There seems to be an overwhelming sense for many of ‘us’ – who look towards the rest of the country from some sort of vantage point, that something fundamental has broken down in India. Almost every day, we learn of some incident with shocking violence, most of it captured on camera and thus begins the cycle of outrage continued only until the next incident and over and over again. The horror of law and order breaking down, and the descent into violence by an undefinable mass is perfectly captured by the word ‘lynching’. The word has its origins in late 18th century America, brought about by violence directed against the black population. Of late, in India, the term has come to connote communal violence usually directed against Muslims and Dalits. The identity of the perpetrators and the victims are clearly identifiable. Unfortunately, the same word ‘lynching’ is now increasingly been used to refer to the violence fueled by rumours of child and/or kidney theft across much of rural and now increasingly urban India. In the latter case, the word lynching accurately describes violence committed by a group of people but it is completely inadequate as an indicator of deliberate malice against a specific group identified by religion, caste, gender, race, ethnicity etc. The only qualifier that warrants violence in this phenomenon is the ‘outsider’.[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]In media reportage and in everyday conversation, the use of the word lynching typically tends to conflate all kinds of violence.[/perfectpullquote]Such a conflation is often accompanied by two other commonly held views – the current government has intentionally created an environment where law and order have no sanctity and is replaced by vigilantism. The other is that somehow digital technology and its irresponsible spread has resulted in uncontrollable violence. It is obvious that these two commonly held views are contrary to each other. The former view assumes a strong Hindutva movement that has immense control and power so as to design and execute seemingly arbitrary acts of violence across the country whereas the latter view absolves politics completely and deposits all the blame on platforms like WhatsApp or even the Internet.
As I have already written elsewhere, there are long standing social and structural reasons that can be discerned in the spreading of rumours related to kidney and child theft. It is wrong to confuse this, in a causal sense, with other kinds of deliberate violence. In many villages in Chhattisgarh for example, the people are not sleeping in their homes but huddle together in the night while some are put on guard duty. Many have stopped going for daily wage labour fearing their family is at risk. Clearly these are not signs of hate but rather of fear and desperation. There are no discernible patterns in the profile of the victims while many of the perpetrators of violence themselves adivasis and Dalits, are now languishing in jails without legal representation or protection. Intellectuals, in a hurry to attack the BJP are perfectly willing to club them as lynchers motivated or in the payroll of the current dispensation.
On the other hand, those engaged in communal and caste violence, in case you haven’t noticed, are shouting about it from the rooftops. They are out on the streets, organised as various ‘cultural’ bodies, and dominate ‘debate’ on the internet (with or without being paid). Their own identity, the identities of their victims and their intention – all are abundantly on display. Further, they have full protection from the State apparatuses and from the BJP – remember the rally taken out in support of the Kathua rape accused and Jayant Sinha garlanding those convicted of lynching Alimuddin Ansari, or the people planting a saffron flag on the Rajasthan High Court when Shambu Lal Regar was brought there for trial. Where are the rallies, garlanding, saffron flags and bail for those convicted of killing people for kidney and jail rumours?[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]I am not for one minute absolving the government or the Sangh Parivar.[/perfectpullquote] Culpability does not come only from intent and action. It also arises due to complicity through silence and inactivity. The Prime Minister and his government’s silence on landmark cases (from the murder of the rationalists like Dabholkar to journalists like Lankesh and Bukhari) speak volumes on what is permissible and what is condemnable. In addition, this government is a master at the twin arts of distraction and exploitation. Having exploited long standing social unrest, the current regime does not need to engineer violence. It can merely exploit chaos. The case of Shambu Lal Regar is symbolic. Even if his murder of Ashraful was due to (a mistaken) case of personal animosity, vigilante groups easily latched on to him as a hero of Hindutva. Similarly, even if the BJP has nothing to do directly with the violence surrounding kidney and child theft, they very easily exploit the situation to impose censorship on encrypted platforms like WhatsApp, or kill the internet in the name of maintaining law and order. From Kashmir to Tuticorin, a suppliant administration, under orders from the government has ruthlessly shut down any resistance and trampled upon free speech in the name of law and order. You don’t need to deisgn and seed violence in order to exploit its consequences. As it is, the government is creating enough chaos as it is – with regular statements perfectly designed to elicit outrage. Peacocks and tears, test tube babies, plastic surgeries, Narada and internet – the list is endless. There is a ready and willing counter-discourse, equally shrill attempting to pour ridicule on those making these statements. Meanwhile, public education, transport, agriculture, telecommunication and a host of other sectors are quietly and without fuss, privatized to big capital both ‘national’ and ‘international’. In this respect, there is a remarkable similarity between the BJP and many authoritarian regimes across the world, from America to Turkey. There is a constant hum of the media circus while the changes of political economy go on undisturbed in the background. Let us not be fooled into believing that this government or its supporters spends its time supervising vigilante groups. It merely provides them social sanction and exploits the consequences. Most of its active attention is going into repaying the big capital that financed its rise to power in 2014. The politics of distraction in order to prevent organised resistance is something that has been perfected by regimes the world over – from Putin’s Russia to Trump’s America. The next time you you’re outraged – remember to be outraged about the dismantling of the UGC rather than about peacocks’ sexual lives. [perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Finally, we come to the issue of the intermediaries (like WhatsApp and Facebook) and how to think about their role and their responsibility in society.[/perfectpullquote]There is no doubt that society is mediated to a high extent. From governance to interpersonal contact, media and communication technologies are becoming indispensable. It is inevitable that any such intervention is innocent. There is bound to be some influence, but the extent, weightage and influence of these technologies is complex and inter-related to other, broader changes in politics, economy and culture. No one will disagree that media and communication technologies are rapidly replacing traditional forms of authority and sources of information. Let us not forget either that these operations are tremendously profitable to a handful of technology companies that no longer can be affiliated to one country or territory. These globalized technology firms now control many aspects of modern life ransom under the guise of utopian participation and crowd-sourcing. Unfortunately, these companies become less open and optimistic when it comes to the issues of tampering in elections, influencing public opinion for payments and sale of private data. They are also not willing to invest any of their profits in processes that must necessarily accompany expansion of private and commercial media. These processes relate to protection and promotion of media diversity (news in more languages, dialects, fonts and regions, staffed by a more diverse range of producers, for a more diverse audience, and about more diverse issues), as well as media literacy (education about how to spot misinformation, protection of privacy and how to control use of personal data). None of these issues are intermediary liabilities but rather intermediary responsibilities.
Enough of the complaining. If the government is truly concerned about the role of WhatsApp and Facebook in spreading rumours and violence, then let them create an independent Media Diversity Fund. These hugely profitable corporations can divest a small part of their profit to fund local independent media and support media literacy integration with formal and non-formal education. There is simply no need to resort to censorship and/or increase surveillance. In the short term, to mitigate violence around kidney and child theft, the administration must undertake a range of measures – a 24 hour helpline, public service messaging on television and media, and create new WhatsApp groups as well as enlist on popular existing WhatsApp groups to seed messages that reassure the people.
In the long term, vigilante lynching based on religion and caste can only be overcome through political change and cultural change. Bringing in new laws will be necessary but not sufficient. Opposition parties must be clear about their intentions to punish vigilante groups if voted to power; must promise to restore anti-caste atrocity legislation to its original form, must be clear about its denouncing of cow protection as a ploy for murder. It is only then that there will be genuine political opposition, an alternative for the people. Symbolic regime change without a hard support of constitutionalism will continue to encourage and provide implicit protection for vigilantism. Long term mitigation of other kinds of violence – surrounding kidney and child theft for example, need a more equitable distribution of wealth and dignity. These incidents of violence, which should actually be seen as social mutations (rather than conspiracy), reflect the need for a social revolution, not a purely political one.