Assam Mob Violence: Why Does An Act Of Lynching Become An Issue Of Ethnic Conflict?

Posted by Aditya Sharma in Politics, Society
June 13, 2018

Ethnicity, religion, caste, gender are sanctioned categories of identification under the Modern State. We identify ourselves with these categories because of what social theorist Michel Foucault calls as the process of normalisation: the art of governmentality which disciplines us under categories for order and capacities of space.

In Assam, two youths were lynched by a mob. The victims were suspected to be child abductors based on rumours spread on social media. I am appalled at the news of the incident and sorry for the loss of human life. I discourage having a mob mentality. The law must hold the offenders accountable for their action. The issue now has become a matter of tension involving the possibility of violence between two groups of people: the group of the mob and the group of the men who were killed. Hate speech, targeted against the group of the slayer, is already doing rounds on social media.

In a few sentences, I have explained in brief the incident that currently grips Assam in tension. People fear possible violence, and a sense of anxiousness looms in the state. Three paragraphs over, I have not had the need to mention terms like ‘Assamese’ and ‘Karbi’ who are parties to the incident. Although a contested term, for the purpose of this writing, I take ‘Assamese’ to be the state identity of the people who live in Assam. The ‘Karbi’ people belong to the Karbi Anglong district of Assam. I have not had the need to identify the slain and the slayer with an identity that is territorialised and cultured. I do not intend to do so through the course of my writing. But why is everyone else doing so? Why does an act of lynching become an issue of ethnic conflict? Is our concept of ‘identity’ too narrow or too broad?

Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath who were lynched to death in Karbi Anglong
Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath who were lynched to death in Karbi Anglong.

In the Foucaldian sense, the State – not the apparatus of the government – conditions human life and endeavour in terms that it seems fit for its functionality. 18th century France conditioned its people through the architectural designs of its cities. The French built their cities in a manner that served the army. The roads and bridges are wide, serving the purpose of an instant army mobilisation in the event of an invasion. State protection became an integral part of their state ideology. 21st century America conditions its people through its mass media. Linguist Noam Chomsky has been a major proponent of the idea that America both manufactures consent and dissent through mass media. Commodity consumption conditions the West to lead global lifestyles. While piety drives the Middle East.

The Indian state, I argue, conditions its people through ‘identity’. It is an integral part of the state bureaucracy. The modern Indian state inherits its fragmented sense of ‘identity’ from a colonial past that founded its bureaucracy on the basis of divided identities of caste, tribe, and religion. The idea of the modern state finds strength in disciplining bodies in space and organising space for governmentality. Making categories and labels eases this process. The Census is an apt example of the essence of the Modern State which requires to survey people and resources in categories. The Census or identity cards issued by the government is one of the ways in which we are conditioned to identify ourselves by our ethnicities, by our tribes, by our regions, by religion, by our cities etc. The State used these categories to recognise us. Our identification is external to our awareness of the ‘self’ and the body.

‘Identity’, as I see it, is an empty term that waits to be given meaning. It finds meaning, for instance, in government records that legalize citizenship and give identity. For example, a community seeking Scheduled Tribe status may be only deemed a tribe if the State declares it to be, irrespective of its own sense of living that qualify the community to be one. The media and the economy use the State categorization because of its legitimacy and coherence with the State. ‘Identity’, thus, we may say, adds and loses meaning with historical continuity. However, it is applied to use without a thought in everyday language. We identify ourselves with State-sanctioned categories, not because the institutions that render it holds us together. We use ‘identity’, following the Colonial practice, to distinguish us from the ‘Other’.

Under the Colonial rule, the logic applied was this: what makes us British, does not make them Indian; so we must make a record of and organize by what makes them Indian. The logic applied now has been reversed: what makes us Indian is something that does not make them Indian. Or what makes me an ‘Assamese’, does not make him a ‘Karbi’. The attempt now is to valorise the ‘self’. This analogy is dangerous, given the circumstances.

In Assam, the recent ‘act’ of lynching deserves a certain degree of autonomy to it. However, it attains social significance by relating identity to it. The act of lynching becomes – slayer of ‘x’ and the slain of ‘y’. Once this ascription has been made – regardless of being at the beginning of the action or at the end of its consequences – the incident is branded with a certain value. Following this, any representations or misrepresentations of it carry the same value. The lynching, thus, becomes more a social and less an inhumane ‘act’ of violence. Rumour and mob mentality benefit the most from this ascription.

‘Identity’ as identification for an individual is the State sanctioned category that the media represents as legitimate for popular use, while our commodity consumption ascribes it ‘authentic’. This trinity is unholy. For, India has multiple categories of ‘identification’ to offer: by language, region, religion, ethnicity and tribe to name a few. I do not intend to suggest that people should not be identified by their ethnicity, language or region etc. Instead, I argue that these senses of ‘identity’ must not be used to identify people in acts of violence because it instigates unrest and a sense of threat, active or passive, from an imagined ‘other’. The ‘identity’ of the victim or the perpetrator holds target the entire group and not just the individual. The category of identification becomes the ‘identity’.

The social nature of the lynching in Assam is what gives it a trans-local meaning, although it is very much a local incident. In cities across India, the ‘identity’ of the mob that lynched the victims are under threat of an attack. Messages offering refuge to ‘offender group’ are circulating across Facebook and WhatsApp. The victims are survived by an angry lot who see the death of the two youths as an attack on their ‘identity’. There emerges the need to ‘avenge’ the dead and protect ‘identity’. The incident moves towards the possibility of becoming an issue of ‘ethnic’ violence.

The argument I am hoping to make sense of is this: we must learn to see this ‘act’ of lynching as ‘x’ slaying ‘y’. This conscious localisation becomes significant in reducing implications the act may have on the social group as a whole, while inculcating a shared sense of blame or suffering.  The argument that I make is not a eureka thought. But I felt the need to explain it in a manner easy for comprehension. I do not intend to please the academic or the intellectuals. I hope to make sense to those who do not read this. And you, the reader, are an important medium.

How can we avoid identification with ‘identity’? Well, we cannot. Not without conscious thought and action, at the least. Our rationality considers it normal to identify each other based on categories our society has been ordered into. These categories are social constructions. The point is not to suggest that we dismiss the State and thus its categories to free us from the unholy trinity of State, media, and economy. This categorization, as anthropologist Veena Das would call it, at the ‘margins of the State’ is useful for us to avail State services and benefits. It is also a means of awareness of the ‘self’, of ‘personhood’. Instead, we need to be careful about how we ‘see’ and ‘represent’ action.

Political anthropologist James Scott opines that ‘seeing like a State’ helps us to know the way the State organises resource and standardizes behaviour, but adopting the same perspective into everyday lives may be detrimental. We must be careful to separate the social from the visible. To see human action objectively by separating ‘identity’ from it is not to provide partial (bias) facts or subject phenomena to partiality (incomplete). To be objective is to be conscious about separating the values that the uncle who talks news in the market and the aunty who shares her opinion on Facebook give to the incident.

Media representations play a major role in this attempt for separation. For, it is a source of legitimacy for categories of the State. Yes, such practice would make news reporting lack substance because opinion is free and not neutral. Any attempt to separate the social from the visible will lead to, thus, for lack of a better term, a hollow enterprise. Nevertheless, we benefit from this separation by escaping rumour, gossip, and conversation that target groups as a whole. Chances of misrepresentation and interpretations of the lynching incident that take ‘identity’ as identification may be avoided. We are far from attaining this goal, but we must try to take small steps. And to be aware of it is the first step. The next is yours to make.

I mourn the death of the youth. I seek justice for them. I look down upon those who committed the crime. And I discourage the mob who represent the incident with their interest. Rhetorically, that ‘actions speak louder than words’ best represents what I hope to convey.