Outrage is a powerful emotion. Mobilised collectively, it can lead to the elimination of regressive social practices as well as the adoption of forward-looking practices and laws. On the other hand, it can also be manipulated to demonise whole social groups for the crime of one person. Political and social leaders are often recognised by the kind of outrage they seek to generate in society as well as by the kind of outrageous issues they pick to mobilise public opinion.
Genuine leaders seek to generate outrage against practices like untouchability, slavery and misogyny. And then there are leaders who seek to channelise national outrage, for example like the kind Germany felt after it was shabbily treated at the hands of the victors of the First World War. Leveraging that outrage, these leaders transformed Germany into a nation of “willing executioners.” That, of course, was the provocative title of Daniel Goldhagen’s chilling history of the Nazis.
By this token, a sense of outrage can also serve as an indicator of the moral fibre of a society and an individual.
In this era of information revolution and mass media, it is a lot easier to generate powerful public emotions like outrage. In our own country, evening after evening, we are treated to shouting spectacles of anchors and panelists feeling outraged about cross-border terrorism, corruption as well as the marital lives of the wealthy and powerful. In fact, mass media does not merely express outrage, it actively manufactures it on the issues of its choice.
Presumably, we all have a vested interest in democracy. At the same time, our upwardly mobile classes seem to be fast forgetting that democracy is not a merely a game of numbers; it is actually about the autonomy of individuals and institutions coupled with a democratic temperament in everyday practices and rule of law.
Reducing democracy to a numbers game is a very dangerous situation, given the fact, that contrary to our smug self perception, we are quite a violent society with a lot of conflicts inbuilt in our social structure. That is why, genuine leaders have always been careful not to encourage the idiom of revenge in our social and political life even as they struggle against the social approval of violence.
Mahatma Gandhi never tired of reminding us that ‘anti-social’ elements indulging in riots do not drop from the sky; they are the product of society, and become effective only because of the community’s approval and glorification of their actions.
But in today’s “new India”, such caution is being thrown out of the window. Now, you don’t need a riot-like situation to witness a mob indulging in mindless violence and heartless brutality. Like many other post-independence “firsts”, we have for the first time a mob attacking a household and lynching a man, Akhlaq, on the suspicion that he had eaten beef. That was September 2015.
To a truly democratic temperament, this incident should have served as a warning bell. There should have been not only condemnation, but sustained outrage cutting across political opinion and positions. But, instead of outrage, there was rationalisation and both implicit and explicit approval of the lynching. Small wonder that another man was recently murdered in Rajasthan on a similar charge by a mob of similar political persuasion.
In close succession came the heinous lynching of seven people in Jharkhand, fed by the rumour of child-trafficking. Not only does this incident show a complete lack of faith in the rule of law but also total freedom from the fear of law. The members of the crowd were concerned with the security of their children; they had no faith in the system, and at the same time, felt confident enough to mete out “justice” to the suspects.
These incidents are not mere aberrations. Even if they were, they would be cause for concern for the future of Indian democracy. They are examples of vigilante justice being delivered by self-appointed guardians of morality. Unfortunately, such activities have been reported even from non-BJP ruled states; Uttar Pradesh, under BJP rule however, has taken a qualitative leap in the direction of a new kind of authoritarianism by according such activities official approval.
So let’s take a look at the India of today, seventy years after our forefathers fought a freedom struggle not only against the British but also against the many social evils within: Vigilantism has got official approval, lynching hardly merits either outrage or attention in the media, fear and aggression has become the normal way to live and the state has become more and more intrusive and oppressive.
The question we must ask ourselves these days, every day, is: Are we really very far from lynching the very idea of democracy?
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