression and the risks it would pose if unrestrained. The liberal democratic norms and structures in the Constitution crafted on his watch were a mechanism to keep that capacity in check. After all, as Martin Luther King Jr pointed out, if “morality cannot be legislated, behaviour can be regulated”. But those norms and structures are only as effective as the Indian state’s capacity to enforce and regulate them.
That capacity has become suspect over the decades because of the weakness that has crept into institutional frameworks and the lack of adequate human resources. Thus, in many of the instances of mob violence over the past few years, the law and order machinery was either present but stood by, or failed to respond adequately in the aftermath. And when the government of the day fails to respond to mob violence in line with Constitutional principles—or when the judiciary fails to uphold those principles—the state’s capacity to keep society’s worst impulses in check is further eroded.
There are no easy solutions here. Police reforms—which have gone abegging since as far back as 1977’s National Police Commission—will help, whether it is by improving organizational capabilities or insulating the police from political pressure. But they are not a cure-all. The men and women who wear the uniform are drawn from the societies they police and share in their biases and prejudices. Any concrete change will require political will to initiate reforms—and then to hold the law and order machinery accountable through transparent mechanisms when it fails to deliver.
No government in independent India has succeeded here. If Modi meant what he said last week, he must at least make the attempt.
What should the government do to confront mob violence? Tell us at email@example.com