Modern sociology like modern constitutional law posits a contrast between a state of nature and the state of society. Thomas Hobbes, the great contractarian had described the state of nature as a condition where the life of man was solitary, poor, nasty, short and brutish. A society was created for security, for survival, and for civility. A society and state guaranteed the rule of law. Yet when an epidemic of lynchings takes place all over India, one has to ask a few basic questions. What is lynching and what is it symptomatic of?
The surreal nature of lynching can be understood in six frames. In the beginning, there is a sense of lawlessness, there is anarchy but most of all there is a politics of anxiety and insecurity. The very anarchy of society needs the focus, someone the violence can zero on. Many societies created the idea of scapegoat, a stranger, a marginal, an alien who became the focus of violence. Society returns to normalcy after an orgy of blood-letting. The Jew played that role throughout most of European history. However, in these societies, the scapegoat is a fixed category.
Today the scapegoat is a floating signifier. It can be anyone. All one needs is a climate of suspicion, insecurity, and paranoia. Hate and anger surface and then die. In India, old and new stereotypes mix. We have fear of the child lifter, the cattle stealer, the spy and the alien. All the ritual of lynching demands is a mob and a target. Surreally, the act of lynching is not seen as a breakdown of law and order. The crowd fancies itself as restoring it. The crowd becomes the force of law and order. There is no role for reason, rationality, and dialogue. In one case in Bihar, the victim begs for mercy and keeps insisting it is a mistake. The crowd is deaf and beats him to death.
Violence is ritual; everyone participates it. Almost everyone will get the victim or enact out a chorus of approval, which is almost as violent as the physical act. All lynching needs is a rumor. The crowd needs to believe it is the primordial state. Violence is indiscriminate. The target can be Hindu, Muslim, Dalit or Pandit. The events might vary but the genre of violence is the same. The victim has to die a horrible death in the Republic of lynching. Often, he is innocent but there is no remorse from the crowd. The victim’s family is the only one who remembers the event. The silence and closure is amazing.
Oddly the state watches lynching as a spectacle. The policeman sits curiously as the orgy is enacted out. Violence has a quality of spectacle. The crowd pretends it is the state and enacts law and order as the substitute for the rule of law. The mob disappears, the memory fades till the next event. It is as if lynching has become the extension of the paranoid security state, where mob and state share a division of labour as a division of violence. The isomorph between crowd and state is worrying.
There is no use being politically correct and sane but some forms of violence are more equal than other. A policeman’s lynching and a cattle lifter’s lynching possess the same order of bestiality. In fact, part of the paradox of lynching is that it reflects the breakdown of the state and the irony of the crowd playing sovereign. There is a reciprocity here that we must understand as the national security state allows the circle of non-listeners to enforce its panopticon.
A lynching was to consolidate the power of the state. There is a complementarity between state brutality and the lynch squad. Only the mob might be more primordial. This return of the primordial is worrying. What is different is the aftermath. In a lynching ritual, the sequence is rumor, suspicion, scapegoat, orgy and then silence. In a legal society, one would argue the lynch squad is a thing of the past. What one senses in the contemporary nature of lynching is that it is a complement to the state apparatus. The two together create a balance of violence we call law and order. In this sense the lynch squad is not pathological but part of the normalcy of a paranoid society, of a politics of suspicion which has no purpose. Rumor becomes a way of processing anxiety. It is almost as if violence has a social function when law breaks down.
Law and lynching mirror each other in disorder and we pretend to call it society. In a society where old maps are gone and norms do not work, lynching becomes a desired mode of control. This is the irony of contemporary society. Editorials might deny it, but ground level narratives substantiate this new complicity of violence.