It is quite unlikely that the name of Mohammed Naeem would register in the minds of many Indians. But if one were to only turn to the national pages of some newspapers, one would find a photograph that has been doing the rounds of social media. The photograph is of a man, barely in his thirties, surrounded by a group of men. The man, his torso bare, is splattered with blood. It seems from the photograph the man was beaten so much, he was barely able to fold his hands and pray for mercy. But, as the photo testifies, he is trying anyway. If one were to juxtapose this particular photo, to the countless daguerreotypes that emanated from some of the southern states in the US, during the early years of the twentieth century, we will find a similar pattern: brutal photographs that depict the myriad ways black men were tortured and lynched. These photographs then ended up in the hands of their white captors, who kept them as souvenirs. Those photos spread via postcards. Now in India, photos of men like Naeem — who was lynched and tortured in a village in Jamshedpur on the mere suspicion of him being a child kidnapper — they spread via Whatsapp forwards.
One has to ask at this juncture, an oft-repeated, but nevertheless, a pertinent question: what exactly is happening in India? From Dadri, to Una, to Saharanpur, to Alwar, and now to Jamshedpur. From the issue of cattle trading, to love jihad, to beef consumption, to absolutely baseless rumors of child kidnappings. The regional areas are diverse. The reasons for the lynching, in keeping with the nation’s cherished ideal of ‘diversity,’ are manifold too. However, curiously, the victims of these lynchings are only Dalits and Muslims, and invariably so.
Underneath this all lies a curious paradox of modern India: on one hand is the narrative of ‘new India,’ a narrative that our prime minister is so fond of espousing, a narrative about cleanliness, and start-ups, and digitised cities. And yet, ensconced within this narrative, and sitting closely beside it, is the other picture: that of India in its atavistic form, of vast hinterlands filled with vigilante marauders, a land where the cow is more sacred than human life, a land where mythology and rumor overrides rationality. To many commentators, vigilante groups are only but a ‘fringe.’ And just as a ‘fringe,’ they ought to be neglected. There is a reason why such an argument does not hold ground.
To begin with, the idea behind the characterisation of these vigilante groups as a ‘fringe element,’ is the basic political distinction between what a legitimate form of violence is, and what is not. This distinction is the bulwark of the Enlightenment principle wherein the characteristic of modernity lies in outsourcing every form of violence to the state. Therefore, in the case of capital punishment for example, it is the state that has the right to the life of an individual, and not another individual. This exercise of violence by the state, of course, has certain fixed boundaries. But because of the sense of legitimacy that the state enjoys, more often than not, it escapes difficult questions when these boundaries are transgressed. So CRPF personnel burning over 160 homes in Tadmetla, in Bastar, in March 2011, or the widespread use of pellet guns in Kashmir, are, of course, non-events that the state chooses not to indulge our attention in.
In contrast, while vigilante mobs, do not enjoy that legitimate status, yet, curiously, their violence somehow seeks to uphold the narrative of the state. Hence, although outside of the purview of the state, these vigilante groups seek to protect a social order which they perceive to be is in danger of crumbling down.
A naked sense of power
The ways in which vigilante mobs operate in India today are in sync with vigilante groups operating elsewhere in the world. In India, for instance, if closely studied, these groups have a particular idiom through which they seek to carry out their activity. First and foremost, vigilante violence is brazenly open. Whether it is in Jamshedpur recently, or in Dadri, or Una, it was an open 'secret' as to who these men were, and what they were doing. Most importantly, these violent acts have all been captured in camera, via mobile phones, and the same images have been transmitted via Whatsapp. And what is written underneath each and every form of violence is a clear marking out of who an ‘enemy’ is. This brazenness of their acts, and the clear cut distinction between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, speaks, more than anything else, about a naked sense of power.
Interestingly, these Indian vigilante groups are quite common to the vigilante groups that operate in certain parts of Africa. In 1998, for example, in the commercial Nigerian city of Aba, shoemakers and traders, angry with the incompetence of the local government’s inability to reign in violent criminal gangs, decided to take the matters into their own hands. These men branded together and formed a vigilante group called The Bakassi Boys. Initially comprising young traders and funded by the local traders associations, these Bakassi Boys unleashed a reign of terror in Aba. Seeing themselves as protectors who have gotten a divine sanction to rid the city of Aba from criminal marauders, Bakassi Boys publicly executed dozens of criminals, most of them belonging to different tribes. These executions were brazen, conducted in the public, in broad daylight, and attracted large scale attention from the common people. Most importantly, owing to this public form of their executions, these Bakassi Boys enjoyed a certain popularity among the locals of Aba, where they were regarded as god sent men out to make the city clean. A case in point are also the infamous Ku Klux Klan's (who although carried out their activities in the thick of the night) iconography that seemed to give them a moral legitimacy among the southern whites: draped in large, white, capes, riding horses, and carrying burning crosses with them. These idioms both made them into a sort of a cult, and also endowed them with a ‘religious’ authority, an authority that contained within it forms by which they would exercise their power over the blacks, in essence, show them their place in the world.
In India, whether it were the karsevaks during the early days of the Babri Masjid row, or the present group of self-proclaimed protectors of cow – with their saffron robes, and swords, atop motorbikes — the codes of authority that tie them together is the same. It is invariably an upper-caste, masculine, Hindu idiom of power. But what is most frightening of all, are not these vigilante groups out there in the open, but that there is complete silence from the political authorities, and at the same time, from people at large — making them fringe and mainstream at the same time. With a few token pronouncements, the ruling dispensation distances themselves from these groups. But what they do not distance themselves from is the idea that gives these vigilante groups their moral legitimacy: the idea that seeks to uphold a sense of Hindu majoritarian pride, a ‘pride’ that is always, invariably, constructed in opposition to the Dalits and the Muslims. And in the larger public’s indifference to these acts of violence, vigilante groups carry on and the cycle continues.
The other aspect that needs an equal attention is the chosen ideal that fuels these groups. Because the victims are either the Muslims, or the Dalits in the case of Una and Saharanpur, much like the case was with the Ku Klux Klan in the United States, in India it is ostensibly about ‘position’. The Hindi word that is actually apt, and which is also extremely difficult to translate into English, that is in operation here, is aukaad. This particular word, beautifully colloquial, captures the predicament of the minority in this new India. At once, it signals ritual submission to the upper-caste, male, Hindu sense of privilege and position, and when invoked by these vigilante groups, signals the need to assert that supremacy, to show the others to a place where they belong.
It is rather unlikely that any eulogies will be sung for Mohammed Naeem, and as a person he is, perhaps, forever, frozen behind the pixels of those brutal photographs. And oscillating between violence, to outrage, to placid indifference, the issue of vigilante mobs in 21st century India seems to have frozen as well.
The author is a Delhi-based writer and an independent journalist. His debut novel, Darklands, is slated to be published by Penguin Random House in the fall of 2017. He is at present a doctoral fellow in the Delhi School of Economics
Published Date: May 22, 2017 14:21 PM | Updated Date: May 23, 2017 18:09 PM