The narrative of ‘mob-lynching’ in India – Part II

The narrative of ‘mob-lynching’ in India – Part II

As discussed in the previous piece, lynching is nowadays characterised as an act of mob violence having a communal element to it. However, the crime isn’t inherently religion specific and is mostly a case of mob-vigilantism. There is no comparative data as such (discounting media reportage-based research) to say that the crime is committed more by or against a specific communal section in India. In spite of this, the mainstream media both at International and national level have created a narrative that characterises ‘mob-lynching’ as a practice employed by a certain ‘majority community’ to exploit the ‘minorities’. Lynching cases where Hindus are the victims and the perpetrators belong to a certain minority are reported ‘secularly’, but when the case is other way round, every effort is made to attach a communal angle even when there is none. Such coloured journalism in India has overtime built a false narrative that ‘mob-lynching’ is a crime committed only by Hindus against the minorities or a particular section thereof. In this piece we attempt to analyse how mainstream media reports changed the narrative around mob assaults and mob vigilantism after 2014 and treated cases differently depending upon the religion/status of the victim.


Lynching reports before 2014

Frequent news reports of mob-lynching recently started trending, but this is not a new phenomenon in India. In a country such as ours where the justice system is often slow to act, there have always been instances of mob violence. However, there is a difference in the coverage of such instances before 2014 than after. Reportage of mob violence before 2014 pertained only to the facts and not painting every incident as a grand scheme of abusing minorities. For example:

  • In 2012, angry villagers of Mansa district in Punjab discovered an illegal slaughterhouse. They stormed the factory, lit it on fire and injured at least 4 people in this act of violence. The incident did not get attention of mainstream media because cow related vigilantism was not, let’s say very communal then. However, the Hindu did cover the incident and the headline was Cow Slaughter reports trigger violence in Punjab Town”. The report did not attempt at portraying the incident as a communal one.
  • In 2007, an appalling incident from Bhagalpur (which is infact considered a communally sensitive region) came to light wherein the police had supposedly aided a mob in attacking a chain snatcher named Aurangzeb. In retaliation to this, a Muslim mob too pelted stones at the police leading to a stray incident of communal violence. Despite this, the mainstream media did not flash the communal angle as much than the custodial torture angle. For example, the Hindustan Times and the online portal DNA India both reported that Aurangzeb was indeed a petty thief and feels remorse. The Zee News too made no effort to paint the attack as communal and bluntly reported the allegations or rival political party members.
  • India Today in 2007, published a cover story titled “Mob Rule”. The story covered various instances of mob violence in India and pointed out the increasingly disturbing tendency of people to take the law into their own hands i.e. the trend of ‘vigilantism’ (which we now call lynching). Some of these instances were actually communal in nature but the publication did not treat the phenomenon as a one-way story of attacks by the majority on ‘a section of minority’. Rather, it discussed the main issue i.e. the impatience of the people and lost hope in the State institutions.

After 2014

Media coverage of mob incidents after 2014 became increasingly lopsided and the new term ‘lynching’ replaced the references to mob-vigilantism and assault. The objective being (political or not) to paint a sorry picture of minorities or a ‘section’ thereof in India which definitely worked as the International media and human rights organisations picked up. The pattern is that wider coverage is given to incidents where a communal or caste angle can be played and incidents that do not have those angles are shoved aside. The highlight of ‘lynching’ incidents became the cow related cases because of the easy communal hit. Let us consider two such incidents which evidently represent the media-bias:

On 1 April 2017, Pehlu Khan, an alleged cow-smuggler was attacked by a mob and killed. Khan, a resident of Nuh, Haryana along with his other aides was traveling back to Haryana from Jaipur when he was accosted by a mob who suspected him with smuggling of cattle to neighbouring states for slaughter.

Then on 16 October 2017 only few months later, Nandini Neeraj an animal rights activist was attacked by a mob of cattle traffickers against whom she had earlier filed a complaint. Nandini, a techie working in Bengaluru had noticed the cattle tied up in a slaughterhouse in Avalahalli and had notified local police of the same. On hearing of this, the illegal traffickers attacked her and pelted stones at her car.

Both these incidents are reprehensible but the media coverage of these is however glaringly different. The lynching at Alwar, became a communal issue and was widely reported as such by both Indian and International media:

In contrast, reaction to the mob-attack on Nandini was free of any communal tint and it hardly drew attention from the international media.

The mainstream media which jumped at reporting the Pehlu Khan incident showcasing a communal issue and declaring India as unsafe for Muslims were obviously not bothered by the other side of this cow smuggling and vigilantism issue, let alone using religion of the victim or the perpetrator for selling headlines. Similarly, other instances where thieves were assaulted by a mob or rumours of child-abduction lead to mob-vigilantism were reported in a clearly polarised manner. Even instances that have no communal colour are given one if the member is from a certain community. Let’s analyse this skewed pattern of reporting:

  • On 16 April 2020, Two Sadhus of the Juna Akhara, Shri Chikane Maharaj Kalpavrikshgiri, and Shri Sushil Giri Maharaj along with their local driver, Shri Nilesh Telgane on April 16, 2020 were being escorted by the Police to Gujarat to attend a funeral when a group of villagers in Gadchinchle, a tribal village in Palghar district of Maharashtra stopped their car and beat them to death in presence of the police officials. Most media channels claimed that a rumour of the sadhus being child-abductors led to this mob-attack but various other reasons were also being cited to justify the mob assault. For example, The Hindu does not even mention the word “Hindu” or “Sadhu” for the victims in its report. Headlines of most mainstream media like India Today, Hindustan Times, Indian Express remained neutral whereas the NDTV and the international reporter The Week chose to highlight non-involvement of a Muslim vigilante or a communal angle through their headlines. Very carefully crafted reporting of the issue was done to avoid a communal angle.
  • On 17 June 2019, Tabrez Ansari was attacked by a mob who believed him to be a thief in Seraikela Kharsawan district of Jharkhand’s. The mob caught him, beat him up and then handed him over to the Police. While the incident occurred because Ansari had allegedly committed theft, it is indeed condemnable that it quickly turned communal with certain members of the mob forcing him to chant “Jai Shree Ram”. The media did not however choose to cover it as a stray incident that later turned communal. Every major media house painted it as an insight into the local Hindu community’ hatred for the ‘minority’ community. For instance, Indian Express, India Today, NDTV highlighted the forced chanting in their headlines which became a trend then followed by the New York Times, BBC News, The Wire and other international news portals. Some of these reports do not even mention the fact of an alleged theft that led to the mob-assault.
  • On 22nd February 2018, a mentally challenged tribal youth Madhu Chindaki was lynched in Kerala over suspicion of stealing food who later succumbed to the injuries. A selfie was doing rounds in the social media where one Ubaid was smiling for the camera with a tied-up Madhu being assaulted in the background. Despite majority of the accused (9 out of 16) being from a ‘specific minority community’, the reports by Indian Express, Hindustan Times, etc. not only remain neutral in their reporting but also do not mention names to be extra careful of not giving the incident any communal tint. BBC went a step ahead while reporting the current incident by not only hiding the name of the selfie taker and avoiding hints of any communal angles but instead lists older news reports of Muslim lynchings in India in the very middle of its publication. On the other hand, India Today, the Wire, NDTV and many others were busy bashing cricketer Virendra Sehwag for pointing out names of few perpetrators in social media alleging attempt to fuel communal disharmony.
  • On 13 September 2018, Mohammed Farooq Khan was lynched in Manipur on suspicions of vehicle theft. The incident did not have any communal angle per se but several news portals attempted to pass it off as one. For instance, NDTV, News18, the Telegraph, The Quint did not fail to point out the religion of the victim also hinting at possible communal tensions in the State. The on the other hand kept publishing about the incident even after a year or so with most creative sense of story-writing being employed to showcase anti-Muslim environment in Manipur.

The incidents and articles listed and compared above are by no means exhaustive and only serve as pertinent examples of the communally charged discourse that mainstream media has adopted since 2014. This contrast in media reporting has successfully created a strong narrative that mob-lynching in India is only against the a particular minority and marred the image of the nation internationally.

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