Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

A weak state problem, not a WhatsApp problem

The Indian state lacks the capacity to maintain a monopoly on violence and the will to address this

Messaging app WhatsApp has responded to the horrific lynching in Maharastra’s Dhule district with a media blitz and a new feature that marks forwarded messages clearly. The former was inevitable given that the Centre has put it under the pump for the spate of recent lynchings fuelled by rumours spread via the app. The latter was in the works in any case. Doubtless, there are other measures the Facebook-owned app can and will implement. These will not, however, solve the problem. For that, the state will have to address the cause of the lynchings. WhatsApp is not it.

In June 2007, Manoj Banwala and Babli were lynched by the latter’s family for marrying against the wishes of the khap panchayat of Karora village in Haryana. When a Karnal district court convicted the perpetrators and the khap head in 2010, it was the first time khap panchayats had been brought to account for their role in perpetrating honour killings. It would not, unfortunately, prove to be the decisive deterrent that it was hailed as at the time. Such honour killings continue. And the panchayats have continued to function as extra-constitutional authorities—enough so that in February this year, the Supreme Court had to warn them not to be the “conscience keepers of society".

In June 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that “killing people in the name of gau bhakti is unacceptable". This is so obvious a sentiment that it should scarcely need saying. Yet, it did. The spate of high-profile lynchings associated with cow vigilantes—from the Mohammed Akhlaq murder in 2015 to the Qasim lynching last month—continues.

WhatsApp was not even a glint in eventual founders Jan Koum’s and Brian Acton’s eyes back in 2007. Nor was it a factor in the spate of honour killings that came to light during the United Progressive Alliance’s second term. It has played a role in the cow vigilante lynchings, but mob patrolling and police apathy have done as much. All of which is to say: It would be a mistake to look at the recent lynchings associated with child abduction scares and conclude that India has a WhatsApp problem. What it has is a weak state problem.

For the state to maintain a monopoly on violence, the political elite must show the will to make it happen. They will do so if there are structural incentives for them. There aren’t. As we had noted after Modi’s declaration last year, the elevation of individual notions of justice over the constitutional ideal is a deep-rooted problem in the Indian polity. This creates political incentives to undercut the state’s monopoly on violence.

Thus, khap panchayats had plenty of defenders among politicians in states where they could deliver rural votes. It takes a brazen political appetite to compare them to non-governmental organizations with a straight face, as then Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda did back in 2014, after all. It is the same reason that led Rajasthan home minister Gulab Chand Kataria to blame the victim after the Pehlu Khan lynching last year by saying: “It is illegal to transport cows, but people ignore it and cow protectors are trying to stop such people from trafficking them."

These perverse incentives, as well as fiscal constraints and simple apathy, have led to the erosion of police effectiveness. Committees and reports recommending police reforms have been routinely ignored, going back at least to 1977’s National Police Commission. Consequently, transparency and accountability in police functioning as well as insulation from political pressure are often absent. India’s poor police-to-population ratio also means that states lack the capacity to keep up with evolving police models. For instance, community policing—forging bonds with local populations, partnerships with community organizations, increased visibility, and communication to boost familiarity—has been adopted in a number of countries. It works, as US Bureau of Justice statistics show. And it is far more effective in countering whisper networks, online or offline, than reactive policing. But such a strategy requires manpower Indian states do not have.

Poor state capacity and inability to enforce law and order—as Dipti Jain has written in Mint (goo.gl/r2AmHh), National Crime Records Bureau numbers show a rapid rise in the rate of child abductions nationally—and lack of political will make for a volatile mix. The lynchings should come as no surprise.

Will turning the screws on WhatsApp help? To an extent, perhaps. There is a global debate underway on data localization, the responsibilities of social media platforms and apps, the balance between individual privacy and the state’s security needs, and the appropriate legislative frameworks to deal with evolving technology. It is an important debate, and India is a part of it.

But WhatsApp is, ultimately, just the medium. Stuff it to the gills with fact-checking options and there is still no certainty people won’t fall prey to rumours. Research on the “backfire effect" over the past few years has shown that when individuals with a propensity to believe in a rumour or fake news are presented with contrary facts, their opinions often become even more entrenched in defiance of those facts. Ban WhatsApp and other apps with end-to-end encryption will step in.

The lynching problem runs much deeper. So must the efforts to address it.

What can the government do to prevent further lynchings? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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