This happened a long time ago. A student of Class XI, I was going to one of the innumerable tuitions that the pursuit of what a middle-class upbringing calls success forced me to attend. The crowded mini-bus had slowed down to a crawl. There was some commotion on the road.
It didn’t take long to figure out what was going on.
A thief had been caught, and was being thrashed. I was on the side of the bus that was opposite to where all the action was going on. So I didn’t get to see the man being physically abused . Nor did I need to. Over all the din and gaalis and the sound of violence, there was just this one tear-choked voice of fear, clear in its extreme pain shouting “Maaaa Goooo”. The conductor was leaning out of the bus yelling “Beat the bastard to death”, like a soccer fan cheering his favorite team. Two men pushed past the conductor and jumped into the crowd to a murmur of approval from the rest in the bus as the conductor encouraged the spontaneous vigilantes with a “Give one on my behalf.” Perhaps seeing my face, the middle-aged lady sitting right next to me helpfully said , ‘These thieves need to be beaten up like this. The cops won’t do anything. Take bribes and let them go. The public needs to dispense justice.’ For a nano-second, I thought of helping the poor man at the center of it, if only to make that blood-curdling scream stop, but then of course I knew that was impossible. The instinct of self-preservation was too strong. I was not going to risk myself for a stranger. So I told myself “I cannot get late for tuitions” and just blotted the voice out from my conscience.
The recent incident of public molestation at Guwahati , the smiling faces and gentle camaraderie of the perpetrators as they ripped at the clothes of a teenaged girl, brought back memories of that day long ago, when I saw, first hand, the sheer joy that ordinary men and women, once the anonymity of being part of a mob has melted away their individuality and the fear of being brought to justice, derive at the utter debasement of the “other”.
This pleasure, I posit, stems from one of man’s most primal desires, that of exercising absolute control.
And it is never total unless you have reduced this object of control to a state of sub-human subjugation, something that is sought to be done by first stripping that person of what they own (looting) and then their clothes (the most intimate of possessions), in the process removing the last shards of personal dignity. Then they are subject to intense physical torture till a shriveling mass of flesh and bone they reduced to, utterly broken in spirit and mind.
You will read about this pattern repeated time and again (“was paraded naked by the villagers”, “set fire to their hut and looted”, ” was publicly beaten”) in multiple incidents of mob violence. This is exactly how those in power break down prisoners and “those that have to be questioned”.
Even in Guwahati, you see the perps smiling for the camera, holding the girl as a trophy up in front of the camera, where they are so caught up in the pleasure of increasing the humiliation inflicted by the knowledge that her state of shame is being recorded, to be circulated globally, that they forget (or don’t care) that their faces are also being captured on film. The intent, remains as always, absolute control and the looting, violence, molestation, rape and abuse are all tools to be used on the way.
Now in normal circumstances these base instincts of humans are kept in check and the beast stays inside, buried by layers of social conditioning and the fear of the law. Once in a mob, all of this dissolves. Not only does the perpetrator feel immune from the law, the very fact that everyone else is doing the same thing validates the actions that one knows instinctively is wrong. The primal instinct to debase the other now becomes justified as community “justice”. Teaching the “thief” a lesson because the police will not do it. Teaching this “girl” a lesson because she is possibly tipsy, and has gotten into a fight inside the bar, a most un-Indian-nari thing to do. Teaching this “woman” a lesson because her son ran away with a girl from another caste .
The reason why I posted was because I have been disturbed, as much by this incident as by the reaction to it. On one hand, we see, and this is of course not surprising, a rather concerted attempt to blame this all on “the pub culture” (a surrogate for the evil Western MTV hand, a convenient doll for sticking pins in), as if molestations do not happen outside “holy places”. Equally predictably, I see a focus on the victim (“Was she a teenager or a mother of a child?”) as if that matters. All this kind of blabber does, in effect, is to deflect the attention away from the underlying causes of such mob-acts.
And on the other hand, I see increasingly violent expressions of hatred targeted at the perpetrators of the Guwahati incident (“Hang them by their balls”, “Do the same to their loved ones”) on the interwebs, reflecting the same “community-fueled” righteous anger that drives mobs, an anger that provides a comforting cocoon for engaging in the most heinous and primal of behaviors. Now before one waves the online bluster as people idly venting, incidents of vigilante justice like when Aarushi’s father was brutally attacked by a man outside court or when politicians are being physically roughed up, to a crescendo of public approval, show that this glorification of extra-judicial street justice has real-world consequences.
What should be done is that the perpetrators should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and swiftly (just as how it happened in the London riots) and that and only that can be a strong disincentive for such incidents in the future. Nothing else.