29/06/2018 10:13 AM IST | Updated 06/07/2018 9:33 AM IST

From The Ku Klux Klan To Cow Vigilantes: A Scholar Explains Why Lynching is Terrorism

"They have transformed Muslims into a thing, into the other, into a statistic, into a numerical figure."

The Washington Post/Getty Images
Unidentified vigilantes ride armed with sticks and other self-made weapons on their motorbikes in the hope to find and stop vehicles of cow smugglers on October 25, 2015 in Yadavnagar, Rajasthan.

The 2015 lynching of Mohammad Ikhlaq in Dadri, triggered a public outcry that lasted months, and sparked a debate over "intolerance" in India. Junaid Khan's murder in a Mathura-bound train, in 2017, made headlines for about a week. The lynching of Qasim in Hapur this month barely stayed in the news.

As such crimes have become routine, the outrage around them has dissipated.

In its four years at the Centre, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done little to stop Hindu mobs from killing Muslims on the pretext of preventing cow slaughter. One study found that of the 60 incidents of cow-related violence between 2010 and 2017, 84 percent of victims are Muslim, and 97 percent of the attacks took place are after 2014.

HuffPost India spoke with Professor Irfan Ahmad, a senior research fellow at The Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Germany, about how such horrific public crimes became routine in India and why civil society seemingly checked out.

Ahmad studied at the Madrassa Islamia Arabia in his native village of Dumri in Bihar before pursuing his higher studies at B.N. College, Patna, Jamia Millia Islamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He has taught politics and anthropology in universities in Europe and Australia, and is the author of Islamism and Democracy in India and Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace.

Courtesy Professor Irfan Ahmad


Why do you say that lynching of Muslims in India are acts of terrorism?

Lynchings in India tell Muslims, that you have to live the way that we tell you, otherwise, you have no right to live. If we have learnt anything from Ikhlaq, Qasim and the others, it is that if it happens again and again, then these lynchings are not spontaneous. The Oxford English Dictionary says terrorism is the "use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims." I believe the lynching of Muslims in India is a form of terrorism because it is being done to generate fear for a particular purpose and that purpose is a political one, not a personal one. The political purpose is polarization and the implementation of the Hindutva project.

Lynchings in India tell Muslims, that you have to live the way that we tell you, otherwise, you have no right to live.

How does this terror manifest itself?

Terrorism has many forms (not just Islamic terrorism). It has a Hindu form, it has a Jewish form, it has a Christian form, it has a secular form. You have to go by the effect and not by the instrument. One can generate fear through bombs, through missiles, through carpet bombing and by lynchings.

Fear is central to terrorism. Muslims feel fear when they open their lunch boxes in the train. There is a fear that if I open my lunch box and there is meat, even though it might be chicken or mutton, but a rumour might spread and my life will be in danger. Four years ago, this guy could open his dabba and have lunch without fear. In 2017-18, why is he or she fearing it?

READ: I Blame Modi, Says The Muslim Woman Who Watched Her Husband Lynched And Dragged By A Hindu Mob In Hapur

Is there any other kind of fear?

There is also a fear among Hindus and the larger population. It is called percepticide. If a guy is being lynched over meat, in my understanding, a Hindu would also be horrified. But what has happened is that they have gone from fear to percepticide, choosing not to notice or ignoring it. This percepticide is the Muslim experience in contemporary India, but it is not limited to Muslims. Fear is integral to percepticide.

So, everyone is fearful and keeps mum?

You can make a distinction between the primary group where the fear is directed, Muslims, but it is not limited to it. There is also a secondary constituency and that has fair minded and justice oriented citizens as well. Justice and fairness is not the exclusive property of any community.

Suppose you and I are traveling in a train and I open my lunchbox in the train and somebody comes and starts abusing me. If you see this, how will you react? Your democratic consciousness is not just about voting or numbers, it is also about transparency, justice and fairness. If you cannot act on this, then it is percepticide and that is related to democide, the death of democracy or not practising democracy in the true sense.

Your democratic consciousness is not just about voting or numbers, it is also about transparency, justice and fairness.

Kean Collection via Getty Images
Illustration of a group of hooded Ku Klux Klan members preparing to lynch president Abraham Lincoln, circa 1867.

Do you see parallels in history?

The USA presents the classic case of lynching in modern history. The white supremacist terrorists, represented by the Ku Klux Klan, practiced terror against the disempowered black, especially in the south. Most Klan members were from Democratic Party; some historians even described Klan as terrorist section of the Democratic Party. In its own view, Klan terrorism was defensive. Opposed to lessening of racist laws and participation by the black in politics, Klan wanted to preserve a racist order it called "natural."

Initially, Klan carried terror attacks secretly, at night. After the Reconstruction, it resorted to lynching in the open. Klan activists also took photos of lynching, for instance, in Texas in 1915. The photo was turned into a postcard, and they shared it with friends and families. In India, we have videos of lynching shared on social media.

Why has the public outcry over the lynching of Muslims declined from Dadri to Hapur?

There was a pro-Nazi thinker named Karl Schmitt. For him politics was drawing the line between foes and friends. Now, in India, politics has generally been about welfare, but it is has also been about warfare, the idea of enmity. The idea of Muslim as the "other" has its own history in India, but it is something which has accelerated in the past 10 to 15 years. It was not entirely absent when the Congress Party was in power.

Clearly, there is a process of "thingification." They have transformed Muslims into a thing, into the other, into a statistic, into a numerical figure. You posit the Muslim community as outside the nation, not just as a different people but also as an antagonistic people.

They have red Muslims into a thing, into the other, into a statistic, into a numerical figure.

But isn't democracy about empowerment?

You think of democracy as empowerment. We talk about the empowerment of women, scheduled castes, Dalits, rural and urban poor. But alongside this discourse of empowerment, there is a simultaneous discourse of disempowerment of Muslims. This is a worrying aspect for a democracy. Why is there disempowerment, thingification and othering happening in a democracy? Lynching is a manifestation of that malaise in our democratic experiment.

A mob surrounds Qasim, the man lynched in Hapur, Uttar Pradesh on June 18.

Why do culprits or those around them upload videos of lynchings?

To answer this question, one must ask why does the government not deem videos of Muslims being lynched as harmful to the social order? The people who upload these videos, they might consider themselves as above the law or even backed by law. There is some kind of symphony between the state and the mob elements of civil society.

These videos are messages for the victims as well as the perpetrators. To the Muslims as a unified community, the message is mend your ways and behave as we tell you. To the Hindus as a unified community, the message is look what we did for our community. It is presented as some kind of achievement. One certainly does not share a moment of shame, but an achievement needs to be telecast or broadcast. I cannot prove this empirically, but it is not impossible to assume that it would embolden other people, and even if they don't indulge in killings themselves, they will think that something good has happened.

What do you think is going through the minds of those who are watching a lynching. For instance, the men who were looking at Qasim as he was dying.

First, let us look at lynching of a different kind, say when someone breaks social taboos. When some guy, who is being beaten, or being paraded with a blackened face on a donkey, the crowd looking at this spectacle can be driven by both fascination and fear. The fascination is because 'I'm not him' and fear because 'I could be him' as well. But the simultaneous dialectic of fear and fascination is premised on the crowd being multi-religious.

What you see in the case of the lynching of Muslims is different. The 20 or so men, who were surrounding Qasim, they are not thinking that I could also be Qasim. And so, how they feel is different. If think they that they could be Qasim, they may still not stop beating him, but how they feel will be entirely differently. This brings us back to the thingification, othering and disempowerment.

What does that mean exactly?

The idea that I belong to one community, but they belong to another community. They are dispensable, not human. In other words, we don't need them. What you see at stake here is that life itself is being thought of as dispensable and indispensable. So, certain lives become worth grieving for, but other lives become trivial, insignificant or simply humans turned into abstract statistics.

What you see at stake here is that life itself is being thought of as dispensable or indispensable.

Has the political dispensation contributed to this othering?

I was very dismayed that in one of the addresses, which our prime minister made, he used dog-whistle politics, using indirect terms. He made a distinction between the badshah and the raja, with badshah meaning Muslim. He said in a medieval era war between a badshah and a raja, the badshah put 100 cows in front of his army. I have never read this. If these things are telecast, it generates effect as well as affect. Even before he was prime minister, he used the term shehzada for Rahul Gandhi, when I'm sure he knows, and could have used, the word yuvraj. It was basically just to say Muslim.

(Modi was referring to Ghazi Saiyyad Salar Masud and Suheldev, an 11th-century Dalit king from modern-day Uttar Pradesh, whom the BJP has recently appropriated to further its political agenda in the state. Historians believe the story of the 100 cows is legend rather than fact).

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
People participated in an anti-lynching protest on July 3, 2017 in Mumbai, India.

Has the lynching of Muslims changed us as a society?

The lynching, the talk about beef and cow, are also to shape and discipline public spaces. In Europe, where you have this debate about the hijab and headscarf, it is about what should be visible in public spaces.

In India, the train is a public place, and one of the beauties of India and its trains are the different visuals and smells. Even if you take a train within Bihar, there are people who will have litti, people who will have sattu, people who will have parathas, and all these all have different kinds of smells.

There is a visual dimension, a smell dimension, when it comes to vegetarian versus non-vegetarian food. The goal of the Hindutva activists and lynching is to establish a uniform, majoritarian, monolithic, visual — as well smell — in public places. It must be vegetarian. They want to eliminate meat and the smell that emerges from it from the public space.

The goal of the Hindutva activists and lynching is to establish a uniform, majoritarian, monolithic, visual — as well smell — in public places.

What is the fallout?

Arfa Khanum Sherwani (a senior journalist) recently said that if the RSS wants to rule the country, and if all the violence is in order to win power, then we reassure you that you will win power - just stop doing this. A former Rajya Sabha member, a Muslim, said that Muslims should keep away from politics.

The interesting question is what kind of democracy is this? The idea of a democracy is about politicization and participation. A democracy should be the antidote to fear, it is the freedom from fear. Why is the democracy, which we have, forcing people to get depoliticized, move away from politics and stay aloof? If democracy is generating fear then we have to ask basic questions about democracy itself.

(While speaking at a press conference to address Qasim's lynching in Hapur, Sherwani said, "If all this is being done to win the 2019 election, as an Indian citizen, I say that I'm ready to give perpetual power to the BJP and to the RSS, if it ensures the safety of Indian citizens and peace in this country.")

The BJP government came to power through a free and fair election.

Democracy is not just about the election, or populism, it also about the Constitution, the rights of citizens viz-a-viz its government. Democracy has a sense of what is just and what is unjust. If you delink the idea of democracy from justice, then it becomes a mobocracy, rule of the mob.

How are Muslims coping?

Muslims have not taken these elements, who do lynching, as representing a billion Hindus. Muslims have faith in the democratic setup. They have exemplified the great virtue - not of democracy, but genuine democrats - not of electioneering, but democracy as an ethos - and that is to have perseverance and sabr.

Also on HuffPost India:

Photo gallery The Best Sherlock Holmes Of All Time See Gallery