India and US are seeing the rise of poisonous politics and attacks on minorities


Far & Near column published in the Hindustan Times (1 June, 2017)

I’m vegetarian, so the pleasures of beef are unfathomable to me. I find infinitely more unfathomable the vindictiveness of the gaurakshaks. The closest I’ve come to belonging to a mob is when I’ve attended football matches and experienced that rush of dissolving into a collective, into a single, rolling roar. But those passions are light years removed from the perverse sense of righteousness that allowed people to kill Pehlu Khan and to beat, maim, hound, and humiliate Dalits, Muslims, and others in the name of the cow.

It’s not really about cows. The supposed causes of mob violence are rarely ever their true cause. The once routine lynching of African Americans in the United States (4,743 blacks were lynched between 1882 and 1968) had very little to do with its various alleged reasons: The protection of white women, theft, vagrancy, or (yes, even in the US) the killing of livestock. No, instead, white mobs were putting blacks in “their place”, cowing and terrorising them through the spectacle of brutality.

The cliché has it that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. One cannot but hear the awful rhyme of history in the words of one gaurakshak in Rajasthan when speaking to a TV news network recently: “Without getting beaten up, people from the minority community will never learn.”

Incidents of mob violence — with the collusion of the State — have dissipated in the US. But as in India, majoritarian energies are on the loose. I use that clunky word “majoritarian” because it captures the poisonous politics at play: A bullying, braying insistence on the supremacy of one larger group over all others. In some parts of American society, there is anger at the changing nature of the country, where whites are gradually losing their age-old position of dominance.

Several US law enforcement agencies consider the greatest domestic security threat to come from these far-Right, white supremacist organisations, not Islamist terrorists. And yet in the public messaging of the president, they remain conspicuous in their absence. Though Donald Trump rushes to tweet after any Islamist terrorist attack around the world, he is slow or often unwilling to react to incidents of horrific Right-wing violence. They don’t fit in his narrative of setting the American people against the foreigners and minorities in their midst.

Trump’s rise has unleashed energies into public life that were previously better suppressed, even if they were present. Under the NDA government, a similar trend is sadly visible in India.

The pageantry of the vigilante mob may look very different than the dark hatred of the lone American murderer, but behind both you can find one of the defining forces of our age: Resentful, angry majoritarianism.

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