The word lynch has sadly been heard again in Delhi as violence claimed 53 lives two weeks ago.(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)
The word lynch has sadly been heard again in Delhi as violence claimed 53 lives two weeks ago.(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)

Shashi Tharoor’s Word of The Week: Lynch

Though ‘lynching’ is always illegal, perpetrators often escape justice
Hindustan Times | By Shashi Tharoor
UPDATED ON MAR 13, 2020 01:13 PM IST

Lynch (verb), inflict severe, and often fatal, bodily punishment on someone, without legal sanction.

Usage: The mob lynched a man accused of slaughtering a cow, even while he protested that the meat he was carrying was that of a buffalo.

The word “lynch” has sadly been heard again in Delhi as violence has claimed 53 lives just two weeks ago. The word “lynch”, like “boycott” and “macadam”, comes from the name of a person. In this case there are two possible claimants for this eponymous distinction.

The expression derives from the American Lynch law of 1811, covering punishment without trial, named after either William Lynch (1742-1820) of Virginia, who in about 1780 led a vigilance committee to keep order in his home town of Pittsylvania during the American Revolution, or Charles Lynch (1736-1796), a pro-revolutionary Virginia magistrate who fined and imprisoned British loyalists in his district without trial at about the same time, and got a law passed by the American government exonerating him for his actions.

A 19th century dictionary, the Century Dictionary, published in 1895, defines lynching as “lawless concert or action among a number of members of the community, to supply the want of criminal justice or to anticipate its delays, or to inflict a penalty demanded by public opinion, though in defiance of the laws.”

Lynching involves what is often called “mob justice”, since it is always conducted by a mob, and always in the name of executing an act of “justice” that the authorities are deemed to be too soft, too cautious (or too hamstrung by due process) to execute themselves.

Lynching dispenses summary justice, often unjustly, and without the authority of the law, in retribution for a crime or public offence. In America this usually included flogging and “tarring-and-feathering”, where the targeted person was doused in liquid tar and feathers were stuck all over his person, so when the tar dried he was reduced to a figure of ridicule and paraded through the town to be hissed at for his sins. At first this kind of action targeted people suspected of crimes in the frontier regions of the Wild West, though soon enough the target list was broadened to include slave owners lynching abolitionists and blacks trying to escape slavery, who were often hanged in public for their efforts (racial lynching).

After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, lynching became associated with “showing uppity blacks their place,” and was frequently resorted to by white supremacists against blacks accused of asserting their rights or showing undue familiarity to white women. By the late 19th century a “lynching” thus came to mean “extra-legal execution by hanging” (especially in retaliation for alleged sexual assaults of white women).

Lynching is now universally understood to refer to the premeditated extra-judicial killing of people by a mob or group of people, usually from a different religious or ethnic community, and involves public executions by a mob in order to punish an alleged transgressor, or to intimidate the group to which the victim belongs. It is usually conducted in public in order to ensure maximum intimidatory effect. It is estimated that nearly 3,500 African Americans and 1,300 whites were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968.

Indian lynchings have most often aimed, in recent years, at Muslims and Dalits; well-known examples include the Khairlanji lynching of a Dalit family in 2006, and the lynching of Muslims accused of cow slaughter in UP, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and other states in the Hindi belt. In Dimapur, Nagaland, a mob broke into a jail and lynched an accused rapist in 2015 while he was awaiting trial. There were also several “WhatsApp lynchings” in 2017 following the spread of fake news on social media about child abduction and organ harvesting; the victims even included a government official sent to a village in West Bengal to reassure people the rumours were untrue.

In other countries with high crime rates, notably in Latin America, victims are often criminals who the mobs feel would otherwise escape justice; lynchings here are another form of “vigilante justice” reflecting lack of faith in law- enforcement or judicial institutions.

Some argue that a decline in economic conditions is enough to spur lynch mobs, though others argue that communal hatred is usually enough.

While lynching is always illegal, perpetrators often escape justice, partly because of public support for their actions and partly because it is difficult to pin criminal responsibility on a mob. Attempts in parliament by MPs, including myself, to initiate private member’s bills to provide for an anti-lynching law have been unable to make headway so far.

Meanwhile, as Delhi knows too well, mob violence goes on — and, in the process, it is our democracy that is lynched.

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