Lynch mobs seem to know nothing will happen to them, they’re implicitly meeting approval from higher-ups: UCLA scholar

UCLA professor sees recent lynchings in India as decentralised but with an aspirational quality

Written by Seema Chishti | Published:July 18, 2017 12:08 am
ucla professor Sanjay Subrahmanyam, mob lynching, lynching in india, india news Sanjay Subrahmanyam. Express Photo by Seema Chishti

Sanjay Subrahmanyam, professor and Irving and Jean Stone Endowed Chair in Social Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), is a historian with specialisation in medieval and early modern South Asian and Indian Ocean history, the history of European expansion and the comparative history of early modern empires. He advises graduate students on Indian history and forms of “connected histories”. He has been known to characterise India less as a ‘civilisation’ and more of a ‘marvellous crossroads’ of many influences over millennia. Excerpts from an interview during a recent visit to India:

What can one say about the recent wave of violence in India, in the form of lynchings that target minorities, for example?

These lynchings are a form of communal violence that is different from what we have seen before. Firstly, they are apparently decentralised. Earlier, organised acts of mass violence were repetitive in character and there was a pattern, e.g. processions were attacked or the violence was timed with public festivals. This was so even in the time of the Mughals. Then, post-Independence, there have been largely urban, organised forms of violence, where various political parties have provided protection to the perpetrators. So, the people on top knew and acquiesced, while the middle leadership was actually active, as in 1984. But what we are seeing now is not at a single place, there are fewer numbers attacked and it is decentralised, done by little groups all over the place. These groups are either being told, or imagine that they have been told to act in this way. Further, after the event, no one in authority is clearly telling them the contrary. There is also an aspirational quality to the violence. It is low-level… if journalists don’t choose to report it, it may not even register if one isn’t vigilant. But the curious thing is that the perpetrators want it to be known. After all, some of the people doing this are even videotaping it. They make sure the information is circulating, intended as a warning, as a signal and controlling device for the social behaviour expected of minorities. It is a form of violence which can pop up here one day and there on another. It is never mass killings, but based on the existence of grassroots kind of organisations which believe in doing this, and also to an extent on copycat behaviour. So even if it is decentralised, there is a larger context.

What is that context?

The actors seem to know that for all intents and purposes, nothing will happen to them, and they know they are implicitly meeting approval from higher-ups. People are using this to probably build political careers, a CV-builder of some kind. It is in part aspirational and cynical violence, of killing because you can do it. But note that there are parts of India where it happens and other parts where it doesn’t. If a strong regional political party is in power, which does not believe in this, it magically doesn’t happen.

So is there a message that follows, down the line from the top leadership?

One has to infer this. In regimes which are semi-authoritarian and yet operate inside a democracy, no one may want to take away the trappings of democracy, and elections can go on at all levels. But the reality is, it is all based on doublespeak. So, there is an occasional, pious, public message to say the authorities disapprove of certain actions, but then there is the dog-whistle by which people are also being relayed the opposite of what the official message is. We must also understand what is this meant for. After all, even the right-wing doesn’t want to physically drive all Muslims or Christians out of the country, but instead wants them to understand they are very much second- or third-class citizens and then regulate their behaviour on that basis. They want symbolic acts to take place so that minorities can internalise the message.

How have lynchings happened elsewhere in the world?

The US had a civil war in the 1860s and there was official emancipation for black slaves. Social attitudes did not move apace with the law though, and then there was a majoritarian (white) party that invented a myth about the black minority being the one that was likely to attack whites. The most powerful myth was that they would need to protect the white woman from the black man. This was a cruel paradox, since the blacks came to the US from Africa because they were enslaved. They were both the victims and the ones who were to be blamed. In India, we are not dealing with the same situation, but somehow, the Muslim population has the “stigma” that they were once rulers, and a historical score-settling appears to be on — to make them feel we (the majority) at best tolerate them, but do not welcome them.

How can such a situation be resolved?

The problem is that the rule of law in India remains very weak. But even so, for a state to function, even speaking cynically, for example as a space for secure foreign investment, we have to have some sort of a rule of law. Unless someone is willing to enforce the law, the problem will remain. The law in India is perfectly adequate, it just has to be implemented. Maybe it is naive to think these elements will backtrack. But in the end, they may realise that it is not good for the image of the country, or for their image as a regime. Today it is the Muslims, or the Christians, tomorrow it can be about anybody. In this situation, many forms of xenophobia lie just below the surface.

Is this a problem of mandates when democracy is seen to vindicate majoritarianism?

How do you prevent democracies from being simply about majorities? That has always been the problem. There must be some internalisation of the idea that people have inalienable rights which cannot be traded off against representation. Today, many people seem to think in India that because we have got representation and votes, other rights can go by the wayside. What are the institutions to protect rights? They are the judicial, executive, and civil society institutions. Today, two of these three are falling on the job. What has happened in other societies when certain groups don’t think they have adequate rights, is that they can begin arming themselves, which is what has happened in the US. We aren’t such a form of an extreme frontier society here, but if you feel victimised, there is a tendency to take the law in your own hands. Violence begets violence, and that is such a grotesque kind of society to descend into. Thankfully, we still are not armed to the teeth like some other societies are.

What are the implications of such decentralised violence like lynchings happening over a few years?

It seems we are in for the long haul, and, looking at the next seven years, it is enough time to shift the very idea of the normal. Over that kind of time-frame, there can be a new level of acceptability to behaviour that was once condemned, and a corresponding coarsening of political language that is already visible. This change and the generalised atmosphere of abuse, aided by the anonymity of social media is clearly palpable. Sadly, good parts of the international situation are also similar, so we should not think we are so unique. Turkey is witnessing the strengthening of Muslim fundamentalism and authoritarian government. In Russia, you have the Orthodox Church’s alliance with an authoritarian state. This is the new normal of neo-democratic states, which, when it suits them, say they are democratic, and at the same time, slowly shift the ground in society. If this is on the cards, politics has to come in, to pull society back from the brink. This cannot be just about civil society formations fighting a rear-guard action and taking on a political system. This is the time for the political system to show its resilience, or else we will face the consequences of one-party rule over years and years.

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    Bipin Bhardwaj
    Jul 19, 2017 at 8:25 pm
    Unleashing terroro to hide the attack on people's livelihoods, farmers suicide, allowing huge loot of the Banks by the corporate houses, is ignored in this article. The Adanis, Ambanis, installed the repressive regime, to terrorize people to submit to the anarchy of Loot and robbery like the colonialists. The private goondas army is financed by the super rich of thei country, who also funded its mother RSS establishing it to oppose the freedom movement of the country. This is the extension of the historical role of the traitors and collaborators of the colonialists who have imposed the Looters elite class and their political system legalizing the use of force against people, which permits murders, custodial deaths and torture, fake encounters and uses of the police is the legal goonda force to attack people fore any use of their democratic rights, to protest and demonstrate.
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      chakm
      Jul 19, 2017 at 3:58 pm
      I feel sorry that the Professor seems to have mixed up two issues that are completely unrelated. Comparing the historical lynching of Blacks in the US to the lynching in India by individuals who have been indoctrinated with the false premise of veneration of the cow is unrealistic. If the Professor is so knowledgeable in history (which he probably is!) then he better have the courage to address the fact that veneration of the cow has nothing to do with Hinduism and Vedantism, rather than circling round the wagons with the issue of lynching. His claim is that the issue is de-centralized which is quite the very opposite. This issue is being aided and abetted by the present party in power. His offer of a solution is not utopian, but myopic. The solution if desirable, is for the Supreme Court and religious ins utions like the Ramakrishna Mission to address the fact that veneration of the cow has nothing to do with Hinduism. I agree that hate is the predominant factor in both cases.
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        ah
        Jul 19, 2017 at 12:04 pm
        I bet there is NO NEED for PHD to understand the situation ................. it is only a STAMP of credibility when an EXPERT speaks ................. even an illiterate Hindu or Muslim knows exactly what is happening ................. what he DID NOT add is that the rooster has come home to roost, more Hindus are raped by Hindus and more Hindus are killing Hindus .................. only the BRAHMANS are not touched by any party ........... so one can guess who is in CONTROL ....................... and the most IMPORTATNT thing is Muslims are not DALITS .............. then there are WELL WISHER from outside, so when a THIRD party plays the same game like Arming one Hindu Party aganist the other OR arming Muslims against the HIndu it will create exactly the same scenario for HINDUS and MUSLIMS .......... meaning two can play the game ................. even then BRAHMANS will not be touched, which when well UNDERSTOOD will be the final Act in the DRama ..................
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          rocky
          Jul 19, 2017 at 2:43 pm
          mc which r the privileges the brahmins are enjoying....they are worse off than all the backward castes, SCs, Dalits, minorities....as far as state largesses are concerned....if they r doing well somewhere, it is just by their hard work....
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        2. K
          Kishor
          Jul 19, 2017 at 5:48 am
          This is STATE SPONSORED TERRORISM perpetrated by RSS which controls all Saffron Terror Groups like Bajrang Dal, VHP, Hindu Yuva Vahini, ABVP, and all others indulged in Mob Lynching and Terrorism against poor DALITS and everyone else.
          Reply
          1. R
            rishi
            Jul 19, 2017 at 1:52 am
            RSS believes everyone is capable of being honest and patriotic.....RSS-BJP haters just need to earn their chaddis....or else they stand exposed !
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            1. R
              Rahul
              Jul 19, 2017 at 5:49 am
              RSS Chaddi is now Torn and they are naked in front of everyone.
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              1. L
                Lovely
                Jul 19, 2017 at 9:01 am
                Teddy bear Pappu ?
              2. B
                blackpower
                Jul 19, 2017 at 10:08 am
                can you name a single freedom fighter from the RSS
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                  Lovely
                  Jul 19, 2017 at 11:43 am
                  RSS saved lacs of Hindus and Sikhs with the help of Sikhs in West Punjab during 1947. Muslim League death squads were hunting killing Hindus and Sikhs at that time.This freedom fighting fairy tales please tell it to teddy bear pappu.
                  1. R
                    rocky
                    Jul 19, 2017 at 2:47 pm
                    u pig....do u consider the party of petionists as freedom fighters....freedom fighters were only bhagat singh, sukhdev, rajguru and other revolutionists who fought the british...
                2. S
                  Sudheer Thaakur
                  Jul 19, 2017 at 1:00 am
                  ie seems to specialise in collecting anti hindu forces.
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                    blackpower
                    Jul 19, 2017 at 1:06 am
                    you mean anti hindoo taliban?
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                    1. R
                      rishi
                      Jul 19, 2017 at 1:56 am
                      RSS believes everyone is capable of being honest and patriotic.....RSS-BJP haters just need to earn their chaddis.....else they stand exposed howsoever black their power may be !
                      1. J
                        jaihind
                        Jul 19, 2017 at 4:55 am
                        no he means mooslim taliban
                        1. L
                          Lovely
                          Jul 19, 2017 at 9:02 am
                          Where is your Baghdadi?
                      2. B
                        blackpower
                        Jul 19, 2017 at 12:04 am
                        a bunch of conmen doing doublespeak and realpolitik. here's modi reacting after 2 years (even glaciers are faster) - "had said on Sunday. "Those engaged in disturbing the harmony in the country are trying to take advantage of the situation." "All the political parties should condemn strongly this goondaism in the name of cow protection." PM Modi Asking for state governments to "deal sternly" with such people, the PM said such cow vigilantism was not an alternative. "All the political parties should condemn strongly this goondaism in the name of cow protection," he said." and then we have modi's bosom pal - the VHP's Togadia - "We shall equip gau rakshaks (cow protectors) to deal with cow slaughterers," Praveen Togadia, the VHP's international working president, reportedly said in three different meetings with members of the right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, on Sunday".
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                          blackpower
                          Jul 19, 2017 at 12:04 am
                          The apparent dichotomy between the PM's message and the fringe Hindu group's brazen preparations for arming cow vigilantes is not surprising. Historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam, professor and Irving and Jean Stone Endowed Chair in Social Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), told Indian Express that there is usually implicit understanding between members of lynch mobs and top leadership in democracies.
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                          1. G
                            George Cruz
                            Jul 19, 2017 at 9:08 am
                            Muslim Power???? Watching too many reruns of mughal glory movies like Mughal-E-azam???? Wake up, there are no Akbars or Baburs in India anymore.
                        2. K
                          kar
                          Jul 18, 2017 at 10:38 pm
                          HELLO HE IS BROTHER OF FOREIGN SECRETARY OF INDIA.
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