What Lynchings in 19th Century US Can Teach Us About ‘New India’

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There are three broad lessons to be gained by turning to this horrific episode of American history, particularly at a time when instead of confronting hate, our political leaders are busy garlanding it.

The word ‘lynching’, which has recently flooded our newspapers, has an American origin. It entered into popular American usage in the second half of the 19th century. At least 3,500 lynchings occurred in America between 1865 and 1920, mostly in Southern America during the period of black disenfranchisement and the enactment of racist Jim Crow laws. These were not random and relatively spontaneous acts of violence, but purposeful and deeply political acts. The overarching context was the end of civil war and the need to enforce white supremacy and control African Americans in the absence of slavery.

While the justification given for these ritualised, public acts of violence was retribution for crimes committed by African Americans – usually involving (generally fabricated) accusations of sexual offences against white women – the deeper context was always the desire to deny political and social equality to the newly emancipated black population. As the then South Carolina Governor, Benjamin Tillman bluntly put it: “We of the South have never recognised the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.”

There is a vast literature explaining and analysing lynchings in America, and it might be instructive to study it to better understand our current moment.

Specifically, there are three broad lessons to be gained by turning to this horrific episode of American history.

Firstly, the American experience underlines that lynchings are never isolated acts of violence but an intrinsic function of the society and the politics in which they take place. In his study ‘Lynchings in America’, Professor Randall Miller remarks that “racial lynchings was, and is, an American story”.

“Lynchings were not something that only bad people did somewhere else,” he writes, noting “the endorsement, if not direct participation, of the ‘upstanding’ members of the white community was essential to the meaning of public lynchings”. The local leaders of the community played a vital role in either participating in the spectacle of lynching, or justifying it in its aftermath. In doing so, they “reaffirmed their own authority by respecting and acceding to the will of the people demanding the death of the accused”. At a broader level, support for lynchings was a key political tool used by the Southern wing of the Democratic Party to regain, and retain, control over the Southern legislatures.

When Jayant Sinha garlands convicted lynchers and invites them to his home, or when the Alwar BJP MLA takes turns between justifying the lynching of Pehlu Khan and claiming the accused were wrongfully charged, or when the Union Minister Mahesh Sharma visits the funeral of the Dadri murder accused, they are, like their counterparts in 19th century US, reaffirming their authority by acceding to the popular will.

Union minister Jayant Sinha poses for a picture with the eight convicts. Credit: Twitter

While these local Southern leaders, Miller writes, publicly called for “respect of the written law” and following the judicial process, but once a lynching had taken place, they “refused to condemn the lynching or to prosecute anyone for engaging in it”. “Their actions, if not their public declamations endorsed the result,” notes Miller. He might as well have been talking about Jayant Sinha and his ilk.

Far from condemning vigilante justice, the centres of authority in ‘new India’ have rewarded Adityanath, a former vigilante with his own militant outfit who has previously been arrested for leading mobs in violent attacks, by making him the chief minister of India’s largest state.

The second lesson that can be drawn is that when the logic of vigilante justice has taken root in a society, it spreads to unleash itself, beyond the original targets, to envelop an ever expanding array of targets. As Miller points out, vigilante ‘rough justice’ in the Midwest was meted out not exclusively to blacks but included “claim jumpers, cattle rustlers, charlatans, harlots, and all manner of social outcasts, outsiders and “others” whom the dominant groups deemed unwelcome.”

While African Americans were the predominant victims, other ethnic groups such as Native Americans, Latinos, Italian Americans and Asian Americans were also lynched. Some of the biggest mass lynchings in the United States include the eleven Italian Americans lynched in Louisiana in 1891 over their alleged role in the murder if a local mayor, and the 20 Chinese immigrants massacred in California in 1871 by a White mob over the killing of a local rancher.

While there is some merit in the argument that the lynchings of rumoured ‘child kidnappers’ are qualitatively different from those lynched over cow, they both essentially stem from the same source of xenophobia, with the mob meting out swift justice against malicious ‘others’, almost always migrants or outsiders to their area. The efforts to legitimate certain lynchings, in effect, legitimises the logic of vigilante justice and the demands for swift punishment. Thus, just like the logic of ‘good terrorism’ and ‘bad terrorism’, the wall separating ‘justified lynchings’ of alleged ‘cow smugglers’ and ‘unjustified lynchings’ inevitably dissolves in an atmosphere of legitimated violence and the tolerance of mass hysteria. As our government is never loath to remind Pakistan, their encouragement of some forms of terrorism against ‘legitimate’ targets is the genesis of the uncontrollable spasm of violence that has engulfed their country.

While the government has sought to respond to the ‘child kidnapping rumour’ lynchings through such steps as better monitoring of WhatsApp groups, requesting new features on WhatsApp, spreading of awareness and strengthening of local intelligence, these administrative measures can at best contain the menace, not stop it. No police force can monitor 200 million WhatsApp users or effectively control a frenzied mob of over a thousand people, let alone a police force as under-resourced and ineffectual as in India. As the Indian Express reports, the distance of the local police station from the scene of the crime, in the 27 such lynchings in the last year, didn’t seem to matter at all. Many were lynched within two kilometres of the local police station, sometimes in the presence of helpless police officers.

Lynchings only stop, as the American experience suggests, when there arises widespread societal revulsion against such vigilante justice. Providing rhetorical cover to some lynchings, as members of the ruling party and sections of the media often do, makes that condition much harder to realise. The central factor that stopped lynchings in the Northern states, Prof Miller argues, was the ‘rhetorical environment’ created by anti lynching campaigns such that the “act was in disrepute throughout much of the North”. This included campaigns by leading Northern newspapers castigating the “collapse of law and morality” and regularly “equating lynchings with barbarism”.

Credit: Creative Commons

This brings us to the third lesson- how the media coverage of lynchings informs support or aversion to lynchings. Christopher Waldrep, in his comprehensive study of lynchings in America, notes how newspaper reports were critical in defining the rhetoric and narrative around lynching. Before activists such as Ida Wells and the NAACP managed to change the rhetoric around lynchings, at least in the North, newspaper reporting often provided a sheen of justification to lynchings through their narratives. Most newspapers reported lynchings in a sequential manner where they first reported the horrible crime that had prompted the mob action, the insistence of the local community on immediate justice and the inability of the local courts to the administer the swift punishment the community demanded. The reports crucially did not reflect any moral abhorrence over the nature of vigilante justice but instead harped on the reasons behind it.

Only later when the media took a more activist role in condemning lynchings, along with civil rights activists, did lynchings become “fixed in the national public vocabulary as an illegal and cowardly act.”

It is fairly common to find headlines such as “alleged cow smuggler lynched by mob” in Indian newspapers. The reports detail the accusations, pondering over the contents of the truck of the cattle trader or, as in the case of Akhlaq, the contents of his fridge. There is an equivalence provided to the two ‘crimes’ committed, only deepened when, as often happens, the police book the victims along with the perpetrators. Like the 19th century Southern newspapers, our media often shy away from providing the social and political context in which the lynching took place, and focus inordinately on the ‘crime’ that prompted it. The terms employed – ‘gau-rakshaks‘ (cow protectors) and ‘cattle smugglers’ – provide a covering of justification in themselves. Unless the media reflects the unequivocal shame that these lynchings represent to our nation, it’s hard to expect the societal repugnance that will ultimately stop them.

The first step to confront the menace of lynching is to acknowledge its social and political bases, and not to absolve ourselves of responsibility. While the much blamed WhatsApp is merely a few years old, mob violence, including lynchings, have a long history in India, most notably as a tool to terrorise Dalits and keep them confined to the lowest rung of society. As the columnist Aakar Patel writes, in his characteristic blunt fashion – “What we call the mob is often actually just Indian society” . Only in ‘new India’ the targets have expanded and the legitimation is filtering down from the top levels of authority.

The social and political legitimation of vigilante justice made America a theatre of recurrent lynchings for more than half a century. Unless we are willing to change course, the hope that technological or administrative fixes alone would stop this spate of lynchings is fatally misconceived. If we are to stop lynchings, it’s critical that our societal institutions, from media to socio-religious organisations, step forward and create a revulsion towards vigilante justice in our national imagination. And, above all, our political leaders need to confront the hate and xenophobia that, in some manner, underlies every lynching. Instead of confronting this hate, however, they are busy garlanding it.

Asim Ali is at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

The article first appeared in The Wire


Asim Ali

The author is a Masters Student of Development Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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