India’s ‘Mobocracy’: Where Does It End?

Recent years have seen a rapid and shocking increase in mob violence and lynchings throughout India. In this year alone, dozens have been killed in frenzied attacks by ‘vigilante mobs,’ some as large as 2,000 people, under suspicion of activity such as child abduction, beef eating or cattle theft. In many instances, people are being attacked based on ‘fake news’ from social media platforms such as WhatsApp, or from spurious advice by community outlets. Most of those who have died in such attacks this year held no merit to their accusations and no verification was ever sought before they were set upon.

The problem has escalated so significantly that India’s top court demanded last week that the government introduce a new law to combat the lynchings, condemning the ‘horrendous acts of mobocracy’ which ‘cannot be permitted to inundate the law of the land.’ The Supreme Court ruled that the State has a ‘sacrosanct duty to protect its citizens from unruly elements and perpetrators of orchestrated lynching and vigilantism.’

The court’s address was specifically in response to a number of applications on controlling mob violence by Hindu cow-protectors against Muslims. However, the recommendation was not limited to such situations, with mob violence also threatening other minorities and international travellers. In 2016, seven members of a Dalit family, the Indian caste most often referred to as ‘untouchable,’ were savagely attacked by vigilantes in the state of Gujarat, leading to mass protests across the entire Dalit community. Assaults against priests and church-leaders accused of converting Hindus to Christianity also continue but remain under-reported. Arguably most significant, is the recent spate of mob violence – primarily against tourists – stemming from social media ‘fake news.’

Earlier this month, one man was murdered and three others injured when they were set-upon by a mob who mistakenly believed the international victims to be members of a child-kidnapping ring. Police said the attack began after locals spotted one of the group talking to a child and offering chocolate and the suspicions were spread throughout the community via instant messaging giant WhatsApp.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Supreme Court’s recommendations have not seemed to pose an immediate deterrent across local communities. Just days after the ruling, local police announced that a Muslim man was intercepted and killed while transporting cows through a village outside the state capital, Jaipur. In an earlier attack, 15-year-old Junaid Khan lost his life after a knife attack on a train. He was mocked for being Muslim and a ‘beef-eater’ and was killed while hundreds of fellow passengers looked on.

The savage attacks, which are regularly captured and shared across social media sites, have escalated across India amid growing hysteria and moral panic over a myriad of issues. The attacks, targeting both locals and outsiders at an increasing rate, have left leaders struggling to produce an adequate solution. Public alerts and awareness campaigns have proved fruitless in reducing the violence and it is now time for the state to invest in a comprehensive strategy. Despite this, the government fails to address the problem seriously or effectively, resulting in the desperate plea from the Supreme Court for order to be restored.

Last Thursday, WhatsApp announced it would combat the ‘fake news’ epidemic by limiting the forwarding of messages between its 200 millions users across India. The move came after India’s government threatened legal action, seemingly placing the blame squarely with the social media platform for the viral messages encouraging violence. This, however, is not the response India needs and will not even come close to addressing the epidemic which stretches far beyond the reach of WhatsApp.

The issue of mob violence in India was first brought to the international fore with the 2015 murder of 52-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq. Accused of eating beef by an angry mob that arrived at his home in Bishara, Akhlaq was dragged outside and beaten to death in front of his family. The attack stemmed from an announcement by the local Hindu Temple that a cow had been slaughtered. The killing was condemned by all political parties except for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narenda Modi who did not even address the death for over a week. BJP officials labelled it an accident and a result of genuine Hindu anger over cow slaughter. This disinterest has characterized the BJP’s response to such attacks, which started primarily as a response to the slaughter of cows, sacred animals in Hinduism, but has expanded considerably as locals begin to see mob violence and lynching as an effective way of dealing with any perceived injustices.

In 2017, the website IndiaSpend reported that 97 percent of violence stemming from cow-related issues across India since 2010 has occurred after Modi’s BJP government came to power in May 2014. In April of last year, Human Rights Watch stated that ‘instead of taking prompt legal action against the vigilantes’ – who in many cases are extremist Hindu groups affiliated with the BJP – ‘the police, too often, have filed complaints against the assault victims, their relatives, and associates under laws banning cow slaughter.’

Supreme Court Lawyer, Anas Tanwir, acknowledged that mobs are being helped periodically by the state’s ‘inaction’ and ‘complicity.’ Tanwir stated that ‘people are being killed by bloodthirsty mobs that are at times working under a misplaced notion that they can deliver justice and at other times to quench their hatred towards India’s minorities.’

Co-founder of Indian advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation, Nikhil Pahwa, commented further on this issue arguing that “the primary problem lies with the ability of law enforcement agencies to prevent people from taking the law into their own hands. People will do that either when they believe that law enforcement agencies won’t or can’t act, and/or when they feel they won’t be prosecuted for lynchings. Our law enforcement agencies are failing us.”

The climate of hate against minorities in India is something that should concern everyone, and is a wider issue that relates to ‘mobocracy’. If the government continues to overlook this issue, consequences may range from social unrest through to the radicalization of resentful and besieged Muslims, especially the young. The state must take a proactive approach to this problem before it escalates further and becomes entrenched within these communities. In response to the Supreme Court’s ruling, the state must work quickly to ensure there is sufficient codification over attacks of ‘mobocracy’ in India. If this were to happen, entire communities will be deterred from ever undertaking such acts in the first place. The conspicuously silent government has seemingly placed the blame with all but themselves. An international social media giant will not hold the solution to mob violence. Even if WhatsApp can successfully block the hateful messages triggering the frenzied attacks, those who believe themselves to be protecting their communities will find another platform to spread their violence.

The individual circumstances of each recorded attack may differ but essentially, they are the product of systematic provocation to violence by leaders and communities. The continued increase of mob attacks shows us that these lynchings are not a simple spontaneous expression of anger – they are fast becoming an accepted form of conflict resolution among communities who feel it is within their capacity to enforce their own moral obligations upon others. The mobs and vigilantes will continue to enact their perceived right to ‘mobocracy’, and countless more innocent deaths will ensue, as long as India’s government and law enforcement agencies empower them to do so.