July 07, 2018

India: If Hate Has Been Normalised, Can WhatsApp-Triggered Lynchings Be Far Behind? Maitrayee Chaudhuri

The Wire

If Hate Has Been Normalised, Can WhatsApp-Triggered Lynchings Be Far Behind?

In such lynchings, the tragedy of the victim retreats into the background and it becomes more about keeping fake news in check.
Murderous attacks on helpless victims have now become routine in India, with numerous and varied grounds for killing the victims. In recent times, two men were murdered in Assam after being suspected as child kidnappers. However, in the last three years, the grounds for murdering innocent people have mainly been cow slaughter and cattle smuggling. The religious and ethnic identities of victims too have varied. Attacks on suspected childlifters have been usually by local villagers against ‘strangers-outsiders’. Ideologically driven cow vigilantes have targeted Muslims, terming them outsiders and dangerous ‘others’.
The antipathy towards ‘outsiders’ and ‘others’ is not the only pattern. In all these instances, rumours fuelled by Facebook and WhatsApp have been the immediate triggers. But what is far more ominous and important to recognise is that these triggers rest on an ecosystem of fear and hate, which has been nurtured with care and clear intent. There has been a careful dissemination of such messages (text message forwards) in the works. Hate has been the central motif. Much of this hate is not new. It is not new knowledge that mobs have a propensity to violently attack the defenceless in situations where the administration has either been slack or complicit.
Old grievances, prejudices and fear of ‘other’ people have been invigorated in a time where media ensures instant access and amplification. It is this hydra-headed messaging that demands attention. Mobs have bayed for blood and left only after the victim was beaten to death with a ferocity that hate alone can propel. Bystanders watched on, unmoved. Or perhaps they videotaped the spectacle of unbelievable cruelty and humiliation so those absent could vicariously participate in this moment of ‘triumph’. For, the broader message that has taken over our country is that ‘hate’ is for the brave; ‘love’ the hallmark of the chicken-hearted. We live in muscular and mean times.
The BJP, which learned early on that the media is a communication tool for PR, uses it deftly and ruthlessly. As the reigning ideology states, it is all about perceptions. People find distinguishing fake news from facts redundant in such climes. Has not the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology sent a letter to the WhatsApp senior management, urging action against misinformation circulating on its platform in India? Has not WhatsApp said it is working towards new safety measures? Did not the government warn Facebook over data leak?
And what connection do these killings have with the myriad hate-filled posts on social media? How does it matter that the prime minister follows trolls who spread hate? How worried should we be given the number of rape threats made to women who speak out? We need to think about precisely this larger atmosphere of hate that has taken over us. For these are times where an ordinary upper middle class man may casually forward hate-filled messages as he settles down for dinner with his family and bemoan the unfortunate rise of lynching at the same time.
Getting away with it
Political leaders understand these matters better. Recently, a BJP MP from Jharkhand announced that he would bear the legal expenses of four men in Jharkhand accused of killing two others on suspicion of cattle theft in the state’s Godda district. The party spokespersons called it a “personal decision”. (Just as they did with the comment by Ram Sene chief, comparing Gauri Lankesh’s murder to a dog’s death). A group of lawyers, not too long ago, attempted to prevent the police in Kathua from presenting before the local court a chargesheet in the gang-rape and murder of an eight-year-old Bakarwal girl. In each such instances, there is a customised messaging at work. The larger message is that it is okay to hate because it is a badge of honour and pride.
Recently, a BJP MP from Jharkhand announced that he would bear the legal expenses of four men in Jharkhand accused of killing two others on suspicion of cattle theft. Credit: PTI
Recently, a BJP MP from Jharkhand announced that he would bear the legal expenses of four men in Jharkhand accused of killing two others on suspicion of cattle theft. Credit: PTI
But as advertisers would know, sensibilities of groups differ. Messages have to cater to these groups. On one primetime television show, the ruling party spokesperson may hysterically shriek “throw shoes” at a political opponent. On other channels the same spokesperson may loftily talk of the rule of law and unequivocally condemn all such heinous crimes for they do not discriminate on the grounds of caste, creed and religion like ‘others’ do. (It is perhaps in that ‘noble’ spirit that the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh has asked for students in madrasas not to wear kurta pyjamas). After the magnanimous condemnation, they warn of the dangers of jumping to conclusions.
There are two interpretations that one can have of this well-crafted messaging. The storyline gets murky. The tragedy of the victim retreats from vision. It becomes one more instance of a ‘fair game’ of hurling cheerful accusations and counter accusations. Simply put, this dispels any lurking idea that there is a pattern – The killings are random. There is no perpetrator. Rumours just happen. Maybe the onus rests on WhatsApp. Why blame any one media channel? Are they not all biased? Did killings not happen before?
Let us be reasonable. In this apparent reasonableness lies the moot point that when everybody is to blame, nobody is to blame.
The media, once upon a time, was meant to initiate informed discussions that were understood as a key to a vibrant public sphere. What happens to the public sphere when the media becomes a giant messaging app? And messaging in these digital times have to address fragmented audiences. They are therefore customised to suit personal likings. The world comes to us designed specially just for us. Data mining ensures that the state, the market and political actors know what kind of coffee I like, the films I watch, how much I love my mother and whom I am predisposed to hate.
The messages I receive on WhatsApp have no resemblance to the messages that people received in villages in Manipur or Maharashtra. There can be no conversation across these groups. We are divided and closed in as ‘communities’ – real or virtual. Even murder does not register unless the victim is one of ‘us’. Our ‘imagined community’ has shrunk. How do we converse in these instant and smart times? Living in a world where communication is abundant, we encounter the potent paradoxes of instant access and unequal knowledge; a global Internet whose use is often confined within groups; a blurring of distinctions between views and news.
The recent spate of WhatsApp-triggered lynching has to address all these issues seriously. There is a pattern to the killings. And there is a deliberate attempt to fudge this fact and shrug the responsibility off by the government that has steered the country to a point where hate messaging has pried open every faultline in our society. The two young men killed in Assam according to the video clips that went viral on social media were heard pleading with the crowd to spare them, saying they were Assamese. This helpless plea is perhaps the key to understanding our collective tragedy.
Maitrayee Chaudhuri teaches sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her recent book is Refashioning India: Gender, Media and a Transformed Public Discourse.