August 21, 2001


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Dilip D'Souza

See You at the Lynching

If you were in the town of Center, Texas -- which is actually in East Texas, near the Louisiana border -- on August 3, 1920, you might have seen Lige Daniels. I don't think it would have been difficult. Even today, the town has only about 5,000 residents. A small place. And on that day in 1920, if you wanted to see him, all you would have had to do was look for the crowd. That day, a large number of Center's residents -- a mob, you might say -- were gathered outside. Looking up at Lige.

That's right, up. Wearing a white shirt, torn pants and no shoes, his head tilted back sightlessly, this black teenager hung that day from the limb of a tree.

Lige was lynched. Arrested on allegations that he had killed an elderly white woman, he had been in jail. About a thousand of Center's citizens -- God-fearing, respectable and upright citizens, no doubt -- battered down the door of the jail and took Lige off to the tree. Having strung him up, they even got themselves photographed, and that photograph was turned into a postcard that was sold and sent around the country as a souvenir of the event, and here's one description of that picture that I have:

"Beneath him are a mass of white men, many looking at the camera and smiling. The camera catches one boy, possibly 12 or 13 years old, looking up at the lynched sixteen year-old. His smile and glee at the scene are clear. It's probably the best fun he has had all that long, hot summer vacation from school."

Makes your blood curdle. Yet that lynching in Center was a pretty normal event for the time, the place. Nearly 5,000 such lynchings were recorded in the USA between 1882 and 1968, and the estimates are that there were at least that many more that went unrecorded.

The great majority of the victims were, I hardly need to tell you, black. In the early part of the last century, racism in America was at its rabid, snarling peak, and men like Lige paid the price.

Yes, by any definition, what happened to Lige Daniels was the product of racism. And yet, having said that, the definition is hardly the point.

Move forward 81 years and 3 days. Move east some 10,000 miles. That will put you in the town of Alinagar ka Majra in Uttar Pradesh, on the night of August 6, 2001. If you were there that night, you would probably have seen a large number of its residents gathered outside. I don't know if they were looking at Vishal and Sonu, but it seems likely.

That night, that mob lynched -- or perhaps hounded into suicide, the reports are unclear -- 15-year-old Vishal Sharma and his 17-year-old girlfriend Sonu. They were found "sitting together late at night, so they obviously had bad intentions". If you are repulsed that that's what drove a crowd to beat and then kill these two children, you will be even more repulsed to know that that quote comes from Sonu's mother Munesh, and, I learn from The Indian Express, was corroborated by Vishal's mother Dayawati. For both children's families actually participated -- whether willingly or by coercion from the villagers, I don't know -- in the bestiality.

I hope I don't need to tell you that the two were from different castes. Vishal was a Brahmin and Sonu, a Jat. Like ordinary children everywhere do, they fell in love. Only, their love cut across caste lines, and they were actually "sitting together late at night" too. So they paid for love with their lives, perhaps even taken from them by their own families. The two mothers say the villagers kept "taunting" them, and they could not "stand the embarrassment", so they "put a stone on our hearts and just did it".

Makes your blood curdle. Yet such a lynching seems to be a pretty normal event in the area. The district magistrate, Manoj Singh, says it "was in accordance with local tradition". The superintendent of police, Vijay Maurya, says "none of those allegedly involved even considers it to be a crime".

Try as I might, I cannot see any difference between what happened to Lige Daniels and what happened to Vishal and Sonu. Can you? If Lige died because of something we have "defined" as racism, does that same definition not apply to the tragedy of Vishal and Sonu too? And yet, having said that, the definition is hardly the point. Call it racism or don't call it racism, it matters not at all. What does matter is what happened to these kids. And what happened was that they were murdered. One for being black, the other two for belonging to different castes.

By now, perhaps, you know what has prompted all this: the recent raging controversy over a UN conference on racism in Durban, South Africa. Some people in India wanted to have casteism discussed there. Some other people in India, notably our government, objected.

Now we all know what happens at these conferences. Much talk, many carefully but eloquently worded resolutions, and that's it. But if such an event, by simply discussing casteism, helps put an end to tragedies like Vishal's -- which I doubt anyway -- then surely we should all welcome such discussion? Why should anyone object, least of all the Indian government?

Which must seem like a silly question. If casteism gets on the agenda at a conference on racism, then it is being put on par with that acknowledged horror. So the controversy: is casteism racism?

No, say some very vocal and angry people. One such writes a column for this very corner of dotcomland. Elsewhere, I found him calling the attempted equation of casteism and racism "an offensive and gross lie", "sheer opportunistic nonsense", "blood-libel", "itself an extremely racist and inflammatory suggestion", "inane" and for a final irate flourish, those who want casteism discussed in Durban are "hypocrites". What's more, it's all an attack on Hinduism itself.

Yes, to such thinkers, the very mention of caste like this is an affront to Hinduism. It must be waved off as such, and also as coming from "vested interests" and "professional agitators" and "Christian churches". And the clincher: "Christianity and Islam condone discrimination and racism." All still quotes from the previously mentioned columnist. All of which, I am sure, will in short order be applied to me.

When I read fulmination on this scale -- and I assure you I've given you only a taste of it -- what comes to mind is simple: the fulminator sees some truth in what so enrages him.

I also ask myself: what's the true attack on Hinduism, the real blot on its wisdom and humanity? That casteism may be "equated" to racism at a conclave in Durban? Or that children are murdered for daring to love across caste divides?

Frankly, I don't care if casteism is "defined" as racism or not. After all, even at the height of the civil rights movement in the USA, unvarnished racists in that country's South passionately defended segregation. But they chose to cast it in terms of states' rights, of the USA's traditions of federalism. It's our right to decide how to run our affairs, they said, and that includes our decision to keep blacks away from whites. Of course it isn't racism, oh no! What a thought!

So, as you may have noticed me saying, the definition is hardly the point. The result is. Because people believe without question in the logic of race and caste, they do horrifying things. Those beliefs must be fought. The logic must be fought. Such people must be punished. Regardless of equations and definitions, how do you do all that? Surely that is the issue?

My columnist colleague is right about the other religions he mentions in this respect: that racists have always found religious meaning in their atrocities. Another comment about the lynchings in the USA remarks on the locations chosen for the murders:

"The dominance of Christian symbology is resurrected in the lynchers' preference for bodies of water, bridges, and landmark trees. Bodies of water are the traditional locations for baptisms; bridges symbolize the most profound rite of passage, the great 'crossing over' to death; and trees are the very symbol of life and of Christ's crucifixion. The lynchers sought, in the conscious selection of these sacrificial sites and in their participation in these ritualized murders, their own salvation and passage to a safer place without sin and evil -- both of which, in their minds, were physically embodied in the 'offending' victim."

Makes your blood curdle, doesn't it? Reminds me of the observations made by the DM and SP in Alinagar: the two murders were "in accordance with local tradition", so much so that the murderers don't even consider it a crime.

Luckily, such happenings and justifications are decidedly a thing of the past in the USA. It is by no means a perfect society, by no means free of unrepentant racists. But at least it is no longer a conceivable thing to lynch people because their skins are black. Even the horrific killing in Jasper a couple of years ago was widely condemned, not least in Jasper itself.

No, nobody said it "was in accordance with local tradition".

Dilip D'Souza

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