Lynching on my mind



Women in India would be better off without self-appointed saviours like these.

Ammu Joseph
Ammu Joseph


Speaking in Indore on International Women’s Day, BJP MLA Usha Thakur not only justified the horrific lynching of Syed Sarifuddin Khan by a mob in Dimapur, but advocated “a stern law” that would allow rapists to be hanged “in full public view.”


An editorial in the Shiv Sena’s Saamna also attempted to justify the lynching, suggesting that what happened in Nagaland merely reflected people’s anger over sexual crimes against women and that the perpetrators of the December 2012 gangrape in Delhi deserved a similar fate.  


The controversial documentary film, “India’s Daughter,” recently sparked widespread outrage over the statements made by Mukesh Singh, one of the men convicted for the Delhi gangrape, and two defence lawyers involved in the case. All of them, in their own ways, blamed women for inviting rape by overstepping the bounds set for them – for their own good, of course – by the chimera that is “Indian culture and tradition.” But their antediluvian and callous comments, echoing numerous similar remarks by an assortment of politicians, policemen, lawyers, judges, “godmen” and other worthies, merely reflect and reinforce the prevailing, pervasive “rape culture” that normalises and even excuses sexual violence against women.


Similarly, the views expressed by Thakur and Saamna expose the lynch culture that has progressively become a dominant feature of our society (and many others) and is a deeply disturbing and dangerous development with grave implications for the future.


In the Dimapur case it is not clear what the murderous mob was trying to avenge in such an exceptionally ferocious manner: only ten days had passed since a man had been accused of rape, arrested, remanded to judicial custody and lodged in the Central Jail pending further proceedings, including investigation into the allegations against him. Significantly, rape had not yet been established. In any case, Nagaland reportedly has an uncommonly high conviction rate in cases of sexual assault, far better than the national average, which makes frustration with the judicial system an unlikely trigger.


It is fairly clear that his identity – as an “outsider” (despite marriage to a local woman) and a Muslim to boot – was a pivotal factor in inciting the unspeakable violence. To make matters worse, he was wrongly described as an illegal migrant from Bangladesh, when he was, in fact, originally from Karimganj in Assam. It goes without saying that the brutal lynching would be equally unforgivable even if the victim had been an “Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrant” (IBI).   Economic grievances and possible political rivalries may have served to instigate the mob, but a combination of xenophobia and communal animosity is probably what made the crowd so bloodthirsty.


The Dimapur incident is particularly shocking and ominous because of the size of the mob (variously estimated at between 4000 and 10,000), the preponderance of young people in it, the fact that it faced little resistance from the police or prison guards as it barged into the jail and abducted an inmate against whom even charges had yet to be filed and, of course, the prolonged, pitiless and very public nature of the lynching – ghoulishly recorded on hundreds of smart phones while law enforcement authorities appeared unable or unwilling to intervene.


But the unfortunate fact is that lynchings are not as rare an occurrence in India as one would wish. The online version of an early report on the Dimapur atrocity featured several “related” stories, evidently retrieved by an Internet gnome with a special interest in West Bengal: Teenage lover lynched in West Champaran, Midnapore: Minor raped, murdered; suspect lynched, Workers lynch tea garden owner in West Bengal, West Bengal: Mobile phone thief lynched to death in medical college.


Recent incidents reported from elsewhere in the country may not strictly qualify as lynching (generally understood to involve actual killing) but involve mobs using violence, threats of violence or other forms of intimidation to express anger or enforce their writ.


In January, Tamil writer Perumal Murugan declared his own death as a writer after being persistently hounded over a novel written several years earlier. Earlier this month another Tamil writer, Puliyur Murugesan, was seriously injured by people who expressed their disapproval of one of his short stories by storming into his house, kidnapping him and attacking him with wooden clubs and stones. This week a Tamil news channel, Puthiya Thalaimurai, was forced to cancel the telecast of a show featuring a debate among women on the relevance of symbols of marriage such as the ‘thaali’ or ‘mangalsutra’ after receiving thousands of threatening calls and facing protest demonstrations during which a camerperson was attacked.


A news report on the ouster of Lalit Modi as president of the Rajasthan Cricket Association this week mentioned that some voters on their way to the special general body meeting were stopped by a mob, pelted with stones, pulled out of vehicles and thrashed: all this just to take control of a state-level sports body!


The ransacking of hospitals and thrashing of doctors, the burning of buses and other forms of transport, the violence perpetrated by self-appointed moral police, and so on, have all become routine news.


Something is certainly rotten in our society and it has clearly infected many citizens across the country, who seem increasingly inclined to take the law into their own hands and use violence to make their point or get their way or take revenge or punish those they disagree with or disapprove of.  


It is significant that, immediately after Khan’s gruesome death in Dimapur, the government of Assam felt the need to seal the border with Nagaland and make special efforts to ensure security for people from the neighbouring state: the fear of retaliatory violence is very real.


Unfortunately, many who would not themselves participate in such acts of violence seem to approve of vigilante justice. Referring to Mukesh Singh and his friends, a 20-year-old university student in Delhi recently told an foreign correspondent, “People like this should be killed immediately. They should leave them in a public place and let the public sort it out… They should take them on a parade through the streets, and then hang them… The way they did in Nagaland.” The lynch culture makes Dimapur into an example worthy of emulation rather than a blot on our conscience.


What is even more alarming is the fact that the state and many of its functionaries, who are supposed to uphold the rule of law, are steeped in this culture and enable it to flourish. A common feature of most episodes of mob violence is the questionable role played the authorities, who typically tend to let mobs have their way by either not acting at all or acting too late or taking sides with the attackers rather than those under attack.


Perhaps that is only to be expected when the state itself often uses violence, including mob violence, for its own purposes. “Encounter” killings are not very different from lynchings except that they are done by people in uniform (even if they happen to be wearing mufti at the time). Nor is other “official” violence, including rape, used to keep “recalcitrant” sections of the population in check, especially in areas affected by political unrest or conflict, such as Jammu & Kashmir and states like Nagaland and Manipur in the northeastern region. Politically sponsored or sanctioned mob violence, as in Delhi in 1984 and Gujarat in 2002, involved largescale lynching. The fact that most perpetrators of such carnages get away with their crimes can only embolden others to follow suit. When prominent political leaders make statements rationalising, if not justifying, such violence people obviously get the message.


The lynch mentality is also nurtured, even promoted, by sections of the media. The clamour for the death penalty (as well as other crude forms of punishment such bobbitization and chemical castration) after the December 2012 gangrape is a case in point. Survivors and families of victims of crime are often visibly under pressure from the media to demand capital punishment as the only possible route to justice. It is natural for them to want justice but today “justice” seems to be used as code for “revenge” and, by extension, violent punishment.


So pervasive is the eye for an eye idea of justice these days that it pops up everywhere, including and especially on social media. In fact, the Internet in general and social media in particular have become safe spaces where the lynch culture thrives and spreads. Online harassment, which often involves threats of actual violence, is a form of virtual lynching. It is worth noting that the Dimapur lynching is only the latest incidence of deadly violence aided and abetted by information and communications technologies.


What happened in Dimapur was truly barbaric and indefensible. But it is important to remember that similar savagery has occurred in different parts of the country (including Assam) at different times with different perpetrators and victims. And the trend is likely to continue unless both governments and citizens recognise and confront the lynch culture, which has no place in a civilised society.


Ammu Joseph

Ammu Joseph

Ammu Joseph is an independent journalist and author based in Bangalore, writing primarily on issues relating to gender, human development and the media. Among her publications are six books. She has also contributed chapters to several other books, besides writing or editing a number of other publications, both Indian and international. She has been on the visiting faculty of several institutes of journalism education in India. She can be reached at