What makes a mob or a violent protest truly threatening? It’s the fact that people show up in hundreds. More protesters mean more attention from government and media, which equals to better chances of their motive being justified or their demands being met. All this is great if your cause is just, but if you’re only looking for trouble, you might just get away with it by merely being a face in the crowd. It’s this thinking that can turn even a silent rally into a violent war.
So, is this the reason India’s experiencing a rise in mob violence? Let’s explore.
Turning up in big numbers is great. It gets shit done faster. When 35,000 farmers came a knockin’ at Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis’ door, he had no option but to grant them the loan waivers they were promised. When thousands marched to get justice for Nirbhaya, we got 4 convictions and the Juvenile Justice Act. Numbers can work.
But they can also be deadly because an unnumbered mob storm the house of a Muslim family and beats the breadwinner to death on suspicion of possessing beef, who are you going to blame? Chaos, confusion and thousands of angry individuals, renders law and order difficult and leaves behind a number of deaths with no one held accountable for it. Everybody is just a face in the crowd. No eyewitness from the mob is going to come forward, all proof and evidence will be tampered with and the murderer(s) will go scot-free. This is even worse in India since mob violence here tends to more often than not be sponsored by a political party or someone affiliated with one. Their connections with the party in power and the police personnel ensured their innocence even before the matter goes to court.
Torching hundreds of homes, destroying dozens of public buses or blocking natural resources of an entire city – these are all things that cannot be achieved single-handedly. It takes a menacing village.
Often times when the police or the authorities are questioned about why they failed to take action against a crowd, they complain about not having enough manpower to do it. It’s no wonder the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is still in force where these attacks take place regularly because most times it requires an army to put a mob to rest.
Not just violence, these numbers can lead to a complete shutdown in big cities like Mumbai and Delhi. The Dalit protest during New Year’s Eve literally paralyzed the city of Mumbai and the Jat agitation in 2016 held Delhi’s water supply hostage until their demands were met. A larger crowd can have a larger impact, and considering how easy it is to assemble a larger crowd now, large-scale shutdown of entire cities or parts of a city have become more commonplace.
Imagine this sequence of events – You get a WhatsApp saying a suspicious man (his picture) has been loitering in your area. You forward this message to your group of friends that live in the same locality. One of them sees him by the park, watching children play and says, “Must be a pedophile!” (Picture attached). This gets forwarded to 3 other groups, slowly forming concern and suspicion around his man. One message leads to a Facebook post, leads to a Twitter hashtag until it all culminates into a mob attacking said man and beating him to death. But where’s the proof? What if he was just lost, what if he’s brought his son to the park? Will we ever know?
Thousands of people show up to demonstrations and protests with concern for something other than the actual case all thanks to the fake messages and posts circulated over the internet. Agitation within the mob is built through these messages, each more accusatory than the previous one.
With WhatsApp becoming the most common method of communication, it is fully exploited by various political groups to mobilize vigilantes. Various cow protection groups on WhatsApp are often alerted with messages of Muslim people suspected of consuming or storing beef. These messages lead to mobs attacking and even beating innocence people to death. Case in point, May 2017 was rife with mob killings in Jharkhand, most of which could be attributed to rumors circulated on WhatsApp.
Think of the Arab Spring. The anti-corruption protest originated in Tunisia and quickly spread to different Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, Libya, Syria, Jordon, Saudi Arabia etc. One group of people realized they had a problem and successfully solved it, so the others figured they could do it too.
The recent Bhima Koregaon violence, which involved a clash between the Dalits and Maratha swiftly spread from a small district in Maharashtra to all over the state, before spilling over to Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh too. Similarly, after the first incident of cow vigilantism in 2015, at least 4 more occurred that same year in different parts of the country. And at least 13 more have taken place since. This is true for the ‘Love Jihad’ phenomenon too. The theory that Muslim men were marrying women from other communities to convert them to Islam gained popularity in 2009. These inter-faith couples were first targeted in Kerala and Karnataka but soon incidents of violence and honor killing were reported around the country and are happening even today.
This ‘domino’ effect desensitizes the impact of mob violence and makes it popular. By making it a trend, it becomes normal and how can something that’s normal be threatening?