At least 21 documented lynchings of Muslims and Dalits have taken place in India since Narendra Modi's government came to power. But what is driving ordinary citizens to form lynch mobs in India?

Over the last two and a half years, a new form of Hindu majoritarian violence has taken root in India. It is a form of gruesome collective vigilantism.

The wave of lynchings, and a near-normalisation of the scenes of crowds flogging Muslim men, has marked a new low for India’s democracy. Almost every other week there's news that a mob has publicly flogged a Muslim man. In between the news of floggings there comes news of lynchings.

This is the new normal.

In every incident, the mobs are made up of ordinary Hindu citizens accusing the victims of either eating beef or intending to do so. Any form of perceived disrespect for cows, considered holy by Hindus, is broadly claimed as a motivation for the acts of lynching.

How should we proceed to make sense of this violence? That a state controlled comprehensively by Hindu Nationalists is violent - should hardly be surprising. It should not be surprising to anyone who has seriously thought about Hindu Nationalism’s potential for violence. What is it then that should surprise and shock us? What are the questions that we must ask?

                                                                      *  *  *

In Hitler’s Willing Executioners, writing about the complicity of ordinary Germans in exterminating Jews, Daniel Goldhagen offers an extraordinary suggestion.

The suggestion points at what we must consider when trying to understand killing operations undertaken by ordinary members of a society. We must consider, he asserts, the phenomenological world of the executioners; their emotional or mental regimes from which they derive their motivation. To be able to do so, Goldhagen suggests, we must describe for ourselves “every gruesome image that the executioners beheld, and every cry of anguish and pain that they heard.”

This consideration is crucial in order to understand the motivations that make ordinary citizens undertake killing operations.

Relatives mourn slain Indian villager Mohammad Akhlaq in the village of Bisada
Relatives mourn slain Indian villager Mohammad Akhlaq in the village of Bisada (AFP)

For ordinary citizens to undertake killing operations, the motivation, therefore, is not the defined agendas but something else; a specific common belief about the world around them, and what that world should look like.

This 'common belief' acts as a lever of coordination among the multitude. One must keep in mind that for the making of collective violence, there must exist a certain degree of coordination among the executioners; an organising principle.

When the violence is led by organized groups, it is plausible to argue that it is they who provide such a principle. But when crowds of ordinary citizens appear anytime and anywhere to perform executions - a particular kind of conception about the world, about the way of life in it, has to be a norm within the broader community of killers. Without that norm—a common cognitive frame—it is difficult to reason how ordinary citizens can spontaneously come together and overcome what social scientists call collective action dilemmas, and kill.

                                                                      *  *  *

Should one be content with accepting that eating, or the intention to eat beef, is a causal force behind violence of this scale and method?

Hindu Nationalist violence is hardly new to Indian society. The country is known for large-scale destruction, terror, and murder associated with episodes of communal violence instigated, organized, and led by militant Hindu Nationalist groups. 

More importantly, the protection of the cow has always been a slogan of the Hindu Nationalist movement. Militant Hindu Nationalist groups, like the VHP and Bajrang Dal, have in the past committed violence for this cause. Yet in the past, the violence never assumed the form of routine lynchings by ordinary Hindu citizens.

A woman worships a cow near the River Ganges. The cow has been politicised alienating many of India's minorities.
A woman worships a cow near the River Ganges. The cow has been politicised alienating many of India's minorities.

As a method, lynching is an act of unspeakable horror. There is an absolute asymmetry of power. It is a mob versus an individual, who is often defenceless and begging for life.

Given the nature of the act, the proximity involved between the victim’s body and the hands of the executioners, it is very likely that blood and bone fly about, often landing on the killers, smirching their faces and staining their clothes. It is possible that the cries and wails of the victim facing imminent slaughter reverberate in the executioners’ ears.

Yet the killers go ahead and lynch.

This is why following Goldhagen’s suggestion becomes crucial. One must ask: what kind of mental conceptions, cognitive and value frames, from which the killers draw their motivation, make performing the act of lynching possible? In other words, what is the phenomenological world of the killers like?

There is a simplified answer to this question. The cognitive frames of the lynch mobs are shaped by  xenophobic Hindu Nationalist hate. Hindu Nationalism, as Ashutosh Varshney once put it, like Afrikaner nationalism in South Africa or the anti-Semitism of Hitler is an example of the nationalism of exclusion “driven substantially by hatred and/or deep-rooted condescension”.

The vile hate it embodies for the “Muslim other” is so intense that it has forced some of those who have spent decades studying it to make admissions that scholars rarely make publicly. 

In the introductory chapter of his book, Wages of Violence, Thomas Blom Hansen writes, “One cannot remain neutral when working with violent nationalist organizations such as Shiv Sena, or the Hindu Nationalist movement, their local activists, followers, and sympathizers. Their discourse, style, and aims were, and remain, the antithesis to everything I ever believed in, politically and ethically.”

The more pressing question then becomes the how, not the what, of the question: how do ordinary members of a nation, in large numbers, come to acquire the cognitive frames that motivate them to lynch? 

For the lynchings to become routine in the way they have in India, a considerable number of a nation’s members must come to harbour a willingness to be potential killers. It is only then that a regime can tap in to this willingness and provide the institutional environment in which free will, translates into practice.

                                                                      *  *  *

As the lynchings have normalised, a lot of outrage has appeared in sections of the Indian press condemning the violence. Liberal Indian writers have expressed shock, sometimes sounding mournful, over the slipping away of Nehru and Gandhi’s vision of a plural India. 

Largely, the argument is that the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) ascent to the helm of political power in March 2014, and the comprehensive manner in which it happened, has created the conditions for unbridled expressions of Hindu Nationalist violence.

In generalized terms, a change within the polity has created conditions in society which allow members of one community to lynch the members of another.

Unfortunately, however, the causal argument, as well as the reactions of surprise, have established an impression that the violence has appeared suddenly.

In other words, the arguments make the hitherto unseen form of violence—lynchings—appear as if there is no genealogy behind it. The BJP’s electoral victory has been made to appear like a critical juncture, as if there were an India before March 2014 and a different India after it.

The current face of Hindu nationalism, Narendra Modi.
The current face of Hindu nationalism, Narendra Modi.

There is a similar disowning tendency, which Gyanendra Pandey, in his Remembering Partition, points to within Indian historiography when trying to make sense of the partition’s apocalyptic violence; a tendency to say this is not ours; that the violence goes against the fundamentals of Indian tradition and history.

Is it so? Can we say that those who constitute the lynch mobs are not shaped by and do not operate in a particular social and historical context, that they do not bring with them prior elaborate conceptions of the world, ones that are perhaps common to their society?

To make the violence appear as sudden, as if it exists outside of the historical temporality, is a terrible mistake. Doing so will prevent any collective attempt, no matter how small, to ask perhaps the most pressing question for Indian society right now—how did India get here?

                                                                      *  *  *

My own experience is relevant here.

A few years ago, at a protest in New Delhi, I narrowly missed what could have been a fatal head injury. On that day, 43 year old Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri Muslim, convicted in the 2001 Indian Parliament attack had been hanged at the break of dawn in New Delhi’s Tihar jail. 

The hanging had come after 12 years of incarceration and following a murky trial where the validity of the facts and evidence were disputed by many - and had remained trapped in institutional shoddiness and conspiracy.

However, the Congress Party, in control of the national government at the time, had suddenly decided to go ahead with the hanging. For a party, trying to capture the mood of the majority, timing mattered. 

It was 9 February, 2013, and India’s political landscape was gathering steam ahead of the 2014 national election. One of the campaign slogans of the BJP that swayed crowds had been, "Desh abhi sharminda hai, Afzal abhi bhi zinda hai," which means, "Our nation is ashamed because Afzal is still alive".

After the news had arrived early morning, a friend messaged me that a group of Kashmiri students were organizing a protest at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. I decided to join them. 

Soon after we gathered, about thirty of us, I saw a small group of Hindu Nationalist activists visible by their saffron scarves and red-marked foreheads, also assembling at some distance from us. I immediately told my friend that we could be in trouble. He said the police is here and so are other protesters, adding that the men are only few in number and it will be fine.

Jantar Mantar is a site where different groups from all parts of the country usually gather to protest peacefully - farmers, workers, and so on. It's just about a mile from the Indian parliament. It is also in the heart of the city’s busiest transit center, so people are always around to enjoy the scenes of protest, if not join them.

That day was like any other. By the time we arrived, various groups of protesters had already set themselves up for the day. And, there were onlookers.

Within less than half an hour, my friend’s optimism had come to nothing. We were attacked from all sides. It felt like a fury of wild wrath had been unleashed on us. I saw students being dragged by their hair - their clothes ripped from their bodies. They were battered with all kinds of objects—big stones, thick rods of iron and bamboo, and black mud smeared on their faces.

In the melee of cries and chaos and Hindu Nationalist slogans of Bharat Mata Ki Jai and Har Har Mahadev, my instincts directed me to run. But after a few sprints I realised that we had been surrounded by a large crowd and police barricades had been used to form a wall around us. The police had merged with the crowd.

Protesters hold placards in support of the campaign, ‘Not In My Name’, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi
Protesters hold placards in support of the campaign, ‘Not In My Name’, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi

In that same moment, as I realized that there is nowhere to run, I saw a female friend of mine being chased by a few men. She ran towards me. I grabbed her arm and in a moment of silent confirmation of imminent life-threatening danger - we decided to run. But as we turned around, another man with saffron scarf and a large bamboo rod in his hands appeared in front of us. He opened his legs, stood in a vulgar pose, and shouted at my friend, Aaja, which means, “Come to me.”

Another man appeared and swung his rod with all his force, aiming at my head. It missed and hit my arm. At this point, with all my strength, I pushed the man aside and we ran. We managed to slip through a gap in the barricade. The men chased us for some distance and then gave up.

It was not the first time I had faced Hindu Nationalist violence in Delhi. But that day, more than the wilderness of the assault, what left me in shock was how quickly the small group of eight or ten Hindu Nationalist militants had morphed into a crowd of hundreds. 

In the days that followed what disturbed me more than the swelling of the crowd was how quickly the will to commit violence—and the consensus about its target—had multiplied among ordinary people.

The dilemmas to collective action were so quickly overcome and on such a large scale.

                                                                      *  *  *

I do not in any way claim that my experience indicates a defining moment in the success of the Hindu Nationalist project - which aims to organize Hindu society, and to publicize as much as possible the xenophobic hate which is its oxygen, and from which it derives its political power.

The success of the Hindu Nationalist project has come through decades of effort, involving several events of horrendous violence. 

One could say that its decisive push began in the early 1980s, when Hindu Nationalist groups began organizing large processions from north to south and east to west – to assert the congruity between the national and the "sacred" Hindu geography. The accounts of these processions reflect unparalleled crescendos of rhetorical hate, transforming into episodes of mass violence on numerous occasions.

My experience is also very small compared to the violence taking place now, or of those in the past. However, it does demonstrate how well-established the Hindu Nationalist project is. 

Politics is the name we give to the practices that seek to represent society, to embody and give practical shape to a larger political imagination through rites, spectacles, laws, and institutions.

My experience serves as evidence of how well the politics of Hindu Nationalism have advanced what is the desire of any xenophobic nationalist project—a stage where ordinary members of the nation become the champions of its cause, and participate in the achievement of its aims without officially organized incitement.

The violence of lynchings is a more ripened form of this stage. It indicates how well Hindu Nationalism has shaped India’s political and social landscape on its own terms. It is a landscape where, as per its aim, Hindu Nationalist will and consensus is so ubiquitous that its execution is spontaneous, carried out by ordinary Hindus, anytime and anywhere. 

It is this larger environment and the social constructs within it that have made the lynchings possible.

                                                                      *  *  *

But, it hardly needs to be stressed that all this evolution has taken place within the larger Indian social and historical context. That organized Hindu nationalism is violent, should not be a surprise to anyone. It shouldn’t be surprising or shocking, then, that the contemporary Indian state—managed comprehensively by a Hindu Nationalist elite—is growing to be a violent one. 

What should surprise, and shock, is the sync between the political and the social; the fact that the violence has assumed not only a method of new gruesomeness but also spontaneity; Hindu Nationalist groups no more need to intervene to incite violence. Large numbers of ordinary Hindu citizens have taken it upon themselves to do so. 

The question that must be asked is: how did this happen? 

It is the social, rather than the political, that must be debated. The arc of Hindu Nationalism’s violent evolution is embedded within the wider historical terrain of Indian nationalism. That is why, liberal Indian intellectuals must not disown the past. They must ask, how could the cognitive frames, earlier limited to Hindu Nationalist militants, become so ubiquitous within larger Hindu society?

Given the role of intellectuals and their responsibility to lift a veil of confusion from how history is seen and interpreted, they must ask if the wider historical terrain of which they are a part of, is complicit in allowing this to happen.

Without asking uncomfortable questions, including, for example: to what extent is Indian nationalism really different from Hindu Nationalism? 

In justifying and promoting Indian nationalism have they, perhaps unintentionally, reinforced Hindu Nationalism? 

Without asking such questions, and turning them into a wide public debate, there may not be any collective attempt to reflect upon the past.

If such introspection takes place it is more likely that the inferno of Hindu Nationalist hate may not break into rapturous genocidal violence. Without reflection it may not be contained.

Local Hindu villagers in Dadri, protested against the arrests of the perpetrators  who killed 50 year old Mohammad Akhlaq over rumours that his family had been storing and consuming beef at home.
Local Hindu villagers in Dadri, protested against the arrests of the perpetrators who killed 50 year old Mohammad Akhlaq over rumours that his family had been storing and consuming beef at home.

Every society needs to be shown a mirror so that it can see what is wrong with it. If it cannot see its flaws it cannot correct them. A society is lucky if someone shows it that mirror. Luckier if that someone is from within. 

There are many examples of this exercise. I cannot think of a better one than James Baldwin and the US. Undoubtedly, Baldwin is one of the most fortunate things to have happened to America. He showed it the most lucid of mirrors. It is true that the flaws have hardly been corrected; what Baldwin dreamed of and tried to achieve—to make his country turn from selfishness and cruelty to justice and compassion—has hardly been achieved. But, it is also plausible to argue that without him America would have been in a worse position.

Numerous white Americans may have understood what it means to be a black person in America, at least to a certain degree. Without that understanding it is impossible to hope for any compassion and empathy to exist across groups in a society.

To do what Baldwin did is impossible. But in him, Indian intellectuals have a template to learn from. 

They must ask, like Baldwin did for America—is the violence of lynchings, and the kind of hate that makes it possible, sudden? Or, have the Muslims, as well as Dalits, always seen it spinning above, like “the shape of the wrath to come.”