Mob Mentality

How the Modi government fuels a dangerous vigilantism

A BJP supporter in New Delhi celebrating the stone laying ceremony for the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya on 5 August. The temple is the achievement of a mob. adnan abidi / reuters
Elections 2024
31 August, 2020

On 11 August, three journalists from The Caravan were following up on a story they had recently reported from northeast Delhi. Two Muslim women and a teenager had stated that they were sexually harassed while attempting to lodge a complaint at the Bhajanpura Police Station. The complaint was about a Hindutva mob—drawn from local residents of the area—that had marched through the neighbourhood, raising communal slogans to celebrate the bhoomi poojan for the construction of the Ram temple, which took place in Ayodhya on 5 August. Instead of registering a first-investigation report, the women told the reporters, the police assaulted them. After speaking to the complainants again for the follow-up story, the reporters had stopped to take photographs of a street adorned with saffron flags.

In a matter of minutes, they found themselves surrounded by a group of hostile men and women demanding to know what they were doing there and why they were taking pictures. The three journalists, including Shahid Tantray and Prabhjit Singh, are responsible for the magazine’s sustained coverage of police inaction over the violence against Muslims that took place in the same area in February. When they told the people gathered there that they were from the media and only doing their job, it increased tensions, and the crowd soon swelled into a mob. The mob’s immediate suspicion of the media is emblematic of the Narendra Modi years. This distrust is a result of a carefully calibrated ecosystem that has produced mainstream channels that act as propaganda outlets of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and the organised use of social media, which is swarming with trolls whose job is to harass those who raise questions against the government. The mob, which attacked the reporters and sexually harassed one of them, was led by a man who identified himself as a BJP office-bearer.

Things escalated when the reporters displayed their The Caravan identity cards. The hostility turned into violence when the crowd realised that Tantray was a Muslim. Over the next ninety minutes, Tantray was physically assaulted and abused in the vilest communal terms, by both men and women. Two policemen stood by through much of this period without intervening. As far as the mob was concerned, all our reporters were guilty of the same transgression, but Singh, a Sikh, was not physically attacked—rather, his presence and intervention helped shield some of the attack on Tantray.

The most extreme step in the escalation of violence was triggered by the presence of the woman journalist among them. A metal gate shut behind her when she ran for cover and she was cut off from the other two reporters. She was chased and beaten by men and women alike, and was sexually harassed by a middle-aged man. The first policeman she sought help from refused to intervene before another policeman took her to the Bhajanpura police station, where her colleagues had by then been ferried in a police vehicle.