WHEN the two old friends set off in early June for a day in the country, they had no inkling of what was in store. Abhijit Nath, a 30-year-old businessman, liked cooking, dogs and fancy pet fish. Nilotpal Das, 29, a dreamy, dreadlocked sound technician, had recently motorbiked the breadth of India, from the beaches of Goa in the west all the way back to their shared hometown, Guwahati, capital of the north-eastern state of Assam. Both loved the outdoors, which is why they steered Mr Nath’s shiny black SUV out of the city towards Kangthilangso Falls, three hours to the east, in jungle-wrapped hills.
Accounts vary, but the outcome is not in question. Towards dusk, as the two friends headed down from the falls into flatter, more open country, a crowd of villagers surrounded their car. Many carried clubs or metal bars and shouted, “Child-snatchers!” Footage of the scene captures the bloodied victims pleading that they are not child-snatchers nor even outsiders, but native Assamese—to no avail.
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Two of many
Within the past two months, angry mobs have bludgeoned 22 people to death in similar fashion and for similar reasons. On July 1st it was five beggars who had just stepped off a bus at a village market in Maharashtra. On June 26th the victim was a woman, dragged out of an autorickshaw in the western state of Gujarat. Soon afterwards mobs in Tripura far to the east killed three people in separate incidents; one of them, ironically, was a man hired in a government campaign to raise awareness of the danger of fake news, particularly about strangers hunting children to steal.
Many blame social media for these incidents, and especially WhatsApp, which is ubiquitous on Indian mobiles. Yet although it is true that such services have indeed been vectors in the epidemic of deadly rumour, the focus on their role obscures other factors of equal or perhaps greater importance. There is, for example, the uncomfortable fact that lots of children do get snatched and sold, whether to childless families, or into servitude or sex work or worse. Official crime statistics suggest that between 2011 and 2016 the number of children reported missing each year rose by 250%. Of the 110,000 that disappeared in 2016, half remained untraced by the end of the year.
A further disturbing fact is that, given the nature of India’s police force and its courts, it is perhaps natural that poor villagers should feel little compunction about taking the law into their own hands. Tasked primarily with keeping basic order and protecting the powerful, the thinly spread and formidably corrupt police are ill equipped either to uphold the law in remote provinces or to inspire much respect for it. Even when the wheels of justice do turn, the slowness of the courts discourages all but the infinitely patient, naive or rich from resorting to them.
There is another unsavoury factor, too. A striking detail unites virtually all the latest instances of child-snatching vigilantism, as it does other cases of deadly mob violence in supposed defence of cows, or directed against suspected witches, or lower-caste defilers of upper-caste space. Perpetrators and victims tend nearly always to belong to starkly different social groups. They are strangers, divided by religion or language or caste, and in today’s India this difference seems to translate into a licence to hate.
For all their pleading to be as native to Assam as their killers, Mr Nath and Mr Das were seen as outsiders. They happened to be urban, Assamese-speaking, Hindu and middle class. The tribal area where they met their fate is one of the poorest in India. Its Karbi people speak their own language. Their folk tales warn children to beware of long-haired strangers.
Moreover, being a suspicious stranger has lately taken on special meaning in Assam. The state is among India’s most ethnically, linguistically and religiously varied, and practises some of its most toxic identity politics. For decades the largest group, Assamese-speaking Hindus, has railed about the terrible threat to their culture supposedly posed not just by various “jungli” tribes, but most especially by the third of the state’s inhabitants who speak Bengali. Most are Muslim, and some are recent immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
Acting on claims that voter rolls are packed with such interlopers, the state’s government is working hard to complete a register of its 30m citizens. Its rules place the onus upon anyone fingered as a possible alien to prove otherwise. Shoddy record-keeping, low literacy and shifting, poorly demarcated borders make this difficult. Already some 2,000 people have been jailed for failing to establish Indian citizenship. Supporters of the state government hope some 4m-5m more will similarly be stripped of their rights, though it remains far from clear what might then happen to them. Bangladesh, already host to 1m destitute Rohingya refugees chased out of Myanmar, wants nothing to do with the whole process. As July 30th, the date for the publication of the final list, approaches, tension in the state is rising.
Assam’s pursuit of slow, democratic and legally sanctioned ethnic cleansing is also causing friction with the central government. Not because the two disagree in principle: the same party rules both state and centre. The trouble is that the government in Delhi is backing another law, which specifically states that India will henceforth accept refugees from neighbouring countries only if they are Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist or Christian. Muslims need not apply. Yet instead of attracting applause from Assamese chauvinists, the law raises a red flag, because thousands more Hindu refugees from Bangladesh might invade “their” state.
It is ironic that India, a country that was wounded at birth by the politics of division, should keep re-enacting partition at every level, from the dustiest hamlet to the pinnacle of power in Delhi. Of all people, Indians should know that the making of aliens and enemies is a dangerous game.