Shiv Visvanathan: Is the mob becoming the new hero of Indian history?

India might celebrate electoral democracy but its creativity of citizenship is shrinking. Indian feel threatened by the stranger, the alien, the migrant as intruder

Photo by Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Shiv Visvanathan

I think it’s time democracy faces its ironies. In the 1940s, we boasted of the nation state as an actor. In the 50s, we dreamt of the class as a great social actor creating a new turn in history. Today, majoritarian democracy has not only become authoritarian, but the mob has become new hero of the Indian history. The mob from being a piece of pathology, has become a collectivity of being an agency which gives Indians a new sense of solidarity.

The mob operates at two levels. Firstly, it is an extension of majoritarianism acting as a parallel police force controlling the way we eat and think. The BJP in rectifying history has created a Dracula-like tower which is perpetually rectifying the present. The mob sadly has become a substitute for civil society. At this level it exudes the policing function which becomes a way of emphasising its presence. The Akhlaq and Afrazul murders testify to this. Yet at a different level, the mob has become a coping mechanism responding to the anxieties of development and migration.

At one level it humiliates the minority, at another it demolishes the stranger. Either way it has emasculated the idea of citizenship, dispensing the hospitality to the stranger, contending that citizenship is a prerogative of the majority. This current wave of violence needs more than anecdotes, needs to be theorised. Firstly, one has to understand that this current mob emerges with the new majoritarian democracy. Both are modes of intolerance. The violence they express is brutal that is brutality with a difference. Technology plays a new role in both. The rumor replaces conversation and discussion as the basic mode of public discourse. That the rumor is no longer an oral expression but a technological imperative. It is no longer gossip moving sedately in a small community, it is speculation speeded up to the internet and the mobile phone.

The mob asks us to face the issue of techno barbarism. Its violence combines the use of technology which is sophisticated and digital with a brutality which is physical, primitive, barbaric and stark. There are however slight differences. In mob lynching of a majoritarian kind, violence is re-consumed through the selfie. In mob lynching of the second kind, the apps and the mobile phone turn gossip into gospel. In both, it is suspicions that acquire the sophistication of society. Violence however remains primitive. Mob violence has become today morality play. Enacting out the ideology and catechism of a society that no longer enjoys difference. Between technology and mob, India is fast becoming an electronic dystopia.

There is a second irony that few people notice. The state of nature that is created by the mob and the nature of current state meet each other. Each mirror the mode of violence and brutality of the other. Each now claims that it is the ritual of repeated violence that oppose the social contract. Violence we feel as normal and as legitimate are glue that hold society together. The legal constitution becomes a hypocrisy and it’s the mob that provides the new grammar of law and order. The repeated pandemic of mob lynching shows that violence has become banal. The new Dracula is the silent majority which has now become garrulous.

Countries like Germany and France exorcise the migrant by minimising his entry. India prepares its mob as the new legislative agency

It is futile to face such lynching as a law and order problem especially when the mob sees itself as a solution to law and order problem. One needs a psychology and anthropology to evaluate this. At one level, an obsessive majority as an electoral force repeatedly demolishes the minority. Here history becomes a psychological problem and the mob through rectifying history is psychoanalysing itself.

In the second, the stranger and the migrant create anxieties which only the mob can tackle. For example, child lifting goes deep into the unconscious. It is a part of folklore. Children who refused to sleep were told that the child lifters would take them away. The child-lifter from haunting childhood now frightens all of society. The child who is vulnerable by definition now expresses the general vulnerability of the society to the stranger. Earlier our society through its tales of syncretism, its anecdotes of hospitality has ways of explaining such anxieties. What is interesting is that modern society does not feel the power of folktales in creating solidarity. In fact, mobility lacks myth as coping mechanism. As a result, society becomes a no man’s land bereft of story-telling and violence becomes the only answer to the stranger. Oddly, whether is global or local, the migrant as stranger is seen as a threat to society. Countries like Germany and France exorcise the migrant by minimising his entry. India prepares its mob as the new legislative agency.

One has to look at the nature of violence, technology is only a prelude to violence or a part of its aftermath. Technology as mobile app or selfie either triggers rumour or helps consume the spectacle of violence. However, violence is itself rarely technological as in the case of terror. Mob violence is physical and bestial.

One must admit that child trafficking is a major problem. But what we are confronting is not the history of facts but the rumour as folklore. Prostitution, boned labour and childlessness as tropes all combine to create a goulash of fear and helplessness for which violence seem the inevitable answer. It gives society a sense of control of defining and determining its boundaries. Even innocence is suspect. For example, a woman was lynched in Aurangabad when she went out to buy a few balloons.

What we need to look at is the space of citizenship and public spaces as a result of mob lynching. India might celebrate electoral democracy but its creativity of citizenship is shrinking. Indians feel threatened by the stranger, the alien, the migrant as intruder. The constitution might encourage the freedom of mobility but our sense of the social resists it. Rumor has become the great mode of communication and public spaces sites for fear and violence. The public spaces are no longer the domain of rational discussion. Technology has made it a site for rumour as terror. In fact, what we confront today is the thickness of rumor and suspicion confronting the barrenness of analysis. Neither media nor social science feels to grasp what is happening. The ironic myths of primitivism and digital technology seems to confuse analyst and the anecdote becomes a prime act of voyeurism and disbelief. Only civil society can create alternative myths and practices as an antidote. One need a new civics, new myths not the emptiness of a mechanical idea of law and order.

Shiv Visvanathan is an academic associated with the Compost Heap, a group in pursuit of alternative ideas and imagination

For all the latest India News, Follow India Section.