How is vigilante culture produced and durably installed in society?

The recent Supreme Court directive to the center and states to take measures to curb cow vigilantism is most welcome. It needs to be extended to include vigilantes who kill and threaten intellectuals too – artists, writers, journalists, scholars, teachers, activists like Dhabholkar, Pansare, Kalburgi and the latest to fall, Gauri Lankesh – all who dared to question official myths and fake news.

Yet, even if curbs were put in place, the problem would remain so long as we do not address the underlying issue of vigilante culture, the ground that sustains vigilantes. Vigilante culture is crafted over long periods, and involves a much larger number of people than vigilantes. It took many decades for a Godse to emerge to kill a Gandhi. The soil and the air had to be prepared for a particular vision of India that motivated Godse’s vigilantism.

Long before the heinous acts of cow vigilantes, the seeds are sown for them to come into being, the soil is nourished for them to grow, a garden of hate is landscaped to welcome the harvest, and a propaganda machine is in place to justify their actions. All these acts are now in the veins of social life, something that law cannot easily curb, let alone ban.

How is vigilante culture produced and durably installed in society? Culture is to social life, what oxygen is to biological life. It animates us all, becomes our guide to human action by imbuing with meaning all the things, people, actions, time, space, ideas and relations in our lives. People act, at least partly, due to the meaningfulness that such acts have for them. Where are these meanings? They are embodied in signs or symbols – public representations – that we all learn to recognize and which motivate our actions.

Humans are social learners par excellence. Rather than being programmed with knowledge, we gain most of our knowledge from observing others and frequently imitating them. Cow vigilantes socially learn how to act within vigilante culture. They learn to recognize signs in the public domain that help them think about who they are, what they are worth, what is worth living and dying for. And what is worth killing for.

The signs of vigilante culture are produced and sustained by its authors, its ideologues. For example, when campaign speeches during elections raise a specter of a ‘gulabi kranti’ (‘a pink revolution’) – it creates in the public domain images of a despicable meat-industry, specifically beef industry. This in turn produces a ‘community of listeners,’ who relate to the message. Over time through social learning they become a ‘community of believers,’ learning from each other to collectively recognize the signs, and be moved in a similar manner by it.

‘Gulabi kranti’ as a sign of vigilante culture, emits a signal to its community of believers. It establishes and identify ‘enemies’ (those who are related to a beef economy), sets objectives and ‘goals’ (that this industry and its participants are to be brought to an end), articulates values (right/wrong, good/bad, true/false, possible/impossible, and beautiful/ugly), and motivates and mobilizes mass action including vigilantism.

Social media is now an integral part of creating such a vigilante culture and communities of believers. Thus, speeches, stereotypes, rumors, scapegoating, fake news, rantings and dubious facts – all get transformed into pithy messages that circulate at dizzying speed through networks created for their transmission across a very wide population. More signs get created in this medium than any other. Thus we now have other signs reproduced powerfully for vigilante culture, signs such as ‘deshdrohi’ (anti-nationalist), ‘virodhi Hindu’ (anti-Hindu), ‘vaampanthi’ or ‘commie’ (leftist) and ‘faaminist’ (‘feminist’).

Here, the transmission of vigilante culture acquires new force with the humble act of forwarding messages. The forwarding of a message without bothering to think about its implications, is surely a sign of the level of indifference to hatred or truth in society. Forwarding hate and fake messages is the life-breath of vigilante culture.

One culmination of this ongoing process is the production of what anthropologist Scott Atran has called ‘devoted actors’ – individuals who act to defend a ‘sacred value’ in ways that are ‘regardless of calculable costs and consequences.’ Vigilantes are such devoted actors emerging from a community of believers sustained by a vigilante culture put in place by sign-producing actors many of who are in positions of authority, power and high status. Indeed, the aura around a sign is a function of the authority of its author. When people in power and high status produce a sign for vigilante culture, it gives devoted actors the needed courage to act.

In another era, eerily displaying similarities to where we are today, Nazis and Fascists showed what happens when vigilantism and vigilante culture become the state itself. Political philosopher Norman Geras notes how the Holocaust was ensured by the slow yet sure installation of a society and culture of mutual indifference, a ‘bystander culture.’ Children kept playing in the streets, families ate their dinners quietly even as neighbors were led away by the SS, and shots of people being fired mixed easily with church bells. The anti-Nazi philosopher, Karl Jaspers indicted the entire German people as bearers of ‘political guilt’ and ‘moral guilt’ for being bystanders in this tragedy.

The recent vitriol on social media justifying the Lankesh assassination, shows that we may have gone beyond being a ‘bystander culture.’ We witnessed active participants in the vigilante culture baying for blood, and justifying the indefensible crimes by vigilantes. Simultaneously, the authors and ideologues of vigilante culture’s sign-system simply sit and watch (on television) and on the twitter world by following purveyors of hate.

Verily, dehumanization precedes vigilantism. Long before Jews, communists and socialists, people with disabilities, gays and lesbians, and the ‘racially’ impure were being rounded up for concentration camps, plain murders, or the gas chambers, there was chatter in public spaces that stereotyped and dehumanized them. Long before vigilantes kill, vigilante culture names its victims and seeks to dehumanize them.

Issuing curbs on vigilantes without addressing the social production of a vigilante culture that enables vigilantes, is like building a wall ‘on a dung heap’ – to tweak a phrase made famous by Ambedkar while resigning from his position as law minister in the cabinet. We need to build another wall, a wall that combats vigilante culture by producing an alternative repertoire of signs that challenge those created by vigilante culture.

Signs always exist in contestation with other signs. Culture is thus about a struggle over meanings. The vigils held against vigilantes perform this task when people continue to speak out against vigilante culture, and contribute to making other signs that tell other tales. Signs that show how a ‘true nationalism’ refuses to kill, hate, exclude and dominate millions of fellow citizens, how the ‘truly faithful’ refuse the killing in their names by vigilantes, how the ‘real India’ seeks to address various injustices of caste, class, patriarchy, heterosexism, communalism, ecological degradation, and many others in our midst. Most importantly, that dissent and free-thinkers are at the heart of a democracy, so that we can all walk in a land where the mind is without fear (or hatred) and the head is held high (without putting down others).


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Balmurli Natrajan Written by:

Balmurli Natrajan teaches anthropology in the USA and India. He works on caste, culture, community, and issues of development in central India.

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