Lynch-mob nation

In the cosmopolitan southern city of Bangalore this week, a Tanzanian woman was dragged out of a car, beaten, partially stripped, and ‘paraded’ by a mob. Her assailants, it seems, were angry about an unrelated accident, in which a Sudanese student had hit and killed a pedestrian. The details are appalling: when the young Tanzanian tried to escape her tormentors by jumping on a bus, the passengers threw her back to the crowd, and when she tried to file a report with the police, she was sneeringly told to produce the Sudanese man (whom she did not know) first. The scrap of comfort that can be gleaned here is that one bystander had stepped forward to help the woman, only to beaten mercilessly by the mob. But there has also been some anguish about ‘what we have become’: how racist, how lawless, and so on. Even the contributors to the comments sections in the mainstream press have recoiled, in the equivalent of an embarrassed crowd. Since lynching and mob violence are neither new nor rare in the modern Indian experience, however, it is worth asking whether the assumption that there has been a change for the worse – a moral and civic decline – is actually justified, and when lynching becomes commonplace.
For those familiar with Indian public life and its patterns of violence, what happened to the Tanzanian woman is almost entirely familiar, and not just because of the rage that lurks below the surface of relations between the car-borne and the pedestrian. The particulars of the Bangalore incident are easily recognizable as the idiom of violence against low-caste women in rural areas and provincial towns, and even urban women on ‘festive’ occasions. In a patriarchal society, there is nothing like sexual humiliation and terror to enforce the intertwined hierarchies of caste, class and gender. That enforcement is typically abetted by the police, who are after all there to maintain ‘order’ in every sense of the word.
The spectacle of the violent crowd – engaged either in a pogrom against a ‘community’ or in the lynching of a stray victim – should not surprise Indians. The rioting mob has been a part of public affairs in independent India from the outset, acting out a rogue history that resists historicizing and frustrates those whose preferred national narrative is one of warring states. It might be argued that such mob action is the sign of a ramshackle modernity in which the state is weak both ideologically and structurally: it has no monopoly on either the legitimacy or the means of violence.  Every once in a while, the liberal pretensions of the republic are exposed as irrelevant and alien, and the citizenry reverts to its primal state.
That argument is not altogether without merit; the ideological gulf between the crowd and the state in India can hardly be denied, although it can be romanticized by those who see the subaltern crowd as the repository of an alternative and superior civic virtue. It may, however, be more accurate to say that the problem is not the gap between the crowd and the state, but the overlap. Here, I want to draw attention to two other histories of chronic mob violence: anti-black terror in the United States between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, and anti-Jewish terror in Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s.
The American example is overtly noticeable to those who were shocked by the attack on the Tanzanian woman, because of the shared element of violence against those identified as ‘black.’  That connection, however, is a red herring. Anti-black racism is not a uniform or universal phenomenon; its roots and rationales vary from one historical setting to another. American bigotry is only tenuously related to Indian contempt for the dark-skinned. The more interesting overlap has to do with the relationship between the crowd, the state and the pariah. The epidemic of lynching which began in the American South even before the Reconstruction had ended was not just about reestablishing white supremacy and intimidating the generation of blacks who had grown up after the Civil War. It was also about creating rituals that would demarcate the boundaries and content of blackness – articulated as spatial segregation, sexual containment, disenfranchisement and the condition of terror itself – at a moment when slavery no longer supplied the parameters. Mob violence clarified and policed the outcaste status of people who were otherwise entitled to the permissions of freedom and citizenship. At the same time, it generated for Southern whites a method of defiance, not only against the federal government and the Republican Party but also against republican principles of American identity, recovering from it the narrower ideology of white democracy that had its roots in Andrew Jackson’s nation even more than the Confederacy. Lynching thus became the basis of a local governance that was contextually at odds with the national government: a rift in the state, in which the crowd established a semi-legitimate Southern shadow-state. It could be tolerated by the national state, not only because tolerance was politically expedient following the rehabilitation of the Democratic Party, but because it was consistent with the delinquent side of American praxis. Frontiers and colonial warfare came with their own rituals of racial violence. Teddy Roosevelt, imperialist and frontiersman, could thus both disdain and accept the lynch-mob politics of the South.
In the German case, that distance between the legitimate and illegitimate states was eventually closed. After 1933 but well before the Wannsee Conference, the mob and the state had become interchangeable, in the sense that each spoke and acted in the name of the other, and also provided cover for each other. Mob violence, as in Kristallnacht, functioned as a surrogate for state violence. Once the Final Solution began, the mob was fully absorbed by the state and lost its visibility as an autonomous entity, i.e., as a mob. In each these aspects – the emergence of the mob as a proxy of the state, and the redundancy of the mob – Germany showcased an arrangement of power that is fascist in the first instance, and fascist as well as totalitarian in the second. Lynching in the American South, in contrast, was ‘merely’ a form of productive terror. Whereas the state-mob in Germany produced the Jew and the Gypsy as vermin (or, as Agamben would have it, as beings removed from the domain of legality and illegality), seeking ultimately to dissolve the ghetto and empty the camp, Klan terror produced the Negro as a subordinated minority, to be kept in its new designated place.
When a mob in Bangalore terrorizes an African student, the American reference is actually the least applicable. There is no question of reimagining black students in India as a ‘minority.’ Euro-American racism has certainly leached into Indian speech and behavior (more in the diaspora than in India itself, I would suggest), but this borrowing is so thinly rooted in the history of that racism that it is highly superficial: an easily available imitative gesture, like the monkey-gestures that were directed at the black Australian cricketer Andrew Symonds in India some years ago. Indian racism against people perceived as black, and Africans in particular, is real and pervasive, but it is not an ideology in its own right. It is, rather, a practice extemporized from cultural rubble: neighborhood and campus tensions, perceptions of the relative wealth and power of different categories of foreigners, imported discourses of savagery that are understood at the level of picture books. Affiliating that racism with its American counterpart is like ascribing ‘anti-Semitism’ – a European ideology with a European history bracketed by Jewish emancipation after 1791 and annihilation before 1945 – to Arabs in the erstwhile Ottoman lands and post-Algerian-War Europe. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, anti-black racism in India is not primarily about blacks, blackness, or aversion to dark skin. It is about an illiberal community reacting to a perceived foreign presence in its midst when foreignness is unprotected by a color – of skin or of passport – associated with power.
It is also about the widening of an Indian practice of normalcy and dominance, in which the status of women, minorities, outsiders and pariahs is underlined by recognizable rituals of crowd violence. The Tanzanian woman was treated like a Dalit, not because she was black, but because that is how Indian crowds have long put people in their place and experienced themselves as communities of power. Bangladeshis and Biharis (and at one time, Gujaratis and ‘Madrasis’) in Mumbai, Manipuris and Nagas in Delhi, Sikhs in 1984, the Chinese in 1962, and Dalits, Muslims and women (of all classes and communities, although not equally) at all times have been subjected to the order of the mob. Well-developed discourses of otherness and inferiority exist only in the last three instances, but it turns out that such discourses are not necessary for that much-debated Indian phenomenon: ‘intolerance.' Racism towards Africans is readily acknowledged as an Indian problem even by people who bristle at the suggestion that there is widespread intolerance towards Muslims. The first makes India 'look bad' in the global press, and the acknowledgment of crimes against foreigners is a part of the damage-control. The second is intimate and existential. Like a crime within the family, it cannot be admitted even to yourself.
If something has gone wrong, it began decades ago, when older patterns of exclusion and domination converged with new civic identities, rendering public space particularly dangerous to anyone who could be identified as a misfit or an upstart. What has happened relatively recently, however, is a reinforcement of that public violence by the state, which is increasingly prepared to utilize the mob as a surrogate. A distinction must be made at this juncture. The reliance of Indian politicians and parties on mobs (usually organized from cadres or hired lumpen) is of long standing, and every party that has sniffed power has been guilty of it. But the mob-as-nation is a specialty of the Hindu right, which can govern the state but also strategically locate itself outside the state, among the 'public.' Nationhood itself – with its compulsive quest for an order of insiders and outsiders – has, accordingly, taken on the quality of the mob.
Few would argue that the Indian government systematically encourages attacks on Tanzanian women, or on blacks. (Besides, Karnataka is governed by the Congress, not the BJP.) But it does not seem to be especially disturbed by such attacks either, because what happened in Bangalore is not divergent from a particular understanding of nationhood, with its rituals of belonging, demands for order, and assorted compulsions. In this nation, the many will always take for granted the right to humiliate or kill the few – it knows no other way of self-constitution, with the exception of an anxious self-congratulation that highlights its investment in modernity. The day after the incident, Indian scientists announced their development of a vaccine for the Zika virus (a proud moment for the nation, naturally), underlining the Indian condition as a scientifically accomplished lynch mob. As I observed earlier, it is not really about blacks. It is always about Muslims, Dalits and women, in the sense that that is where the patterns and permissions of Indian mob violence originate.

February 5, 2016