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Lynching comes under the family of mob violence and is often defined as the killing of someone by a group of people, for an alleged offence, without a legal proceeding. These killings are often preceded by a form of torture. In India, the Protection from Lynching Act, 2017 defines the term lynching as any act or series of acts of violence or aiding, abetting or attempting an act of violence, whether spontaneous or planned, by a mob on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, language, dietary practices, sexual orientation, political affiliation, ethnicity or any other related grounds. Lynching, as a phenomenon, is relatively new to India.
Witch-hunt, arguably a form of lynching, has no records in India before the year 1792; whereas one of the most famous witch trials, the Salem Witch Trials were conducted during the years 1692-1693; the largest witch-hunt, the Basque Witch trials, were conducted in the years 1609- 1614. It is important to note that these witch-trials, though the same in the essence of their injustice, were different in character than the lynchings. The Salem Witch Trials and the Basque Witch Trials were trials, however illogical or illegal in the modern practice, while lynchings, both in history and currently, are extrajudicial killings by a group of people.
The birth of the culture of lynching can be traced back to the late 20th century in the United States of America. According to economist Gunnar Myrdal, the extrajudicial killings, in their initial stage, before being christened as ‘lynching’, mainly targeted white men. It was after the American Civil War that lynchings started targeting the various racial minorities, predominantly the African-Americans. The word ‘Lynch’ can be traced back to one of its earliest usages in text around the times of the American Revolution where brothers Charles and William Lynch, planters, and estate owners discussed ‘Lynch Laws’ with their administrator in the reference “for dealing with the negroes.” Though the term sits on the segregation of races and colours, it cannot be proved that the Lynchs brutalised the African-Americans. Though the situation leading up to these lynchings and the laws following them are works of 1890-1930s, it is suitable to draw parallels to the current advent of lynchings in India.
The southern states of the United States of America are infamous for the humongous numbers of cases of racial lynching. During the days of anti-Italian thoughts, sentiments used to run high and the Americans would gather to put some unfortunate Italian immigrants to their brutal deaths. However, when the lynching of the blacks started picking pace, its glory surpassed many mob-violences in history. Though the statistics of the recorded lynchings are not the precise numbers since many lynchings were often not recognised as an offence, the records claim that at least approximately three thousand lynchings were performed around the United States of America, mainly concentrated to the southern area around the years of mid-1860s to late 1910s. The one trigger behind the south being the epicentre of the lynchings can be cited to the disfranchisement of the rights of the African-American and the enactment and implementation of the Jim Crows law.
JIM CROW LAWS AND LYNCHINGS
The etymology of Jim Crow laws might point towards the disintegration and disrespect to the African-Americans as the name ‘Jim Crow’ was borrowed from a song to which actor T.D. Rice, a white man, performed wearing blackface. These blackface performances were not uncommon to those days; the whites, often men, performed to the white audience perpetuating the harmful and derogatory stereotypes. Jim Crow laws encouraged blatant segregations and racism with its division of the Caucasians and ‘People of Colour’. They separated the whites and ‘otherwise’ races in nearly all public transports and places. Though on papers, all the races were different but equal, one of the major by-products of the laws was the racially motivated lynchings.
Around the time these lynchings against the African-American began, the community had somewhat successfully struggled in the civil war and had removed the label of slaves they had been associated with for a long time. Through a cynic’s eyes, the African-Americans’ mistake was that the community was steadily rising and finding their place in society. Behind each lynching was an attempt by the whites to remind and put the black population back in their place. Scholar William R. Ziglar, in his article ‘The Decline of Lynching in America’, states that lynching was used as a method of keeping the blacks subordinate during and after reconstruction. Some prominent features of the time were that it was mostly a rural and poor class phenomenon, fear of ‘Negro’ progress, religious or sexual repression, reasserting white supremacy and race prejudice. General masses often associate lynching as the reaction of the public to the slow justice system. Given the above points, it can be inferred that it is not always the dissatisfaction from the judicial system of a country but a fear of being usurped by a community that was not so long ago the community of slaves.
The white mobs often reasoned and defended themselves and their crimes with the offences committed by blacks, true or alleged, that provoked this white response also made up an extensive list. Prominent acts included the usual one of rape, assault, robbery, and other acts of violence that generally indicated that the blacks had stepped out of their place. Booker T. Washington compiled a list showing the superficiality and inconsistency in Southern excuses for mob violence. The list included these inconsistent charges: “to prevent his giving evidence, refusing to give evidence, giving information, turning state’s evidence. It seemed like the blacks were damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Sadly the accused victim had committed a crime or not, they did not have one chance to present their side as the mob was the police, the prosecutor, the jury, and the executor. However, these accusations were, most of the time, just that- accusations.
The realised nightmare of the African-Americans was a gust of fresh breeze in the monotonous lives of the Caucasian community. The news and advertisements of lynchings were often published in newspapers beforehand, with prior information about date and time and the name of the victim of the event. White families, the men, women, and children would don their best Sunday dresses, pack lunches, and with show and pomp, they would proceed to the lynchings. The people treated lynchings akin to an outing or a circus, a mere form of public entertainment. People gathered would take parts of the dead bodies of the victims as their souvenirs. The local authorities would cave into the demands of the public favour, on paper they would claim that they tried but there is no stopping a determined crowd. Where there was encouragement for the unlawfulness by the lawful authority itself, no one had the heart to stop the crowd from preying on its target.
It was the zealous efforts of Ida Bell Wells that brought the horrors of these crimes into the light of the country. Other journalists covered the lynchings, yes, but Wells saw these with the eyes of an investigating journalist. She did not just report, she asked questions, she clicked photos, she delved deeper into the matters. She was one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). President Roosevelt’s time saw a sharp decline in the statistics of the lynching of the blacks.
The facts burn down to look for the reasons behind this phenomenon. There are many reasons, pertaining to many different spheres of study. One, the shock of whites after losing their supremacy as the black race was gaining against them, economically as well as a society can be counted as one factor with lynching can be trying to put the blacks back in their place and remind them of their inferiority. Another reason might be the lack of education of the masses. Though educated whites could not boost up shedding racial prejudices, they did not go about organising mobs to kill a person assumed to have committed a crime. That is the reason some places had a proclivity for lynching while others relied on other means to assert community norms and maintain “law and order”. With lack of education often comes the belief in superstitions and the need to keep the white women pure from the stereotyped hyper-sexuality of black men. Even as the other racial minorities were subject to assault, they were accused of social contamination. Lack of education also stipulates the lack of knowledge of the workings of the law of the land. Where people do not know the laws enough to believe in them, they get the political backup- they justify their crimes enough that it does not put a shadow of guilt or unease on their conscience. Rural and working-class whites were suspicious of formal legal proceedings, with their complicated and time-consuming pleadings and appeals, and preferred the more efficient and sure personal retribution that “rough justice” provided.
The different aspects of lynching in India are too similar to these situations to ignore. The lynchings in India are generally when a mob decides that a man from a minority group has slaughtered a cow or a new face in the village is that of a child abductor. People have no grounds other than their belief that what they think is the fact, they circulate this fact in their small community and this is the way a mere, oftentimes wrongly placed, suspicion leads to the gruesome deaths of people. It is important to learn from history before the process repeats itself. The call of the hour is to wake the government, administration and the society up before it is too late.
- [i] Jim Crow Laws, Wikipedia.
- [ii] Protection from Lynching B R.S., 44 (2017).
- [iii] Lynching and Mob Violence, Christopher Waldrep, Encyclopedia of African American History 1619–1895.
- [iv] LYNCHING IN AMERICA: SOME CONTEXT AND A FEW COMMENTS, Randall M. Miller,. Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 72, no. 3 (2005): 275-91.
- [v] The Decline of Lynching in America, William L. Ziglar, International Social Science Review 63, no. 1 (1988): 14-25.
- [vi] Booker Washington, The Story of the Race from Slavery, New York: Smith, 1940. do. 11. 89.
BY- Setakshi Pratha | Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab