Seven men were lynched in two separate acts in Jharkhand on 18 May.
Sections of the mainstream media rushed to colour these incidents communal – even when the facts did not appear to concur.
This has several damaging consequences for our society – none of them good.
The Jharkhand lynchings brought to light much of what is wrong with our society, governance and the law-and-order machinery today, and therefore, we must ask, and encourage others to do so as well, some uncomfortable questions about the society we inhabit. Of this there is no doubt.
To recap briefly, in the incidents alluded to earlier, seven men were lynched in two separate acts in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, on the suspicion of being child kidnappers. Both the lynchings happened on 18 May.
As news of the murders made its way to various publications, a natural outrage followed. However, some popular faces of the media went on to proclaim that the lynchings were about religion. Comparisons with Islamic State were casually thrown around and reports of the murders were shared with comments which implied that in the India of 2017, Hindus can go on a rampage at will, and would be tacitly aided by the state in their acts. This group of journalists was clear in its view that the victims .
However, the murderous mobs had made no such distinction. Of the seven people murdered, four were Muslims, and three, Hindus.
That the lynchings should lead us to a round of serious introspection is irrefutable. The sign of a matured mind, however, is to hold two conflicting ideas at the same time and still be able to function, as author Scott Fitzgerald once said. Therefore, while we must urge everyone to ask tough questions about our society, that must not condone the motivations and fall-outs of some of the reactions evoked in the aftermath of the killings. More so, when these reactions come from individuals or institutions with a political intent. To discourage examination of these individuals or institutions is both dangerous and detrimental to the debate.
Sadly, the phenomenon of the mainstream media (MSM) viewing every law-and-order-related incident through the red-tinged lens of identity politics has become all too common since the 2014 general elections. And this has several damaging consequences for society.
One, communalising such incidents often allows the local law-and-order agencies and government to evade a stern examination. The moment you term what happened in a town in Jharkhand as manifestation of a larger evil plaguing the entire society, you are allowing the people responsible on the ground to evade responsibility, even as the debate shifts from micro-analysis to the supposed big picture.
Two, the other side of the same coin is that this kind of communalised debate keeps the law and order out of scrutiny. It never surprises me how little the law-and-order machinery is represented in the prime-time debates about such incidents. If we think the debate over Kashmir would benefit from the perspectives of retired armed forces personnel, why do we feel that debates about preventing lynchings or rapes or murders, essentially law-and-order issues, would not benefit from the perspectives of some retired senior police officers? Perhaps, the media feels that those hard-nosed realists might tell them what they don’t wish to hear, i.e., these incidents are law-and-order problems that require sterner policing and a better criminal justice framework.
Third, this kind of communalisation of incidents also pushes the moderates out of the debate. Today, this has been fine-tuned to almost an art by some. The process goes something like this – sensationalise a case without fact-checking, blame the right-wing ideology for it, and when people either point out the factual errors in the accusations or demand that liberals show consistency in calling out all similar acts of violence, term those people as enablers of the rampaging lynch mobs.
I would like to point out here that I am not talking about those on the right who try to justify vigilantism. My revulsion of violence does not need to pass an arbitrary test of virtue set by those philosophically inconsistent. As Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner say in Freakonomics, economics is a study of incentives and disincentives.
The political discourse is not very different either. The moment you dub a moderate as an enabler of fringe, solely because they are pointing out factual errors in your statements, the incentives of those moderates to stand against fringe elements within their own ranks is taken away from them.
Fourth, brazen and continuous lying by noted members of the media steadily chips away at the already-eroded credibility of the entire mainstream media. This is dangerous for our future as a society since it slowly dismantles the institution of media as an early warning system. With the current track record of the MSM, and with the stubborn refusal of almost the entire industry to recognise the communal nature of violence against Hindus in states like Kerala and Bengal, only the most naïve or the most politically motivated would choose to believe in them. What if tomorrow a situation warrants people trusting media as an early warning system? Who would be responsible then if citizens choose to ignore the media’s narrative as lies?
Fifth, the irony of the same media pushing the ‘terror has no religion’ line on one front in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary and pushing the largely non-existent bogeyman of Hindu terrorism on the other, cannot be ignored either. As I have said earlier, there are places in India where people are being targeted and killed solely due to the ideology they support and the MSM’s silence on the genocide of the Kashmiri Pandits, say, or the murders of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh workers in Kerala is deafening.
At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I would say that sections of the media and the intelligentsia view the common citizen as some kind of animal that is not trained yet and might bite if not watched at every moment, by a few chosen ones. The right (or at least the side I subscribe to) continues to believe that people are largely ordinary with mundane economic and social concerns and are not the twenty-first century incarnations of crusaders moving from one Armageddon to another.
The ordinary man or woman is as horrified as any journalist by incidents like the lynchings in Jharkhand. Questioning their morals based on their political views is intimidating them into silence, at best, and the vilest form of bigotry, at worse.
“Atticus, he was nice”, Little Scout tells her father towards the end of Harper Lee’s iconic To Kill a Mockingbird.
“Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them”, Atticus, her father, tells her.
I rest my case.