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Posted at: Jul 16, 2019, 6:44 AM; last updated: Jul 16, 2019, 6:44 AM (IST)

Decoding the anatomy of mob lynching

GS Bajpai

GS Bajpai
The Uttar Pradesh draft bill on mob lynching looks weak in many respects, although it contains some preventive provisions as well. While Parliament is also contemplating to have a comprehensive law on this issue, lynching instances continue to rise.
Decoding the anatomy of mob lynching
Mobocracy: There have been 266 lynching instances in the last four years in India.

GS Bajpai
Professor, National Law University, Delhi

Amidst rising concern over the increasing incidents of mob lynching, the UP Law Commission has come out with a draft legislation to address this issue. With as many as 50 cases of lynching from 2012 to 2019, this state has decided to deal with the problem stringently. The draft bill proposes maximum seven years of imprisonment to lynchers and also imposes a punishment of three years on police officials in case of dereliction of duty in such cases. The draft bill looks weak in many respects, although it contains some preventive provisions as well. While Parliament is also contemplating to have a comprehensive law on this issue, lynching instances continue to rise. 

Up to this June, Jharkhand saw its fourteenth case of mob lynching when 21-year-old Tabrez Ansari got killed and this figure has now reached to 266 in last four years in this country. What came as a batch of petitions in the Supreme Court to address the issue of cow vigilantism at first, became a larger issue with ever-increasing mob violence on several issues that has plagued the country since the past few years. In Tehseen S Poonawala vs Union of India, the apex court said “horrendous acts of mobocracy cannot be the new normal way of life”. This decision makes several preventive recommendations.

Let us underscore the ‘criminology of mob lynching’ which presupposes lynching as a typical form of a behavioural manifestation triggered at the instance of a combination of factors. What moves a mob into collective violence and lynching is a question which has not been sufficiently investigated in India and nor does it have any presence in the structure of laws meant to regulate mob violence. 

Six propositions presented below explain the anatomy of mob lynching with the help of some criminology theories and other explanations. 

Firstly, it’s not always that sociopaths or psychopaths who commit mob lynching. Social learning and tolerance to violence in India is a deep seated trait among the growing youths. They grow seeing violence as the response and solution of a problem in many situations. Internalising violence on their part is a reality which manifests whenever the occasion arises. In his books, The Criminal Crowd and The Psychology of Sects, Singhel observes that the mob is largely constituted by strangers but it demonstrates considerable cohesiveness when it comes to acting. About its members, he says that “their sudden organisation caused by a spark of passion springing up from one of them electrifies this disorder in such a manner that the mob acts like a single being.” In the instances of mob violence, processes of imitation, moral contagion and suggestion/inculcation are always visible.

Secondly, Le Bon says that the individual identities tend to melt in a crowed to form a collective identity with its unique ways of thinking and expressing emotion. This is why the mob can indulge into a ghastly act with complete impunity. In essence, the conscious, rational mind of the individual is controlled by the unconscious, irrational mind of the crowd. Because of this swap from conscious to unconscious, reason to emotion, the collective mind of crowds becomes highly unintelligent. The mob typically follows a continuum of anonymity, contagion, and suggestibility which allows its members to express very unlikely acts of violence and brutal killings. Le Bon is of the view that a passionately charged mob enables a sense of anonymity which alleviates its sense of personal responsibility of the members for their action. Not guided by a sense of responsibility, the members rely on raw instinct to direct their actions.

Thirdly, mob lynching can also be attributed to deindividualisation. Leon Festinger, Albert Pepitone and Theodore Newcomb Festinger found that in this case, individuals are no longer guided by a sense of personal moral restraint. With the reduction of individuality experienced by crowds also comes a major reduction or a complete loss of individual reasonability, individual blame, and individual moral restraints.

Fourthly, Tarde, in his work Opinion and the Mob, underlined the extraordinary intolerance of violent members of a crowed, their ridiculous pride, their sickly susceptibility, the surprising sense of irresponsibility which originates from the illusion of being all-powerful and, finally, the total loss of the sense of measure based on the extremeness of the members’ mutually exalted emotions. A contagious cohesiveness is a key feature in mob violence as McDougall states that the greater the number of people in whom the same emotions can be simultaneously observed, the greater the contagion. Freud also said that in a crowd, the restraints of a superego are relaxed and primitive ego-impulses come into play. The ‘censor’ within the individual is set aside in the crowd and the ‘instinct’ or basic ‘id’ impulses, normally confined to the inner depths of the personality, come to the surface. 

Fifthly, Zimbardo conducted several experiments in which he tested the participants’ willingness to act with aggression toward other participants. Zimbardo wanted the aggressors in his experiments to be adressed in a manner that would inspire a feeling of anonymity.

The experiments found that the aggressors who had been deindividuated were much more willing to shock the subjects for a longer period of time than the aggressors whose identity was made obvious through the use of a nametag and regular clothes.

Sixthly, dehumanising is also cited to be a reason for mob frenzy. Homer-Dixon says dehumanisation de-individuates and externalise members of the other group and does not regard them as participants of his/her moral community. In the instances of mob lynching, it is seen that the disregarded members suffer a strong sense of alienation caused by a group of people who distance themselves to the extent of forming a strong sense of condemnation which often translates in brutal violence. In Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, Homer-Dixon says those commit mob violence are guided by group loyalties consider themselves as higher and the others a less than humans. Further, a theory by Allport suggests a common stimulus prepares two individuals for the same response and when they are so prepared, the sight of one making that response releases and heightens that response in the other. The second principle is that of interstimulation.

Any law, to be effective, would require as to how it takes care of dealing with those factors which are the product of human instinct and behaviour.

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