The Big Story: Mobocracy

This is a picture that will haunt India for years to come. A man is on his knees, his body bloodied, begging for forgiveness from a mob. The mob does not relent, beating him and three of his co-workers to death.

Why was the mob beating them? Here things get even odder. For a month now, rumours had been circulating in the many adivasi communities of Jharkhand that child snatchers were on the prowl. Sordid photos of dead children did the rounds on WhatsApp giving rise to a hysteria that culminated in this burst of violence. Two people were lynched on May 12 and seven on May 18. Notably, no actual kidnappings seem to have taken place.

Meanwhile, in Jamshedpur, the lynching on Thursday led to communal tensions in the city – four of the victims happened to be Muslim.

The sordid incident is a snapshot of India today. The social media rumours represent a complete failure of the state. For decades now, adivasi communities in Jharkhand have been subject to the worst forms of exploitation. While the current round of rumours remain to be verified, the state does have a horrific child trafficking problem. In particular young girls are kidnapped and sold outside the state, often into sexual slavery. For decades, the administration did nothing to solve this issue.

When WhatsApp rumours of child-snatching started to circulate, the state government again did nothing. The Indian Express reports that when two people were lynched on May 12, the state administration did not do anything to puncture the hysteria, leading eventually to the lynching of seven men on Thursday. Videos of the lynchings show policemen was present at the spot but did not step in. The failure of the state in, first, preventing violence against the adivasi and then even ignoring loud warning signs, like this hysterical rumour, led to the situation exploding into mob fury.

This isn’t a one-off incident. This typifies India today. The lack of capacity of the state to ensure law and order has resulted in rising number of cases of mob violence, as most commonly seen in the many lynching in the name of the cow across India. In many cases, the administration is either unwilling or unable to stop vigilante violence. This is a dangerous situation. The entire concept of governance and rule of law rests on the state having exclusive rights to violence. What happens when non-state actors appropriate the right to do violence can be seen across India’s western border in Pakistan, where the government has lost its writ to a number of Islamist militant groups. India needs to pull back from the precipice and make sure mobs are not allowed to define the nature of the justice in the country.

The Big Scroll

  1. “These people do not know hunger”: author Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar struggles to make sense of the Jharkhand lynchings.
  2. Terrorism in the name of the cow: Samar Harlarnkar writes about India’s flirtation with anarchy.

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  2. This is the right time to privatise Air India, argues Sanjay Baru in the Economic Times.
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