Friday, November 6, 2015

Mob Violence in India

India has a long-running problem with mobs who are enraged by rumors that seem to float up from nowhere and then attack and kill their victims before anyone with a clear head can figure out what is going on. I remember that in the 1980s there was an epidemic of attacks on alleged kidnappers; a rumor would spread that a certain person was trying to leave town with his kidnap victim, and the mob would seize the "kidnapper" and beat or kill him. In one case that made the American news, a man was attacked as he traveled with his own son, who had to watch while his father was killed. Here is a case from 1985 that I was able to find with a quick search:
A frenzied mob beat and burned to death an Australian tourist in the apparent belief he was responsible for kidnapping children, police and Australian officials said today.
This greatly puzzled me at the time and still does. Rumor-driven mob violence is about as far from my own experience as anything humans do, and I find everything about it baffling. How do these rumors get started? Why do people believe them? Are people furiously angry when they attack these alleged criminals, or out of their minds in some other way?

This is on my mind because now there is a new wave of vigilante mobs, this time focused on crimes against cows:
Amid a politically charged national debate over religious intolerance, a Muslim man was beaten to death on Monday by a mob of Hindus who suspected him of stealing a cow, a revered symbol in the Hindu religion. It was the fourth time in six weeks that Hindus had killed Muslims they suspected of slaughtering, stealing or smuggling cows.

The police found the bloodied and battered body of the man, Mohammad Hasmat Ali, early Monday morning in the remote village of Uchekon Moiba Thongkhong in Manipur, a state in northeast India. Mr. Ali, 55, married with three sons, was a leader in the neighboring village of Keirao Makting, where he was headmaster of a madrasa. Police officials said Mr. Ali had no criminal record and no known links to the cattle business.
This is connected to the Hindu government's campaign against Muslims:
The recent killings are occurring against a backdrop of intensifying political conflict over laws and policies aimed at protecting cows from slaughter and consumption. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., has pushed aggressively to pass state beef bans. The Delhi police, controlled by Mr. Modi’s government, recently descended in force on a canteen after it posted beef on its menu. (It turned out to be buffalo meat.) On Wednesday, the B.J.P. ran campaign ads accusing its opponents of “insulting the holy cow.”

Several recent cases of violence have involved Hindu nationalist vigilante groups dedicated to protecting cows. The groups, including some with ties to the B.J.P., mobilize members to confront those suspected of slaughtering, eating or stealing cows, sometimes with catastrophic results.
This puts mob violence is a different, sinister light, as something that political elites are mobilizing in support of their own agendas. At least this time; I don't remember any such accounts about the kidnapper mania, and it is hard to see what the agenda of attacking random Australians might be. So perhaps this is a social phenomenon that elites are sometimes able to harness, but that sometimes escapes from their control.

Did this tradition arise among Hindus because they were ruled for so long by Muslim princes and British imperialists whose justice they did not trust? Because Hindu elites, shut out of formal power structures, used the mob to assert control over the questions that mattered most to them? Does it give powerless people an illusion of control?

It makes me shudder.

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