Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
THE word lynching conjures up images of a dark period in the history of the United States of America. Between 1877 and 1950, white supremacist gangs murdered 4,000 African Americans, while the government and the police looked the other way. James Baldwin, whose Dark Days captures the unfolding violence, wrote, ‘A mob is not autonomous. It executes the real will of the people who rule the State’. In 1888, white supremacists lynched seven African American men for drinking from a well — which they had said was for ‘white’s only’. Baldwin recounts that story and writes, ‘The blood is on the hands of the state of Alabama which sent those mobs into the street to execute the will of the State’.
The lyrics quoted above are from the iconic song — Strange Fruit — written by the communist artist Abel Meeropol and sung by Billie Holiday.
Lynching in India is not so far away from the American South. The sudden eruption of lynching events in the second decade of the 21st century is related to the ascent of majoritarian forces in India’s polity and society. One of the first cases of lynching in this wave of murders took place less than a fortnight after the swearing in of the Modi government. Mohsin Mohammed Sheikh (28) worked as an Information Technology manager. On June 4, 2014, he was returning home with his friend when a gang associated with the Hindu Rashtra Sena — led by Dhananjay Desai — blocked his path and began to hit him with hockey sticks. It was later discovered that the assailants had been agitated over one of Mohsin Mohammed Sheikh’s Facebook posts. He was killed on the spot. It was the first communally-targeted killing in Modi-led India.
Despite the controversial record of the Sena in the police files, and despite the fact that the Maharashtra government had once contemplated banning the group, the high court judge – Mridula Bhatkar — granted bail to the three men accused of killing Mohsin Sheikh. The order given by the judge is remarkable and deserves quotation,
The applicants/accused otherwise had no other motive such as any personal enmity against the innocent deceased Mohsin. The fault of the deceased was only that he belonged to another religion. I consider this factor in favour of the applicants/accused. Moreover, the applicants/accused does not have criminal record and it appears that in the name of the religion, they were provoked and have committed the murder. Under such circumstances, I allow the bail Applications.
In other words, if one kills someone out of personal enmity than that is worse than if someone is killed merely on religious grounds. Those who kill in the name of religion should be — by justice Bhatkar’s logic — given favourable treatment vis-à-vis other kinds of murder. The Supreme Court could not tolerate this judgment. It observed that the high court ruling was ‘coloured with bias for or against a community’. It set aside the order of the Bombay High Court. The rot had run deep. Even a high court judge could take the view that killing in the name of religion was not deeply awful and unlawful.
Lynching appeared in India not as individual acts — one person killing another — but as group violence — mobs targeting religious minorities, Dalits, transgender persons and people of a variety of deprived sections. Anyone considered ‘other’ was fair game. Professor Sanjay Subramanyam, who teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Indian Express that the members of the lynch mobs know that nothing will happen to them, that their acts have the approval of higher authorities.
Earlier, organised acts of mass violence were repetitive in character and there was a pattern, eg processions were attacked, or the violence was timed with public festivals. This was so even in the time of the Mughals. Then, post-Independence, there have been largely urban, organised forms of violence, where various political parties have provided protection to the perpetrators.
The difference between the earlier phase of mass violence and the current phase required further differentiation. Professor Subramanyam continued,
But what we are seeing now is not at a single place, there are fewer numbers attacked and it is decentralised, done by little groups all over the place. These groups are either being told or imagine that they have been told to act in this way. Further, after the event, no one in authority is clearly telling them the contrary. There is also an aspirational quality to the violence…curious thing is that the perpetrators want it to be known. After all, some of the people doing this are even videotaping it. They make sure the information is circulating, intended as a warning, as a signal and controlling device for the social behaviour expected of minorities. It is a form of violence which can pop up here one day and there on another. It is never mass killings but based on the existence of grassroots kind of organisations which believe in doing this, and also to an extent on copycat behaviour. So even if it is decentralised, there is a larger context.
If anyone doubts this dynamic, then it is worthwhile to look at the excerpts of a sting operation done by NDTV regarding the killing of a meat trader — Qasim Querishi — in Hapur (Uttar Pradesh) and beating Samiuddin. The police arrested Yudhisthir Singh Sisodia who was the main accused. Let off on bail, Sisodia spoke to NDTV’s A Vaidyanathan, who had a hidden camera. Sisodia told the court that he had no role in the killing, but when Vaidyanathan asked him about it, he said,
I told the jailer that [the victims] were slaughtering cows, so I slaughtered them. My army is ready. If anyone slaughters a cow, we will kill them and go to jail a thousand times.
The New India of the BJP made hatred and bigotry normal. This new normal is an unholy alliance of corporate interests and Hindutva zealots. It is defined by upturning the rule of law, sabotage of institutions, and the creation of an atmosphere of fear. India has become a republic of fear instead of republic of hope. It is worthwhile following Aarti Sethi’s question about how certain deaths become ‘non-events’. She has in mind the murder of Junaid Khan. In the Indian Express, Kaunain Sheriff M returned to the railway station in Faridabad to find out who saw what when Junaid was killed. He found that nobody saw anything as a young boy lay bleeding to death on Platform number 4. The blood stains, the journalist writes, are ‘still visible’ on the platform and yet no-one saw anything, neither the station master Om Prakash nor the post-master Bhagwat Dyal whose office is right across from the platform. ‘I did not see anything’, said Om Prakash. ‘I did not see anything’, said Bhagwat Dyal. They used the same sentence. Even the CCTV did not see anything. One official said, ‘There is a CCTV camera opposite the spot. The wire has been tampered with and it is non-functional’. Sethi recounts what she read from Sheriff M and writes,
Then they collectively, and without prior agreement, continued to not see what they had seen after the event. This is the uniquely terrifying aspect of this incident on which this report reflects: the totalising force of an unspoken, but collectively binding, agreement between Hindus to not see the dead body of a Muslim child. Hindus on this railway platform in a small station in north India instantly produced a stranger sociality, a common social bond between people who do not otherwise know each other. By mutual recognition between strangers, Hindus at this platform agreed to abide by a code of silence by which the death of a Muslim child cannot be seen by 200 people in full public view on a railway platform in today’s India.
Based on this blindness, Sethi offers two main considerations,
1. We are in a radical breakdown of the rule of law in BJP ruled India and in these regions mob rule now obtains. We are in the terror days of state supported goondaraj. From which flows the second conclusion.
2. On the 22nd of June 2017, the Republic effectively ended. India is no longer a secular constitutional republic but on the precipice of being transformed into a majoritarian state ruled by an ethnic and religious majority.
The lynching of Junaid was not seen by 200 people who were on the platform at that time. They did not see the violence. They did not see Junaid. This can be contrasted to the response of Ian Grillot (24) when a gunman came to kill Srinivas Kutchibhotla and Alok Musasani in a bar in Olathe, Kansas (USA) in 2017. Grillot put himself in the line of fire, shot in the chest as he attempted to stop the shooter killing more people (Kuchibotla died later of his wounds). When Ian Grillot was hailed as a hero, he said, ‘I was just doing what anyone should have done for another human being. It’s not about where he was from or his ethnicity. We’re all humans. I just felt I did what was naturally right to do’. If he had not acted, he said, ‘I could not have lived with myself if I wouldn’t have stopped or attempted to stop the shooter’.
In Portland, Oregon in 2017, a white man shouted racist slurs at two girls — one of whom wore a hijab. Three men on that train intervened. Two died — Ricky John Best (53) and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche (23). The third man — Micah David-Cole Fletcher (21) — was badly wounded. Namkai-Meche’s mother — Asha Deliverance — said of her son, ‘My dear baby boy passed on yesterday while protecting two young Muslim girls from a racist man on the train in Portland. Shining bright star, I love you forever’.
The two hundred people on the platform in Asaoti were not suffering from the kind of ethical dilemma that drove Ian Grillot to action, or that drove Best and Namkai-Meche to their deaths.
Countercurrents.org, September 13. Subhash Gatade is the author of Pahad Se Uncha Aadmi, Godse’s Children: Hindutva Terror in India, and The Saffron Condition: The Politics of Repression and Exclusion in Neoliberal India. He is also the convener of New Socialist Initiative.
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