When in general parlance we refer to the term society, what do we mean by it? It seems a very vague concept, intangible and abstract. Hence, it is used anywhere and in any way. But if one has to really define society, in simple words, it would be us.
Yes, society is nothing but us along with our different complexities such as politics, economics, culture and geography as well as the ecology. Social scientists will further elaborate on the notion of ‘social’ according to their disciplinary knowledge but what is crucial to understand is that the relationship between individuals and society and how both are indispensable to each other.
We generally assume that as individuals, our choices, decisions, preferences are very personal and self-motivated. To an extent, this is true because every one of us is a different being with varied subjectivities. However, that is just one part of the story which, however, gets more highlighted in the disguise of being self-sufficient, independent and having the ability to look after oneself without the help and care of others. The obscure part of the story is the omnipresence of the society, in other words, the socio-economic and political arrangements, cultural symbols and heritage as well as human emotions and sensibilities reproduced in a given physical space with distinct flora and fauna.
My emphasis on this relationship between humans and society is precisely because of the inability to recognise this connection. This is where the root cause of many upheavals that we are facing lies. I am writing today because, for quite a long time, we have been witnessing hatred and intolerance towards the ‘other’ culminating in mob violence. What is unique about these recent incidents of violence is their very cause. If we look back, then in many cases, there are in actuality no real causes. What is there is a rumoured, made up, cause disseminated by inauthentic and false news. This is the latest trend of instigating and spreading negative feelings, tension and hatred in the society.
Its latest victims were two young men in Assam who were mistaken to be child adductors and were lynched by a mob at Panjuri village in Karbi Anglong district on the evening of June 8. These two men named Nilotpal Das, a sound engineer and his friend Abhijeet Nath, an engineer were avid nature lovers and therefore went to Karbi Anglong to experience the beauty of its natural serenity. On the other hand, several villages for a quite some time now, were being haunted by the myth of Xupadhora or child abductors, vehemently circulated in the social media. But the validity of this fact had not yet been ascertained.
While they were on their way back to Guwahati, the young men were attacked by a restless crowd who claimed to have received the information that they had kidnapped children. However, the truth was that they were suspected to be the abductors just because one of the men had grown dreadlocks. This is really not acceptable and hence it was condemned tremendously by all the sections of the society.
The incident has triggered a spontaneous outburst of angst towards the culprits and dissatisfaction on the role of local authorities in failing to ensure the security of the people. Its manifestation is most vivid on social media with thousands of posts, tweets and WhatsApp statuses condemning the incident and seeking justice for the departed souls.
The motivating part is that the protest did not confine itself only to social media but people, especially the younger generation, came out of their comfortable spaces and took to the streets to register their dissent. This is an example of solidarity, the ‘we’ feeling that every aware and alive society generates. But the question which comes to mind is that why does public outcry reach its peak only when the crisis has already occurred and till what time will it remain in public memory? This incident of lynching is very fresh in our consciousness, organised in the here of our bodies and the now of our time. But what will happen after a year, a month or even a week? Would it be still there in public memory or would it be forgotten just like any other incident after a hullabaloo of empty slogans and hollow protests? The question that we need to ask ourselves is whether we really want this to happen or are disposed to ensure that such incidents do not occur in the future.
The reason that I raised the connection between the individual and society is that many of us are looking at this incident as an isolated act that took place at a particular place and by certain people who belong to a specific community. If this perspective is to be believed, then we are falling into the trap of an individualistic understanding of societal life. It is this way of looking at social realities that have turned us blind to the dominant ideology, be it believing in the notions of child abductors, cow slaughter, love jihad or terming anyone ‘anti-national’.
In hindsight, what is transpiring in all these cases is the creation of a duality of ‘we’ versus the ‘other’. Parallel to the mob lynching incident is the issue of the Citizenship Bill whereby this narrative of ‘we’ and the ‘other’ is most evident. Its echoes can be heard in the demonstrations against the bill whereby the ‘Axomiya’ identity is reiterated viz a viz the ‘foreigners’. Here, the binary is between people from one nation-state and another nation-state. In this incident too, the question of Axomiya identity has become a moot point. In the heart-wrenching video, the lynching victims can be heard begging for their lives by repeatedly identifying themselves as Axomiya. Even on different media platforms, the invocation of this identity has been tremendous.
This triggers the question – who are Axomiya? Particularly because now the narrative seems to have again become ‘we’ versus ‘other’. Here the ‘other’, unlike the Citizenship Bill, is from the same country and even the same state. The other are the ‘Karbis’ in particular and other tribal communities in general while the ‘we’ is dubious but it is susceptible to be defined by the dominant group.
Looking back on our history will show that these dualities have been produced and reproduced at different junctures. One of the most distinct examples was during and in the aftermath of the Assam movement. The reason for bringing up the issue of Citizenship Bill while analysing the mob lynching in Karbi Anglong is also because like the former, now there is a possibility of shifting the focus from why, how and what of the incident to the partisan politics of ‘we’ versus the ‘other’, Axomiya and Anaaxomiya, tribal and non-tribal communities in Assam.
Here, the question is that how do we as people of the state want to orient the course of the entire episode? Our actions and intentions matter as nothing can take its total shape without popular support. This concern is especially for the youth including me, who have been a the forefront in seeking justice and protesting against the gruesome incident. Do we want to be disillusioned by the politics of suspicion and mistrust or rather to be retrospective of our actions as well as those of the authorities and the culprits so that no more souls meet the same fate as Niotpal and Abhijeet?
Justice should be definitely sought and be given. One of the ways of ensuring it is through the course of law. However, that will only be a half-hearted attempt of giving justice to those innocent young men and to their families. No punishment on earth can ensure any crime to be curbed as, in my opinion, a certain amount of criminal activities are an intrinsic part of a society. Nonetheless, when its rate and intensity increases, then the society becomes pathological. It becomes a sick society whereby laws, like medicines, can only cure the germs but the person has to have the will to fight against it.
In the same manner, our actions are equally important along with the legalities of punishment. By actions, I do not mean very big steps; rather, little changes that we can bring in our everyday lives that can have larger consequences for the society. The very first thing that we can attempt to do is to trust ourselves, our decisions and judgements a little more so that we need not be easily swayed by anyone. And second, to instil a sense of patience and a habit of listening to the other person, their perspective and arguments. This other person can be our parents, siblings, friends or even an acquaintance.
But what is important is to build this trust amongst us which is fast eroding in a society marked by fear and suspicion. Otherwise, why would a person, in spite of repeatedly claiming his identity as an Axomiya, not be believed and get killed? Why did the agitated crowd trust rumours more than living human beings from the same land? And to caution you, this is the situation everywhere – so much so that we have come to believe that CCTVs would ensure our safety but we fail to acknowledge our own hollowness and the gaps that have come about in our social relationships where there is no mutual respect and tolerance towards each other.
Our meek selves thus like to believe what is being said in the television channels at 9 pm prime time shows. The public discourse, therefore, gets easily manipulated and shaped by some so-called experts and the media corporations. On the one hand, they use the sentiments of the public and on the other hand, they objectify the victims. The incessant broadcasting of the video footage of the lynching without gauging upon its probable effect on the families of the bereaved souls as well as on the rest of the society by all the Assamese news channels evinces the fact.
One really feels encouraged and hopeful to see so many young people out on the streets, demanding justice. This collectivity implies our strength and willingness to act when time demands. But the concern is that this positive energy manifested in the active participation of the youth does not get reduced to a token opposition in the future. This apprehension is because of its vulnerability to become politicised not for the purpose of the cause but for the personal as well as party politics of those at the helm of power.
In such a complex and volatile situation, our responsibility as the youth and that of those who have initiated this agitation is in deciding what way we choose and to ensure that the larger concerns of justice, peace and unity be maintained without being impulsive and getting easily influenced by the dominant narratives and images. Being reflective is surely one of the ways to move forward.