Palghar Lynching and the Individuals Who Make the Mob

Observe yourself. Look at your thoughts. Understand your speech. Fathom your actions. Now, with all those weapons at your disposal – do you stand with the lynched, the mob that lynched, or the policemen who served the Sadhus on a silver platter to a bloodthirsty mob? If this doesn’t help, ask yourself if you have done anything in your life to prevent such a blood-curdling incident, or on the opposite, have your weapons actually further strengthened such forces? We incessantly post hateful comments, we alienate people we don’t like, we write a deceitful article, we keep hiding the flaws of things and people we love, and then we go to bed with a self-bravo on our back while remaining completely unaware of what we have contributed to. There are people of course who do it on purpose and paycheck but I’m not writing to them.

 

We choose a side according to our predilections. Our group identities are running on a rampage. First, we are Hindus or Muslims or Brahmins or Dalits. These group identities give anonymity to the individual. The individual no longer has to bear the burden of his face and individual identity. He becomes part of a group – no matter how small or big. The group has a mask. This mask hides everyone. The question is who is it hiding the individual from? 

 

The first person an individual needs to hide from is himself – his own conscience. We keep judging our actions everyday. Imagine how much you judged and punished yourself the last time you reprimanded your kid. How is it possible then, that an individual goes and kills 3 people with such nonchalance? The mobocracy hides the individual from his own conscience and this makes it easier for him to do what the mob does. “We were not wrong when we voted our Member of Parliament in on the basis of our group identity, how can we get wrong now? This person must be punished.” The second person this individual is hiding from is the person standing next to him. It’s not that it’s just you who judges yourself. Usually, if you are a youngster, more specifically a juvenile, and you get into a silly fight with your friend out in public, someone will come and chide both of you to end the scuffle. That’s a responsibility an individual of a civilized society takes upon himself without anyone telling him to do so. Why then, the person standing next to a kid who is about to murder someone does not do the same thing when he is part of a mob? Of course, the other person is hiding from his own conscience first. Secondly, he also needs protection from the kid’s conscience. The symbiotes assist each other, become stronger than they were alone, and feel the rush of all-consuming power from inside out before they go for the kill. A life or several lives end. People outrage. People blame the group they hate. Job is done. Only problem – the symbiotes keep coming back.

 

So, what are the group identities involved here? A group of offended muslims because a group member’s daughter loved a Hindu boy, a group of offended gaurakshaks because a few muslims were smuggling cows, a group of offended villagers because somebody stole their child, and a group of angry policemen determined to prove their worth to the country as well as their power over a failed judiciary – these are a few groups that have in recent times been accused or found guilty of lynching. For the entire length of their lives on media – social or otherwise, these killers are referred to with their group name – a few more often than others sometimes. The 2 sadhus and 1 driver – namely – Sushil Giri Maharaj, Nilesh Telgane, and Chikane Maharaj Kalpavrikshgiri were being referred to as thieves or alleged thieves by the media outlets till the time those agonizing visuals came out. On one side, there was hardly any outrage before this and on the other side, once the visuals came out and it was conclusively proved that these were sadhus, a very consorted movement was launched to pin the blame on muslims. On the opposite camp, the people who usually lose their heads and leave no stone unturned to shame every Hindu of the country when an individual of Islamic faith loses his life in a similar situation began to shed ‘I told you so’ and ‘Now, you know how it feels’ tears of joy over the corpses of these men. 

It is not very difficult to see that if we cared about the individual, the outrage would have come two days ago. If we had cared enough to understand that no matter the group identity, an individual’s life should not be lost this way, we wouldn’t hurt each other in riots after riots. If we had cared about the life of the last person standing in the queue of our country’s civilizational progress, we wouldn’t have beaten up the doctors and nurses who have become our first line of defence in these disheartening times. 

 

Research Psychologist Irving Janis (1918-1990) who coined the term ‘GroupThink’ (inspired by Orwell’s DoubleThink) gives eight symptoms to identify GroupThink – 

 

Type I: Overestimations of the group — its power and morality

  • Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.
  • Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.

 

Type II: Closed-mindedness

  • Rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.
  • Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid.

 

Type III: Pressures toward uniformity

  • Self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
  • Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.
  • Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”
  • Mindguards— self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

 

To see an example, between 347 and 504 unarmed people were killed by the U.S. Army soldiers in the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War on 16 March 1968. Victims included men, women, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated as were children as young as 12. In Dave Grossman’s book, On Killing, a veteran described talks about the “ordinary, basically decent American soldier”

“You put those same kids in the jungle for a while, get them real scared, deprive them of sleep, and let a few incidents change some of their fear to hate. Give them a sergeant who has seen too many of his men killed by booby traps and by lack of distrust, and who feels that Vietnamese are dumb, dirty and weak, because they are not like him. Add a little mob pressure, and those nice kids who accompany us today would rape like champions.”

 

Add social media to the mix and groupthink becomes a godzilla that we can essentially refer to as MobThink. I can be meaner on social media than I would normally be with you in person without much of a regret. We create echo-chambers where we keep listening to thoughts and people we like. We hate with much greater gusto augmented by a sense of apathy for the opposite side. We mock people with gau-mutra slurs, we keep calling them puncture-wala, we insult each others’ Gods, we keep insulting the migrants in our states, we keep junking languages our mothers didn’t speak, we keep blaming Brahmins for all the wrongs done to us, we keep discriminating against the Dalits, this is a never ending list. There is always someone else responsible for our failures and problems. 

 

The other group or mob loses all its rights to exist. While social media has come to the party late, its rise and ways retrospectively explain what has been happening in our society for a long time. We are raised to conform. We inherit groups and segregations of caste, language, culture, wealth status, religion, dietary choices and what not. Naturally, we inherit groupthink too. The inheritance might not have been a problem if the individual is given his due place but we spend a lifetime being taught that a group is bigger than the individual. Conformity is expected, resistance is condemned, and quickly a whole society forgets that it is made up of individuals who must have the freedom to think, to question, to discriminate between ideas to become a productive unit of the society. That is a utopian dream though. The group-leader who keeps flipping between leading the groupthink and falling victim to it, is the only individual who is important. Rest are born to follow, propagate the virus of group-thinking, and die facing dystopian realities. 

 

To use an analogy from the story of Ramayana, Vibhishan, who was the only one to see the right in the middle of so many wrongs and could stand against the groupthink of Ravan and his associates is remembered more as a traitor than an individual who had a mirror of truth in his hand to show to the society. On the other hand, Ram had a group of people around him who thought differently and had different solutions to the same problems. From Lakshman who wanted Ram to punish the Ocean God against Ram’s preferred way of prayers to Hanuman who finds out Sita’s whereabouts and Angad who happened to be the son of Baali who was earlier killed by Ram, each individual had a specific role to play in the victory of Lanka. While the epic was written for us to perhaps aspire and work for individual excellence leading to a group’s progress, we have degenerated into clusters of Lanka where the only task at hand is to protect Ravans of the society and their criminal behaviour. Vibhishans are still unpopular and are getting kicked out from their groups with the same disdain and alacrity. This way, mobs preserve their homogeneity and commit to thoughts and acts where everyone is always a participant and no one is ever guilty.

 

What part of the incident should we choose to get shocked at? Should we be shocked that a group of people can kill three people without a moment of hesitation? Or should we be horrified at the fact that the police, which employs a large number of individuals who otherwise derive great joy and frolic by carelessly raining lathis over the vulnerable, literally handed over these men to the hunters as if they were the mob’s marked prey? Or should we be surprised that such an incident could happen in a country under strict lockdown? The lockdown doesn’t surprise us anymore though. Since it began, we have read news about doctors and nurses becoming victims of mob violence in different parts of the country. As recently as yesterday, there are reports coming from Tamil Nadu that the ambulance carrying Simon Hercules’ body, a doctor and medical entrepreneur who ran the New Hope Private Hospital and died of a coronavirus infection, was attacked and his cremation resisted by a mob. 

 

As long as we keep hiding behind the mask of a mob or a group, this is not going to change. The mask has to fall and it is time to bring the individual in focus, the same individual that was taught to us as the basic unit of society and then conveniently forgotten. Individualism holds that a person taking part in society attempts to learn and discover what his or her own interests are on a personal basis, without a presumed following of the interests of a societal structure (an individualist need not be an egoist). The individualist does not follow one particular philosophy, rather creates an amalgamation of elements of many, based on personal interests in particular aspects that he/she finds of use. On a societal level, the individualist participates on a personally structured political and moral ground. Independent thinking and opinion is a common trait of an individualist.” For Carl Jung, individuation is a process of transformation, whereby the personal and collective unconscious is brought into consciousness (by means of dreams, active imagination or free association to take examples) to be assimilated into the whole personality. It is a completely natural process necessary for the integration of the psyche to take place. Jung considered individuation to be the central process of human development. 

 

Evidently, our current central process of human development is rotten and individuals go unaccountable. Since mobs either have no answers and generally possess the demonic power of mob-justice with them, can we absolve ourselves from the sins of these groups? Do we stand the rigours of morality an individual must abide by? We don’t! There was a time when to get such results, psychologists needed elaborate experimental setups. Several psychological experiments of the past have shown that if put in a situation where we – yes, I and you, had a choice to follow a mob to commit an act of crime or not, we are more likely to join the mob.

 

Right now, social media is a live laboratory of several experiments and one doesn’t need to make much effort to see how we join warring mobs online – sometimes against another mob and many a time against an individual. We keep killing our own individualism and vacate more spaces for the mobs to assemble and kill more individuals. When we keep planting the seeds of hatred every day in our lives, how can we expect to out-outrage the lynch mobs? Our polity is filled with individuals hiding behind these hate-mobs, our universities and institutions are saturated with hate-mobs, our media has prime-timed hate in our living rooms. Our government system has accepted people who come out during the elections, use the power of this mob to spew venom against other groups, and then crawl back to their hole with zero accountability or repercussions. Our public discourse is largely ‘against somebody’ than ‘for anything’. Our inner dialogue has disappeared under the pressures of conformity to the lynch-mob psyche. Why does it surprise us then that three people have been killed in the most gruesome manner possible? Are you sure that you are not the rumour-monger of the town who will effect more such killings in the days to come?

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