Lynching in India: Understanding Mob Violence and The Psychology Behind The Killings
What explains the spike in lynching cases in the country? (Photo Credits: stux/Pixabay

India has recently seen a spurt in the number of mob violence. Lynching news have been hitting the headlines almost on a daily basis. The murderous spate that kicked off in 2015 with Mohammed Akhlaq’s death sees new names added to the list every day. Pehlu Khan, Hafiz Junaid, Mohammed Ayub Pandit – more names followed. The recent lynching incidents in Hapur and Vadaj show that it takes little for mobs to turn violent. In all the cases, it only took a rumour, a suspicion or a Whatsapp message for the attacks to happen.

Lynching as a mob justice technique is not a recent phenomenon and is unique to every society. From the Salem Witch Trials of the 17th Century in colonial Massachusetts, the lynching of blacks by Ku Klux Klan to the systematic violence against Jews, the world has seen many instances of extrajudicial killings, carried out due to the mob’s warped sense of justice. These incidents have made us wonder: whatever happened to human empathy and rationality? What happens to individuals in a mob?

Who Is The Mob?

To make any sense of these incidents, we need to understand how the rational human being functions in a mob setting. Nicolo Machiavelli, the Italian statesman and political philosopher once stated in his treatise The Prince: “The temper of the mob is fickle.” In sociological terms, a mob or herd is defined as a crowd that can be easily manipulated to take any violent or aggressive action, either to gain attention or to “solve” a problem.

Individual differences and rationality vanish, the crowd become more excitable and less aware of their actions. To justify their deplorable acts, lynch mobs have a temporary suspension of their morality.

Consultant neuropsychiatrist Dr. Era Dutta says, “Mobs are also taken over by a territorial attitude – a sort of caveman mentality. These are people who live a cocooned existence within their communities with no knowledge of the outside world. This makes them extremely suspicious of outsiders. A streak of antisocial personality is seen in instigators of these mobs.”

Who Are The Victims?

Lynching victims are members of a minority (blacks in US or Jews in Europe), outnumbered by the angry hoard who form the majority. A core of xenophobia, or fear of foreigners, universally underlie most of the lynching incidents.

The victims of the horrifying Khairlajee massacre of 2006, members of the Bhotmange family, belonged to the scheduled caste community. They were brutally slaughtered by the upper-class Hindus of their village on the grounds of a property dispute. Increasing violence against the Muslim community in India also demonstrates this xenophobic attitude.

According to Indiaspend, since 2014, 84 percent of the victims of lynching have been Muslims. The xenophobia makes it easier for them to believe that the “outsiders” are wrong and are a threat to their community or identity.

What Are The Motivations?

A sense of righteous vengeance and fear overruns almost all lynchings. Dr. Dutta says that lynch mobs generally believe that they are dispensing justice through their violent acts. “They think of it as an act of God. As if God’s will is being carried out through lynchings.” That makes it easier for them to justify these killings.

Writer Abdul Kalam Azad explains in The Wire, “For a human being, killing a fellow human is not easy….It requires a special environment to overcome the inhibitions to carry out horrific crimes like a public lynching….. The perpetrators ceased to recognise the victims as the member of their moral group or as a fellow human being, which legitimises their cruelty against the victims.”

Be it the cow-related violence of the gaurakshaks in Dadri or Hapur, or the lynching of child-lifters in Tamil Nadu or Assam, the mobs are governed by their sense of righteousness and the fear of the outsiders. “Some motivations can be hot-blooded, like the lynching of thieves or rapists. In other cases, lynching can also be cold-blooded like honour killings where murders are premeditated to set an example for others,” says Dr. Dutta.

It’s easy to think that acts of extrajudicial violence may happen only in a distant dystopia where there’s no law and order. But then why are there so many cases of lynching in the recent years in our country, the world largest democracy? The universality of these incidents, both in terms of space and time, force us to think that perhaps such acts of violence are ingrained in deeply within us. “In the end, even acts of lynching arise from human fear of the other. When our self-preservatory instincts go haywire, we lose all sense of logic,” concludes Dr. Dutta.