Just two days ago, I watched a video clip forwarded to me on WhatsApp. It showed one person brutally and fatally attacking another, who was lying on the ground. He stopped the attack only to do a high jump on his stomach. He did it twice while a large crowd watched it with no one making even a feeble attempt to save the hapless man. All his internal organs would have been damaged beyond repair when the assailant did the tandava nritya on him.
What’s worse, the crowd was shouting a particular slogan in honour of a great ruler from the mythical past. The video clip was so horrendous that I wished that I had not watched it. I am sure your reaction, too, would not have been any different. No person in his right senses would ever condone such an act. I can’t imagine that any organisation which wants the country to progress will ever approve of it.
As you would have noticed, I did not use a particular word you object to, to describe the incident. Did that make the episode any less condemnable and less horrifying? I am tempted to paraphrase Shakespeare and ask, “What’s in a name? That which we call lynching, by any other name would shock as much”. For the kith and kin of the person who lost his life in the incident, does it matter whether it is described as lynching or mob murder or mob killing?
Your words carry a lot of weight because you head an organisation that wields enormous influence on the government at the Centre and in several states. There is a Malayalam phrase “Ved Vaakyam”. It means a Vedic verse. It also means something which is inviolable. For many, including those who hold ministerial posts, your words are like “Ved Vaakyam”.
That’s precisely why I have been listening to your speech on the Vijayadashami Day which is in many ways as important as the Prime Minister’s speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort. Recently, while addressing a gathering of management students, I mentioned that India was the only country ruled by a non-government organisation (NGO). A fellow panelist, who headed a well-known NGO, liked the comment so much that while leaving the venue, he told me that it was his best “take away” from the conference.
I wish you had utilised the forum to condemn lynching and asked the government to take strict action against the mobsters, if necessary by enacting a new law. You would have been echoing the sentiments of an overwhelming majority of the people belonging to all castes and creeds. Instead, you turned to etymology and used semantics to argue that lynching is an alien concept.
It was actually scandalous for you to quote the Bible to say that lynching was a Biblical concept. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Yes, there was an incident in which a woman, accused of prostitution, was brought before Jesus by a group of people, the equivalent of a mob. Jesus did not hold any official post. Of course, he wielded moral authority. That is why she was brought before him.
The mob wanted instant punishment for her. That is without trial and without hearing her side of the story. The mob behaved exactly like the cyber warriors who want one Jolly in Kerala to be punished for allegedly killing six persons using potassium cyanide. The media are fed by the same police who fed them stories about the mysterious Maldivian woman in the ISRO spying case. Space scientist Nambi Narayanan who was vilified then is a Padma award holder now! Yet, the media swallow the police versions lock, stock and barrel as if it is the gospel truth!
Stoning to death was a macabre practice in vogue in what is now known as Holy Land. The mob wanted to stone her to death. What did Jesus say? He asked all those who had gathered there and were itching to throw the stone at her and thereby have some sadistic pleasure to do so if they had never committed a sin.
Jesus’ command had a salutary effect on them. It led to introspection and realisation that they, too, had committed sin like that woman and had no moral authority to lynch her to death. As the Bible says, they all melted away from the scene and the woman was saved. I wish you had told the whole story and not alluded to the Biblical link to lynching.
Also, please realise that Jesus was born an Asian, lived in Asia and died in Asia like you and me. Stoning to death was an Asian practice which Jesus did not approve of. It is a different matter that he also became a victim of mob justice. Pilate, the judge who heard the mob’s plea against him, found him innocent but allowed the mob to have its way. That is how Jesus was done to death on the cross.
How on earth did you get the idea of referring to the Bible while mentioning lynching? Who briefed you on this? I have read some comments that lynching is a Western concept. Christians believe that Jesus took birth to save the people from sin. His definition of sin was such that even if a man had only looked at a woman with covetous eyes, he had committed an act of sin. He did not believe in selective sin like the present government which protects those who are in the ruling party but hounds those against it.
In fact, you should have used the Biblical story to ask the people, including those adhering to your ideology, not to condone lynching. Only those with a warped ideological bent of mind use the past to justify the present. It is like justifying the demolition of Babri Masjid on the ground that the Muslims had demolished the Ram temple to build the masjid. Lynching, whether it is referred to in any book or not, is against all norms of justice.
A few months ago, I saw the movie The Least of These: The Graham Staines Story at a cinema hall in New Delhi. As you know, it was based on the story of the Australian missionary who served the leprosy patients in Odisha. He and his two teenaged sons, Philip and Timothy, who were sleeping in a jeep, were burnt alive by a mob.
The hall was jam-packed. To be frank, I did not expect such a huge response to the film one of my friends in the US, Victor Abraham, had produced. I noticed that a large majority of the people who had assembled to see the movie were people from the Northeast.
I do not know whether you know about the head-hunting practice, which was in vogue in Nagaland. How did it come to an end? It came to an end when the people realised that God created man in his own image and no one was inferior or superior and everybody had the right to live a life of dignity. When the message of love, the message of human rights and the message of equality reached them, head-hunting became a thing of the past.
Don’t think that head-hunting was abolished by the use of law. When Nirbhaya was gang-raped and killed, a new law was enacted to address the problem. Did it end rape? The police in UP had to do everything possible to save the skin of a former Union minister accused of repeatedly raping a girl student. Did the new anti-rape law deter him? He was secure in his belief that nothing would happen to him so long as the rule of law was the rule of fellow compatriots.
By the way, the word “lynching” is used only by the English media, whose influence has been diminishing as the influence of the Hindi media has been soaring. Hindi and other language newspapers use their own words for lynching. The words used all mean “mob murder” or “mob killing”. The word lynching is, therefore, used only by a small section of the media.
Now, let me tell you something about the mob psychology. It is wrong to conclude that mobs are brave. They are the most cowardly people. I saw them at a court in Odisha. All of them were accused of killing Christians and destroying their property following the dastardly murder of Swami Lakshmananda.
They were facing trial. I was there as a visitor. I was, perhaps, the only non-Oriya person in the court room. They were all looking at me as I was a stranger but when I looked at them, they all bent their heads and looked down. Why did they do so? They did not have the courage to look straight. Why? Because they knew in their heart of hearts that they were guilty of shedding the blood of the innocent.
The point is that once the mobs know that lynching would not be tolerated and they would be dealt with sternly, they would not resort to it. Statistics prove that there have been an increase in the incidents of lynching ever since the BJP came to power. You talked about India’s image being sullied by incidents of lynching and about the etymology of the word but did you ask the government not to spare anyone who resorts to lynching on any pretext?
You should have said that killing one or two persons by a mob is not bravery but a violation of the law and the RSS would never harbour anyone accused of lynching. No, I am not questioning your bona fides to speak on the subject. I am only pointing out that you missed an opportunity, a great one.
Let me also point out that we have seen people who held the post of Union minister admitting in public that they offered legal help to persons accused of lynching. What should ordinary people like me make out when they garland such characters in public? Are they not as shameful as the leaders who defended the rape of a Muslim girl, of all the places, in a house of God?
What message do the people get when a woman who is accused of terrorism and who openly eulogises Godse who killed Gandhi is now a honourable member of Parliament? Is she the only such MP? There are many like her but they are not as open as she is. They will come out of the closet when they feel it is safer.
Lynching does not happen in a vacuum. Those who resort to it know for sure that they can get away with it. That is what happened in Rajasthan where a Muslim who ran a private diary to make a living was lynched to death. You know what happened to the killers. They were all let off by the court.
We have strong laws against cow slaughter. In Haryana, man slaughter attracts a lesser punishment than cow slaughter. Yet, why is it that no law is enacted to punish those who ill-treat the cows, push them to the streets where they eat plastics and die and abandon them in forests where they become prey to wild beasts? That requires political courage and honesty of purpose which are visibly lacking when leaders like you thumb the pages of the Bible to say that lynching is a Western construct.
India has the largest number of cellphone users. With the Internet data having become cheap, almost everyone has access to a camera that can record such incidents. In short, it is easy for the police to identify those involved in lynching using such videos which turn viral on the social media. You should ask the government not to spare anyone who takes the law into his own hands in the name of cow or morality.
Let me conclude by mentioning that some may even consider writing this letter to you as an anti-national act as some of my well-meaning friends have been warning me. Instead of doing etymological research on lynching, you should say that it is un-Indian, unholy, unacceptable, and unjustified and all those guilty of it will end their lives in jails.
With best wishes,
(The author is a senior journalist and commentator. He has also headed Protichi Trust set up by Amartya Sen. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The letter was originally published in the Indian Currents.)