The agitating Jats in Haryana set up blockades. They set buses and motorbikes ablaze, ransacked a parliamentarian’s house, attacked police chowkis, and took control of a water canal supplying 3/5 of Delhi’s water. At least a dozen people died. All this to make that most national of demands — more quotas. Rajnath Singh, the home minister, the man who threatened the “strongest possible action” against students shouting slogans at JNU, has also responded to the Jat agitation with alacrity. He has met with Jat leaders. He has declared a bill would be moved soon in the Haryana Assembly so Jats can get Other Backward Class status. He has formed a committee. He has appealed for peace and calm.
The Indian state has made it amply clear. It listens to the mob. Speak loudly AND carry a big stick and the home minister will meet you more than halfway. Merely chant slogans loudly and you can be charged with sedition, videos of your speeches doctored and played on prime time television, and you can be beaten up by lawyers in a courthouse.
In a nail-biting scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, whose author Harper Lee just died, young Scout blunders into a lynch mob that’s gathering around the jailhouse. The sheriff Heck Tate has been sent off on a snipe hunt. Only Atticus Finch is around, a one-man line of defence between the mob and its target. “You know what we want,” a man says. “Get aside from the door, Mr. Finch.” Into this crowd of “sullen-looking, sleepy-eyed men” steps Scout. And she tries to strike up a conversation with the only man she recognizes.
“Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?” The man is impassive but Scout soldiers on. “I go to school with Walter. He’s your boy, ain’t he? Ain’t he, sir?”
The conversation falters and sweat gathers at the edges of her hair. And then something strange happens. Mr. Cunningham squats down and takes Scout by both shoulders.
“I’ll tell him you said hey, little lady,” he says. And then he tells his friends “Let’s clear out. Let’s get going, boys.” And they leave, shuffling off in ones and twos, back to their ramshackle cars.
It’s a scene that resonates because even in a dark American South of lynch mobs and racial violence, it’s a reassuring reminder of some kind of basic humanity, a flickering but real point of connection that binds all of us across yawning political divides. But as the rhetoric around the JNU crisis keeps getting uglier and uglier, one wonders if we are in danger of severing that connection. Put another way if a young Scout had stepped up to that mob of men in lawyers’ robes in the Patiala Courthouse would they have left as well, embarrassed into decency, shuffling off in ones and twos?
The Indian state has made it amply clear. It listens to the mob.
The scariest aspect of what is happening today, beyond legal questions of sedition or no sedition, is that the mob is being empowered by the state. The mob is not being dispersed. Instead the mob is being garlanded. The BJP wants to drape that encounter in the colours of the national flag, tut tut about the violence but excuse it in the name of blood-boiling patriotism. It thinks there is short-term political dividend in that but as Mukul Kesavan writes, what is being damaged is the long-term authority of the republic itself. “When vigilante ‘justice’ is publicly celebrated by majoritarian mobs and winked at by complicit policemen, the rules by republics live, shrivel a little. If this happens often enough, republican institutions begin to defer to a bullying nationalism.”
The political party thinks it’s safe because it’s on the same side as the bullying nationalist but ultimately no one is safe from a mob that tastes blood – neither Kanhaiya Kumar nor that young Tanzanian woman in Bengaluru. By definition a mob is a Hydra-headed beast that eventually no one can control it as L K Advani discovered when the hordes he had fired up brought down the Babri Masjid without his bidding. What a mob does is it allows everyone in it to no longer feel ashamed about displaying the uglier bully in them. It finds courage in numbers. A rape is a secret furtive act. A gang rape is a shared act of bravado, a statement of power, a way of teaching someone a lesson.
What is even more scary now is that the media in its appetite for TRPs is not shy about egging on that mob. That is what NDTV anchor Ravish Kumar was trying to tell us with his darkened television screen the other night. Television, he warned was not about asking questions, anymore. It was about “maro, maro, pakdo, pakdo”. (attack, attack, seize, seize). It does not shy away from airing doctored videos or hearing “Bhartiya court zindabad as Pakistan zindabad” as an output producer at Zee News has alleged about his former employer. Both media and politicians see far more dividend in being at the head of the mob, instead of trying to hold it back. We are in the business of making blood boil like the Hutu radio jockeys in Rwanda who exhorted the crowds to go kill Tutsi cockroaches.
An Indian student carries a flower and holds a poster during a protest at the Jawaharlal Nehru University or JNU against the arrest of a student union leader in New Delhi on 18 February, 2016.
A few, like Swapan Dasgupta, eventually admit that they erred in sending out a doctored video. But they are still unable to say sorry for doing that, to try and undo the damage that a doctored viral video can create. The damage, alas is not just to Kanhaiya Kumar. It is to the idea of the state as an entity bound by laws and due process with the presumption of innocence.
It is to this idea of the state that JNU student Umar Khalid is surrendering by saying “My name is Umar Khalid and I am not a terrorist.” Whether that is true or not, whether he is a Jaish-e-Mohammed member as the Internet claims or fiercely atheist as his family claims, he is placing his trust in the state, its Constitution and its laws. Can the same be said for the lawmakers and lawyers who would proudly beat up someone in the courthouse long before he’s even faced a judge? Or the politicians who will not punish them?
“You just hold your head high and keep those fists down,” advised Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. “No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let them get your goat. Try fightin’ with your head for a change.”
But that's just in fiction. In real life the mob is happy to kill the mockingbird. Its name is mockingbird. It must be a seditious anti-national pest anyway.
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