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Pairing not with law but with perpetrators: Pavlovian response to lynchings in India

By Vikash Narain Rai*
Lynch-law owes its name to James Lynch, the legendary Warden of Galway, Ireland, who tried, condemned and executed his own son in 1493 for defrauding and killing strangers. But, today, what kind of a person will justify the lynching for any reason whatsoever? Will perhaps resemble the proverbial ‘wrong man to meet at wrong road at night!’
In one of the lynch videos, the police response to ‘jai-shriram’ sloganeering group handing over lynch justice, the final assault being a hurrah jump upon the victim’s seemingly lifeless body, seemed a spell under Pavlovian conditioning. The police simply transformed into a mechanism of glaring professional inadequacies.
In the experiments that Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov conducted with his dogs, a potent stimulus (food) was paired repeatedly with a neutral stimulus (bell), and the neutral stimulus came to elicit a response (salivation) that was similar to the one elicited by the potent stimulus. The Police response too seemed conditioned to be pairing not with law but with perpetrators, and almost seamlessly.
That is what makes the anarchy of the group violence in this genre even more sickening – the palpable helplessness of the police personnel present on the spot or lurking in the background, that was so strikingly obvious over and over again in the lynch video. The police seemed to forget that the lynch-violence is forbidden not because the victim is sometimes not bad enough, but because the rule of law is always too good. The reasons for this remissness are not far to see.
It could only be a reluctant admission; the RSS chief grudgingly conceding on the occasion of their annual Dussehra function, that the unabated discourse of mob lynching has brought a bad name to their Bharat. Mohan Bhagwat’s new quest to acceptability on social and intellectual levels mocked himself much more than his detractors, when he claimed that the word “lynching itself is a western construct and one should not use it in the Indian context to defame the country.”
The RSS chief has taken a cue from the pages of American history, but not to learn any lesson. Simply put, their own track record is too shallow for advancing such ambiguous claims that everyone should live within confines of law, and RSS “Swayamsevaks are brought up with that sanskar.”
In fact, Bhagwat had sounded much more self-convincing while asserting a couple of days back, a truly fascist tune, that while RSS might be open to considering suggestions for change, their goal to create Hindu Rashtra could not be revisited.
Therein lies the parallel between American experience and Indian experiment. Most of the lynching in present-day India is to establish the concept of Hindu Rashtra supremacy, like it used to be to stamp white supremacist domination in America.
In his pioneering book, “Lynch-Law” (1905), political economist James Elbert Cutler had begun thus:
“It has been said that our country’s national crime is lynching... The practice whereby mobs capture individuals suspected of crime, or take them from the officers of the law, and execute them without any process at law, or break open jails and hang convicted criminals, with impunity, is to be found in no other country of a high degree of civilisation.”
Pavlov with his dog
According to the statistics compiled by the Tuskegee Institute between the years 1882 and 1951 some 4,730 people were lynched in the United States, of whom 3,437 were black and 1,293 were white. Lynching decreased dramatically after 1919, the year a National Conference on Lynching took place in New York city.
There is plenty to learn from the American experience though, if the likes of Bhagwat cared. The lynching of Michael Donald, a 19-year-old African-American, in Alabama on March 21, 1981 was about the last lynching in United States. Several white people beat him to death and hung his body from a tree. 
One perpetrator, Henry Hays, was executed by electric chair in 1997, while another, James Knowles, was sentenced to life in prison. A third man was convicted as an accomplice and a fourth indicted but he died during trial. Donald’s mother brought a civil suit for wrongful death against the United Klans of America (UKA), to which the attackers belonged. In 1987, she was awarded damages of $7 million. 
The American Anti-Lynching Bill 2019 will amend title 18, US Code, to specify lynching as a deprivation of civil rights
It has taken USA hundreds of unsuccessful bills, starting from the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill first introduced in the Congress in 1918 to establish lynching as a federal crime, and innumerable demonstrations and other public advocacy manoeuvres to reach the stage of a lynch free society, where they proudly and firmly stand now. The Anti-Lynching Bill 2019 will amend title 18, US Code, to specify lynching as a deprivation of civil rights.
Compared to this, RSS and BJP, the social and political arms of the extreme right at the national level, together deliver nothing more than an occasional confusing lynch-rhetoric. They are consistently seen espousing the cause of perpetrators, leaving the vulnerable sections exposed to violence and, worse, the policing community too demoralised to act independently and decisively.
The far-right movement of RSS has a stark resemblance, in being extremely paranoid about liberals, with the John Birch Society (JBS), an American advocacy group founded in 1958 supporting anti-communism and limited government.
The Birchers would even believe that President Eisenhour was a traitor and that John Foster Dulles and General George Marshall etc. were part of a communist conspiracy; RSS believes along the similar lines about from Nehru to Manmohan Singh etc.
In their 1964 book on JBS, “The Strange Tactics of Extremism”, Harry and Bonaro Overstreet gave two main reasons to call its methods, notice the uncanny RSS similarity, fascist:
“It fosters the cult of the leader, reducing the rank-file to a kind of task force, to carry out directives and exert pressure at assigned points. And it openly advocates strong-arm methods, such as the killing of reputations by innuendo, which easily lead on to a tolerance for and a readiness to use physical strong-arm methods.” The organisation’s influence peaked in the 1970s, and a resurgence is noticed in the mid-2010s. The “Huffington Post” called the JBS “the intellectual seed bank of the right,” and many commentators from across the spectrum have acknowledged its role in shaping the Trump administration.
Mark Twain, called the father of American literature, wrote an essay in the summer of 1901 reflecting on the 19th century rampant practice of lynching, titled ‘The United States of Lyncherdom’ in reaction to a homeland (Missouri) lynching. Fearing a backlash from the South the essay was published in Europe, 13 years after his death. He had concluded:
“I believe that if anything can stop this epidemic of bloody insanities it is martial personalities that can face mobs without flinching... there must be other Merrils and Beloats (two exemplary sheriffs down south).” 
Alas, such brave and constitutionally conditioned police men and women are surely missed in the contemporary law and order scenario in India too.
---
*Former IPS officer

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