Jharkhand mob lynching: Social media, TV news and lack of faith in institutions eroding individual identities, morality

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire


Last week in Jharkhand, Tabrez Ansari, a young man in his 20s who worked as a welder in Pune, was caught by a mob who suspected him of being a thief and beaten to within an inch of his life over a period of several hours. He was dead by the time the police, which took him into custody, eventually brought him to hospital days later. While mobs beating men to death has unfortunately been recurring in recent years in India – recall the incident from 2015 in Dimapur, Nagaland, where a Naga mob that included schoolgirls in uniform had stormed the local jail, dragged out Farid Khan, a man arrested on a dodgy charge of alleged rape, and beat him to death on the streets — this incident had an additional layer: the mob forced its Muslim victim to chant “Jai Shri Ram”.

The mob is a strange beast. It is not a mere crowd, and it is far more than a mere collection of individuals. Every street, every bus and train station in any city in India, is usually crowded through the day. The people in those crowds are individuals. The retain their individual senses of identity and morality. There are often a few thieves and pickpockets in those crowds, perhaps even a murderer or two, but everyone in the crowd does not take on their character or follow their lead.

An audience is different from this sort of random, passing collection of individuals. It is united by a sense of common identity, one resulting from its temporary position of being an audience. A group of fans in a stadium watching a cricket or football match, or a musical performance, is an example.

 Jharkhand mob lynching: Social media, TV news and lack of faith in institutions eroding individual identities, morality

Representational image. Reuters

The mob is different from both audience and crowd. It is a beast with a mind of its own, and that mind is not a thinking mind. It is a violent, cruel, mind. There may be many intelligent, moral human beings in a mob, but the mob itself has only a low, vengeful morality. It operates on reflexes and emotions, and it typically takes its cues from the loudest and angriest of its members. It can break into rioting at any time; one little spark will set it off. After that, the mob will not rest until it achieves its destructive aim, or is beaten back by greater violence.

In today’s world, everyone is part of an audience, and most audiences are endlessly primed to become mobs. Our sense of individual selves with separate identities and moralities is being constantly eroded by an ever-present TV and social media. The idea of being part of a greater, aggrieved identity which is in eternal conflict with other similar identities is continuously driven into everyone’s minds through TV news, WhatsApp forwards, Facebook posts, and Twitter. The loudest and angriest among us are the stars, the preferred voices to which people turn for news and guidance on what to think and how to feel.

In a diverse country like India, where every group carries its own grievances and grudges from real and imagined hurts, and fanciful memories stretch back centuries, the forming of these ever-larger virtual mobs is a real danger whose true potential for breaking the moral barriers of humane behaviour has been witnessed in the past during large-scale communal riots.

An individual killing another is usually considered immoral. A notable exception is war, where it is considered heroic, and deserving of medals. The permanent elevation of group identity as primary identity – the self as Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Dalit, Naga, whatever – in an ever-growing number of people through TV and social media means the ordinary virtues of daily life, such as tolerance, forgiveness, and trust, take a backseat, because everyone is now, first and foremost, a warrior for the group they belong to. They are thus relieved from the need to behave morally as individuals because their behaviour is justified through membership of the aggrieved group. Thus, the terrorist who blows up innocents is, in his own mind, a hero for a larger cause. So too the warrior for Hindutva, or caste, or any other big cause.

Reports of mobs in India terrorising individuals have made headlines on several occasions in recent years. Most were cases of violent Hindu mobs that found moral justification for their acts within their moral frameworks, because they were beating up alleged killers of holy cows, or sellers of beef. However, beef is obviously not a necessary ingredient for a lynching, as the latest instance shows. Forcing chants of “Jai Shri Ram” while beating a human being to death has evidently become a “moral act” in itself.

There have been other kinds of mob moralities on display too. In Guwahati in 2012, in the heart of the city, a mob attacked and molested a girl in full public view after she had an altercation outside a pub. Some years before that, in 2009, a mob in Mangalore, on that occasion marching under a fringe Hindutva banner, had attacked a pub and assaulted its patrons including women. “Loose” women, like the alleged Dimapur “rapist”, are therefore also targets for “moral policing” by mobs.

Practically no one trusts the country’s justice system. There is no real faith in almost any institution. Meanwhile, technology has enabled the daily brainwashing of individuals into permanent mobs primed to turn at any moment into physical “flash mobs”. This combination of absent trust, dysfunctional or severely compromised institutions, and ever-present mobs with their own ideas of justice and morality, is leading us to a very dangerous situation from which the country will be fortunate to emerge unscathed.

Samrat is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx

Updated Date: Jul 02, 2019 12:55:42 IST