Be it caste, religion or ethnic violence, gangs of easily influenced, violent, often ignorant youth have become a major force in India.
For several years now, the caste system in India has come in the way of our social development and overall progress. It’s been a dominant factor in the way our society functions and has set very hard boundaries for social inclusion. These boundaries have again sown new seeds for caste-based discrimination to prevail.
While our economic growth boasts of steep progress, our regressive outlook on caste-based issues continues to haunt us. In 2016, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) had data showing 40,801 crimes had been committed against people from the Scheduled Caste groups.
Assaults on SC women, in fact, topped the chart of the crimes committed against marginalised communities. States like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar recorded the highest incidence of crimes against people belonging to these historically oppressed backgrounds.
Maratha youth protesting against SC/ST Act. Photo: PTI
Given this prologue, in recent times, we have seen a “dark side” to several of these caste-based issues. The cycle is more or less the same — what usually starts as quiet protest quickly gains external momentum, taking an incredibly ugly shape of mass destruction and mob violence.
The mob: A new form of ‘social justice’
But it’s not limited to tensions over caste only. Over the years, reports have shown an alarming rise in mob violence, in India. The recent incident of rioting in Kasganj, Uttar Pradesh, which has reported 195 communal incidents, the highest in the country, is one case among many of group protests having gone out of hand. There are similar cases being witnessed in each part of our country today.
This trend has raised an interesting question of whether mob agitation has, in fact, become a new form of “social justice”, gaining the desired outcome of grabbing “public attention”. To this end, we have seen several manifestations of the public’s expression of anger, from the burning of posters found objectionable to the destruction of property and public infrastructure.
Be it the food we eat (recall the lynching of alleged beef eaters in 2015, for instance) or the films we produce (the unrest surrounding the film Padmaavat in early 2018 is not that far behind us), rioting has apparently become the only way of addressing a community’s dissatisfaction.
A school bus was torched during protests against the film Padmaavat.
Alarmingly, such riots have become an acceptable form of retaliation, to whatever “outrage” is perceived. It is often remarked that the ferocity and intensity of the crowds’ sentiments behind such actions actually reflect the depth and gravity of the grievances plaguing these groups. That is a debatable assumption, but nevertheless, this dangerous approach cannot be justified.
Whether we look at the 1984 riots or the recent “Bharat Bandh” over caste tensions, the acts of violence and the vandalism perpetrated therein caused significant damage to property. In several instances, the state governments were forced to order a complete shutdown of educational institutions and severely curtail communication and transport services.
For instance, the Jat quota protest had paralysed Haryana for over 10 days, causing a loss of approximately Rs 340 billion to property and trade. Apart from this, the riots also saw gruesome deaths, and reports of rapes — the event is a blot in Indian history.
Youth unrest gains momentum
Past incidents of mob violence have shown that student unrest in India has also gained an unprecedented social dimension — these younger protesters act on triggers from certain quarters. “Faceless groups” of youth are susceptible targets and can be easily influenced. Their transgressions are often under political, communal or ethnic patronage. In fact, the protesters in several instances don’t even realise what they are fighting for and are clearly exhibiting signs of very basic mob mentality.
For instance, I recently received an email forward from a young acquaintance with the text “protest against the anti-reservation laws”. Having heard no such news, I asked the person to explain himself. He replied saying that he was protesting against a recent order passed by the Supreme Court that apparently wanted to remove the entire reservation system.
What shocked me the most as I heard him out was not the ignorance of this person, but the level of faith he had on his source of information — his influencers.
This shows the power of “mob mentality”, and how certain groups of people can be easily influenced.
The sociologist Gustave Le Bon, who theorised mob behaviour and psychology, said that “a protester is no longer himself, and is overtaken by the enthusiasm and heroism linked to the cause, which will lead him to possesses a level of spontaneity that causes barbarism and violence”.
The theory rings true for us in India. Take, for example, the Cauvery issue which was fuelled by several political triggers going all the way back to 1991. Be it the Godhra genocide, that most unfortunate incident that led to unprecedented riots in Gujarat 2002, or the recent Hindutva groups versus Dalits clash in January 2018 over a 200-year-old battle, we shouldn’t forget that a benign official “indifference”, cloaking incendiary factors at work under ground-level, acted as the catalytic trigger.
The only way these incidents even died down was due to a loss of momentum — the system of law and order did little to stop these riots.
Strings of unrest
In India, the politics of chauvinism does allow local political groups to gain power from mob unrest — and that’s the root of the problem. The country’s strength at the end of the day comes from federalism and democracy; despite this, local gang-leaders threaten the very idea of a nation.
Local authorities and/or political power groups must understand that they have no licence to sponsor such acts of violence to gain parochial wins.
We have entered a period of social decline and disintegration because our social environments are threatened by mob unrest. We need a mechanism of social audits, which makes state governments accountable for mob behaviour — and dismisses them if they cannot take responsibility for maintaining peace, stability, law, and order in their areas.
These measures are extremely important — not putting them in place fast will send a dangerous message of anarchic autocracy, which would be terribly detrimental to our democratic progress.