LYNCHING is the practice of summary extralegal executions introduced in 18th-century America — ritualised violence inflicted by a group on an individual. Genocide is a form of mass lynching perpetrated systematically by a collective or society on vulnerable minorities as a group. Both terms are used to describe episodes of murderous mob violence in South Asia but are not directly criminalised.
Attributed to Col Charles Lynch, who hanged an insurgent in 1780 without trial, this practice gained favour across frontier America. By 1851, vigilance committees (essentially, institutionalised jirgas) were formed. The main justification for lynching was inefficacy of the law. It became a form of community justice for theft and homicide and to intimidate economic rivals. It is now “a weapon of terrorism” to control the mobility of certain groups.
‘Consent’ and approval of the people were the sine qua non, and ‘chivalry’ and ‘honour’ became pretexts for lynching black men deemed inherently violent with a proclivity for raping white women. Publicised hanging, burning and automobile dragging were used to display the victim’s body for maximum effect. The spectacle was attended by thousands; newspapers and radios would announce the event and photographs were taken of the body, parts of which even became souvenirs.
Similar to arguments made elsewhere about ‘honour killings’, murders by mobs or communities are not random or sporadic but ritually enacted hate crimes by actors following a script, with the intent to instil terror and to police socio-sexual transgression. Murders related to blasphemy, too, are instances of majoritarian intolerance for heterodoxy. This does not mean the motives are not inspired by a sense of offence or injured feelings, but honour, customs, morality, paternalism, patriotism, love of the divine are convenient excuses for inflicting gratuitous violence. These deflect responsibility and convert the perpetrators into elements of noblesse oblige.
Simply outlawing hate crime is futile.
Spectacular brutality attracts mass support and attendance and the lyncher is often celebrated and glorified. Wendy Lower notes that these crimes go hand in hand with hedonism since the hedonist does not act alone: pleasure is often pursued in pairs and groups. Social media and phone apps are incendiary tools for mobilising mob lynching and intensifying voyeuristic sadism.
Lynching secures majoritarian supremacy, sexual obedience and economic intimidation. Religious outfits such as the TLP underwrite the script and virulent nationalism provides the redoubts. The state’s surrender to the privatisation of such practices was obvious when Sialkot businessmen paid what is essentially blood money to the widow of Priyantha Kumara.
Outlawing hate crimes is futile unless the ecosystem of hate is dismantled. Lynching has not ‘ended’ in America — its ritual forms may have changed but it continues in micro-aggressive practices, policing, disproportionate incarceration and is underlined thinly disguised racism.
The principled remedy for extrajudicial killing is to first end the death penalty which is legalised lynching. The state can claim legal monopoly over violence but to use it to kill its own citizens is an unfeasible paradox. The practical solution is to amend the blasphemy laws and indict those guilty of killings under the amended honour killing law. Political parties refusing to do so, and judicial elements acquitting such murderers may be seen as complicit in the continuation of the practice.
The main indemnity for mob crimes, however, lies in the popular support of participants and communities. Pakistan’s clerics have done enough damage by abetting such bloodlust with the approval of the state but incredulously, they have been defended by some scholars and intellectuals who scold those who criticise mullahs for their liberal antipathy. Fascism was historically aided by an intellectual patronage that defended the ecosystem of hate crimes and bigotry.
We cannot paradoxically admire the allure of religious populism in Pakistan yet bemoan its fuelling of hate crimes in India. This is to arm men who kill for the ‘higher’ cause of protecting women, honour or faith. To end moral relativism, the media has to convert public opinion from celebration and spectacle to shame and stigma. India’s ‘genocidal fantasy’ has turned non-fictional and the nation needs to be shamed, stigmatised and shunned. The global community that claims to be repulsed by the history of fascism and genocide in Europe must issue financial and political warnings to India.
Scholars and race experts have argued for categorising mob violence/ lynching as domestic terrorism, despite the concern that such laws are used to intimidate citizens and groups, along with the contentious role of ATCs. Until Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are amended, however, treating mob violence as terrorism could mitigate the escalating lynching that is taking genocidal turns.
The writer is the author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2022