It’s easy to blame WhatsApp for the spate of lynchings that have occurred across the country. Some in the government do and, perhaps, several outside it. But WhatsApp is only the messenger. To hold it responsible is like blaming a postman for bad news. This is not just irrational, it’s immature.
However, with perhaps as many as 34 incidents of lynching in the last year there’s an imperative need to establish responsibility. Only then will we know where we need to focus attention. We need to look, first, at those who send the messages and then, more important, at the mobs who act upon them.
In the first case, there’s a disturbing common thread. In at least three instances in Maharashtra, Hyderabad and Jharkhand the fake video messages have been the work of local journalists or stringers. They were either desperately trying to beat competition or just attracting attention. Maybe both.
In Assam it was the work of a school drop-out but, reportedly, an influential member of the Karbi Students’ Union. Perhaps this was a way of gaining importance and promoting his career.
Yet these are only individuals. Their motives may vary and I doubt if there’s any credible connection between them. Such people can be found in all societies. They act as lone wolves and whilst they can cause deep distress and serious damage, they do not reflect malfunction or societal ill health.
It’s a different matter when you come to the mobs who act on these messages. They are the real lynchers. They don’t just have blood on their hands but also ill will and wrath in their hearts and minds. They reflect a part of our society we have lost touch with but, now, desperately need to understand and handle. They are the real cause of concern.
I’m not a sociologist or psychiatrist but something has to be terribly wrong if groups of people, at the slightest and silliest of provocation – an unverified and, often, clearly fake WhatsApp message – can turn on innocent fellow citizens, who they have never met and know nothing of, and tear them apart limb from limb, not just in revenge for something they have no proof their victims have done but in the grand belief this is actually justice. This is a sickness. I have no hesitation in saying that.
The question is what has brought India to this point? I don’t know but it could be many things. After the impunity with which gau-rakshaks have turned on Muslims and Dalits, in the belief they are doing their religion or country a good, is it now the turn of those allegedly accused of child-lifting to face similar treatment? After antiRomeo squads and police encounters have we paved the way for other forms of vigilantism and high-handed justice? After ‘othering’ Muslims and Dalits, have we started to treat those who are unknown and unfamiliar as threats and enemies? And has the government’s silence provided the cover of immunity even when such dark deeds are carried out in glaring daylight?
Only if it’s normal and understandable for lynchings to happen in India can we avoid facing the questions I have raised. And I, for one, refuse to believe it is. This is a malaise that has a cause but are we brave enough to look for it? Or are we willing to be sidetracked by the message or the messenger? The fault lies in ourselves not in our stars and not, even, in social media.