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Why are some lynchings front page news and some not?

Last updated on: December 10, 2018 14:11 IST

'Across the country -- in Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, Manipur, Delhi, Bihar, West Bengal -- men were lynched on suspicion of being thieves by ordinary people armed with rods and sticks.'
'But none of these lynchings made big news.'
'None of these lynchings were cow/beef-related.'
'The perpetrators were unknown people, not so-called gau rakshaks.'
'So why were these instances of mob violence considered less newsworthy than cow-related lynchings?' asks Jyoti Punwani.

IMAGE: On July 3, 2018, 5,000 people marched in protest against lynching crimes in Mumbai. Photograph: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

The killing of Inspector Subodh Kumar Singh has brought mob lynchings to the front pages again. And deservedly so.

The killing of a policeman in uniform is per se shocking; this one was particularly so because of the manner in which he was killed -- on the roads by a mob.

The entire episode shows, as has every cow/beef-related lynching, the confidence with which so-called gau rakshaks operate in BJP-ruled states. And the response of the UP chief minister tells you why. UP CM Ajay Singh Bisht refuses to acknowledge the gau rakshaks violence. Describing Inspector Subodh Kumar Singh's killing as an 'accident', Bisht directed the police to find out who killed the cows.

The last time a lynching made it to Page One in all national newspapers, was in July, when cattle trader Rakbar Khan was lynched in Alwar, Rajasthan.

However, it is not as if there have been no lynchings in the interim. In fact, the last three months saw a number of such incidents.

 

Across the country -- in Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, Manipur, Delhi, Bihar, West Bengal -- men were lynched on suspicion of being thieves by ordinary people armed with rods and sticks. These killings took place in crowded areas; some of them in daylight.

But none of these lynchings made big news. Not even when the targets were three criminals lynched together; or three members of the same family, of whom one succumbed to his injuries.

Reports of these lynchings were tucked away in some corner of inside pages. Except for one, the rest were neither followed up nor analysed in the print media.

None of these lynchings were cow/beef-related, and except perhaps for one in Manipur, they were not communally motivated. The perpetrators were unknown people, not so-called gau rakshaks.

Perhaps because of this lack of media coverage, none of these lynchings elicited even a squeak from human rights activists.

So why were these instances of mob violence considered less newsworthy than cow-related lynchings?

The same brutality marked them. The man lynched in November on suspicion of being a thief in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu, begged for mercy as the mob slapped and hit him and tied his hands behind his back.

In Delhi last month, not even the entreaties of the parents of the victim -- an auto-driver -- made a difference to the mob.

In all these cases, the mob acted with the same confidence as do the so-called gau rakshaks. The lynchings took hours, people watched them, filmed them. Both those participating in the violence and those watching were obviously unconcerned about the police catching them.

There is, however, one essential difference that needs to be pointed out in these lynchings and those done by cow vigilantes.

In these cases, the lynch mob seemed to have formed spontaneously. It comprised all kinds of people, the only common factor among them being that they lived in the same neighbourhood.

In contrast, the cow vigilantes who carried out lynchings were well-organised, able to summon a mob very quickly.

Secondly, the leaders of the so-called gau rakshaks also turned out to be, more often than not, members of some local Hindutva organisation, which in turn turned out to be linked to the ruling party.

BJP MPs often spoke out in support of these violent mobs, just as they are doing now, in the Bulandshahr case.

Finally, the victims of the cow vigilantes were 99.99% of the time, Muslims. (In one case, a Hindu BJP member was lynched in Karnataka by Hindutva activists who suspected he was taking a cow to a slaughter house.)

These are all valid reasons for giving these cow/beef-related lynchings the coverage they got. In doing so, the media exposed the inhuman nature of Hindutva organisations as well as of the ruling party in the states and at the Centre.

Equally importantly, the extensive coverage sent out a message to the victims: That these crimes against members of the country's largest minority will not be ignored by the media, even if they are by the police.

In fact, in many cases, the media coverage forced the police to take action against the perpetrators.

The media could not prevent subsequent political and police protection of the accused, but it managed to expose such moves, by staying in touch with the victims' family members and human rights groups who have rallied round them.

Why then, was such media attention not meted out to the other victims of lynching?

Shouldn't the media be concerned about such frequent resort to violence by ordinary people?

What makes them vent their fury on individuals who cannot resist?

Famous playwright Vijay Tendulkar had found, in a study he carried out in the late 1970s, that ordinary people are capable of far more brutality than we can imagine.

While psychiatrists might be best equipped to answer why that is so, for the media, what's also important is the lack of faith in the law. Why isn't the suspected thief handed over to the cops?

That, and other questions would have been answered had the media followed up on these lynchings.

What was the background of the three criminals who were lynched in Bihar in September after they barged into a classroom looking for a girl studying in Class V? Why were they after her? Did the media also think, like the police normally do, that such criminals deserve to die?

The 45-year-old Telugu-speaking man lynched in Tamil Nadu last month only because he was seen going from one shop to another -- what was he looking for? Did anyone claim his body?

The Jharkhand lynching in September was the most mysterious. Three members of a Musahar (Dalit) family who had come to see a prospective bride were suspected of being thieves and set upon by villagers.

One report said the bride's family spread this rumour. Why? Such was the villagers' fury that police had to resort to firing to disperse them. One of the three youth died; did the others survive?

The West Bengal lynching last month showed the growing lack of respect for the law. Two men picked up for questioning over a murder were released by the police. This enraged locals who burnt the house of one of the men and killed him.

And what of the 16 year old lynched in Delhi in September on suspicion of being a thief? Living away from his parents -- his mother lived at home in Bihar, his father worked in Noida -- what work did he do? How did his parents take the news?

All these incidents were not just newsworthy; every one of them was capable of yielding a moving Page One story. Yet, the only one that was followed up was the lynching of 26-year-old Farooque Khan in Manipur, on suspicion that he was a thief.

The Indian Express wrote about the presence of armed police during the lynching, and The Telegraph carried an analysis on how this lynching illustrated the new and growing rift between the Hindu Meities and the Meitei Pangals who are Muslims.

Farooque was an educated and successful young businessman. A committee was formed to ensure that his killers were punished. A candle march was held; the four armed policemen present at his lynching were suspended.

Apart from the Hindu-Muslim angle, this citizen activism is also perhaps one reason Farooque's lynching got more coverage.

The deaths of the others went unsung, not just by society, but even by the media.

Media attention would have helped the families of these anonymous men derive comfort in the thought that they lived in a society where every human life had value, and the law meant something. Follow-up stories would have helped these families fight for justice.

Had the media humanised these other victims, as they have the Muslims who have been lynched by Hindutva activists, their deaths would have shamed all of us as human beings, the way the lynching of an Akhlaq or a Junaid or a Pehlu Khan shamed us as Hindus.

Jyoti Punwani
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