As murderous attacks on Muslims become more frequent, Hindutva‘s normalizers have found new arguments to make violent bigotry seem banal. In the beginning, the lynchings were dismissed as statistically trivial, random instances of violence inevitable in a vast and diverse country, unfairly massaged into a pattern by disgruntled liberals.
Once it became impossible for the Bharatiya Janata Party to dismiss these gory murders as statistical noise, a new strategy of deflection was grafted on to older arguments. The wickedness of these killings was acknowledged in passing. All murders were bad and so were these but the protests against the lynchings weren’t about the lynchings at all. No, the protests against the murders were a smokescreen for political hostility, a symptom of the inability of a liberal establishment to come to terms with political defeat and a new national mood.
One aspect of this national mood was a consensus on the prohibition of cow slaughter that secularists couldn’t stomach. These perverse cosmopolitans were so deracinated that they couldn’t stomach the idea that the republic would have to defer to the broad social sanction, rooted in Hindu sensibilities, against cow slaughter.
As Mary McCarthy once said of Lillian Hellman’s writing, every word of this argument is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’. The artful suggestion that the sangh parivar‘s campaign against cow slaughter on the one hand, and the lynching of Muslims involved in the cattle trade on the other, are separable projects, is grotesque. It was Narendra Modi’s political campaign against the so-called ‘pink revolution’ during the 2014 general election, and the amping up of this rhetoric by Yogi Adityanath and his vigilante army, that convinced the current crop of freelance cow gundas that they had a licence to kill.
The campaign against cow slaughter, abattoirs and the meat business has very little to do with the implementation of the General Will. The closing of abattoirs, the curtailment of the killing of cows for meat or hides, the disruption of the transport trade in cattle are attractive because these policies hurt Muslims materially. Given the kind of party the BJP is, this is good in itself. More importantly, the anti-cow-slaughter campaign has become for the BJP and its vision of Bharat what the anti-blasphemy law used to be for Zia-ul-Haq and his vision of Pakistan: an occasion for the public enactment of the supremacy of a religious majority and, correspondingly, the subordination of religious minorities.
A majoritarian nationalism exists to assert that a nation state must be made in the image of its religious or racial majority and, further, that religious or racial minorities must acquiesce in their own subordination. In this context, images of minority citizens begging for their lives, or being casually murdered in full public view in a railway compartment, or being dragged out of their homes and lynched on the suspicion of beef eating, are images of violent subordination that perfectly fit the sangh parivar‘s supremacist project. These lynchings then, are lecture-demonstrations, a way of graphically illustrating dominance.
This would be obvious to anyone acquainted with the history of lynching in other countries. Historians are reluctant to derive lessons from the historical experience of one country and then use them to understand another one. History’s interest in particular narratives sets it apart from the social sciences which are driven by a need to generalize. Even when historians do compare the story of one time and place with another, they hedge the comparison about with caveats about the specificity of historical experience.
This caution is understandable but inhibiting; it stops us from learning from the historical record of mob violence in modern times. Walking through an exhibit on lynchings in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, I realized that lynchings were public performances, designed to strike terror into minds of black people, specially blacks who had forgotten their place vis-à-vis their white betters.
The Ku Klux Klan was founded in the 1860s after the defeat of the confederacy in the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery. The Klan used violence to intimidate free blacks, to ritually enact their ‘inferiority’. White vigilantes attacked black men and killed them in the name of protecting white womanhood. Between 1890 and the middle of the 20th century nearly 3,500 black men were lynched in the name of white supremacy.
Mobs involved in lynchings took pictures of their handiwork. These photographs were often published as postcards. Lynchings were a form of white terrorism in America, specifically designed to intimidate black Americans.
The videos circulated on social media platforms like WhatsApp of lynchings and beatings in various north Indian provinces should remind us that supremacist vigilantism is alive and well in India today. Last year in March, newspapers published chilling photographs of two Muslim men involved in the cattle trade hanging from a tree in a village near Ranchi in Jharkhand. A man and a boy, actually, because Azad Khan was all of 15 years old. They had been systematically tortured before being hanged. Since that time examples of vigilante violence in the name of cow protection have multiplied.
More recently, attacks on Muslims have dispensed with the fig leaf of cow protection. A 16 year old boy, Junaid Khan, was stabbed to death in a train in Haryana last month. He and his friends were returning to Mathura after Eid shopping, when a mob some twenty-five strong tried to evict them from their seats. Four other Muslims were stabbed in the incident. The injured men told the police that their assailants repeatedly called them ‘anti-nationals’ and ‘beef-eaters’. This is what the ruling dispensation’s orchestrated campaign against the meat trade and the communities involved in it has given us: boys murdered in the name of cow-protection or, worse still, in the name of the Nation.
It was this murderous vigilantism that the ‘Not in my name’ demonstrations in several Indian cities were protesting. Those subtle minds that found these protesters politically naive or narcissistic or insufficiently attuned to the Nation’s ethos, might want to try a thought experiment. In the protests against the lynchings in the Cotton Belt – Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Texas and Louisiana -which side would they have been on? Would they have been on the side of the men and women marching, protesting and lobbying the American Congress against lynch mobs? Would they have written, as many did, earnest refutations of the racist propaganda that tried to make lynch-mob murder respectable? Or would they, instead, have been on the side of those who wrote to preserve segregation, who felt viscerally connected to the prejudices of a politically ascendant racism? It really is as simple as that.