The last decade has seen the emergence of a new genre of Hindutva violence. In this genre, ritualised acts of public violence are enacted on the bodies of hapless Muslim individuals by Hindutva mobs that can range in degree from thrashings to lynchings, recorded on smartphones, and disseminated over social media. The latest victim of this phenomenon was the Indore bangle seller, Tasleem Ali, whose ‘viral’ public humiliation beamed across social media and television during the past week, likely reaching the living rooms of hundreds of thousands of people.
Does the beating of the Tasleem Ali, and the wider genre of violent attacks on Muslims by organised groups on camera, constitute a hate crime? Or does it, in fact, constitute terrorism? The classification of a physical assault, however violent, as terrorism, might seem hyperbolic. There are no mangled bodies, shredded vehicles, or burnt-out buildings – the familiar markers of terrorist attacks. There have been no deaths or (it appears) permanent injuries. Yet, in important respects, this premeditated, organised, ideological, and most crucially, theatrical and intensely mediatised public violence is a prototypical form of modern terrorism.
Violence for communal gratification
This is an enactment of scripted violence performed for the camera and designed for the consumption of an audience much beyond the assembled mob. The recording and dissemination of the videos are not happenstances or “leaks”, as one might imagine, but proceed in a planned and deliberate manner as an integral part of the whole ritual. In fact, one might even say, the camera is the raison d’etre for the violence. Both the terror of the subject of violence and the pride of the Hindu assailants are meant to be transmitted, in its crude, visceral form, into the hearts of both communities.
Unlike an ordinary hate crime, the subject of the attack is of little importance to the attackers, besides being a stand-in for the Muslim community. Across northern India, small gangs of Hindutva vigilantes prowl around in bazaars and bastis, looking for a pretext to ‘recruit’ an unfortunate (and typically poor) Muslim to play the role of the whimpering, pleading Muslim man, completely at their mercy, in this carefully orchestrated theatrical performance. In the Indore video, the leaders of the violence are heard encouraging onlookers to beat up the man, as if echoing the struggle sessions of Maoist China, while they spit out volleys of warnings and condemnation, replete with communal slurs.
The ‘viral video’ represents a success for the assailants, raising their profiles in Hindutva circles. For the groups they are affiliated to — in Tasleem’s case, the Bajrang Dal — it means free and widespread publicity of their organisation and their messages.
Pursuing terrorism through hate crimes
Terrorism is, of course, notoriously hard to define. The Indian State’s definition of terrorism, as it appears in Section 15 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), is absurdly vague and broad: “Whoever does any act with intent to threaten or likely to threaten the unity, integrity, security or sovereignty of India or with intent to strike terror or likely to strike terror on the people or any section of the people in India.” In any case, this article intends to confine itself with the substantive meaning of terrorism, as it is used in public discourse, and how it might relate to Hindutva violence.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) defines terrorism as “a method of coercion that utilises or threatens to utilise violence in order to spread fear and thereby attain political or ideological goals”. The distinction between ordinary hate crimes and terrorism is to the degree to which violence is instrumentalised — in the careful pursuit of wider political or ideological goals, and not just a simple outcome of hate or prejudice.
In the Indore attack video, the assailants are typically forthright about their political objectives. Tasleem, and by extension other Muslim workers, must dare not ply their trade in ‘Hindu kshetras’ (Hindu areas). The immediate political goal here is to militantly enforce socio-economic segregation along communal lines. The larger goal, of course, is the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra, the ultimate creed of the Bajrang Dal. The spectacle depicting the complete subjugation of a Muslim man, at the hands of a Hindu mob, is therefore not just a symbolic representation of the ‘Hindu Rashtra’. It is also offered as an inspiring template to be replicated across the country, as the revolutionary violence that is necessary to usher in the ‘Hindu Rashtra’.
Admittedly, the line between hate crime and terrorism is blurred. Terrorism can be inspired by prejudice, and perpetrators of hate crimes might be influenced by violent ideologies. But the characteristic trait of a terrorist act lies in the design and instrumentality of the violence, and not, as is commonly assumed, in its severity. Brian Jenkins, the terrorism expert who has advised the United States Department of Defense and Department of State, and who coined the phrase “terrorism as theatre”, had long ago concluded that “terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.” As Hindutva vigilantes understand, terrorism, at its core, is any spectacle that induces widespread terror.
In the US, for example, when a white man named James Harris Jackson stabbed to death a black man in New York in 2017, it was classified as a terrorist act by authorities. This judgment rested on the fact that the perpetrator, who lived in Baltimore, had travelled to New York because it was the media capital of the world and he wanted to make a statement.
Why these are acts of terrorism
The nature of modern terrorism has undergone a shift with the spread of mass media and social media. In his book Mass-Mediated Terrorism: The Central Role of the Media in Terrorism and Counterterrorism, Columbia political science professor Brigitte Nacos’ defines mass-mediated terrorism as “political violence against noncombatants/innocents that is committed with the intentions to publicise the deed, to gain publicity and thereby public and government attention.”
Therefore, the crucial reason that the genre of “communal violence as viral videos” should be discussed as terrorism, and not as ordinary crimes (or even hate crimes), is that whereas ordinary criminals tend to conceal their crimes, Hindutva vigilantes skilfully manipulate the full armour of modern technology to widely publicise their crimes. The effect of terror is not just reinforced but is essentially constituted by the endless relaying of the videos on social media and television channels. In other words, the site of terror is the fear and psychological disturbance inflicted on the innumerable Muslim viewers of the video, more than the physical damage inflicted on the individual Muslim victim.
According to the police, Tasleem Ali was arrested for carrying two Aadhaar cards and fake documents. He was also later booked under the stringent POCSO Act for allegedly sexually harassing the minor daughter of one of the assailants. To be blunt, this certainly seems like a post-facto pressure tactic, in collusion with state agencies, to pressure the victim into withdrawing the assault case.
Perhaps a thought experiment might clarify the point. What seems to be more terrifying to you: You or your loved ones dying in a random bomb explosion or being accosted and publicly humiliated by a rampaging mob, and then being framed for serious crimes? Indian Muslims can be theoretically harmed by both of these events. But ask anyone about them and they will tell you that the latter fear – of being attacked by a mob and then framed – is much more personal, visceral, and psychologically jarring, especially as it is reinforced every few weeks by another gruesome and “viral” terrorist spectacle.
The author is a research associate at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi. He tweets @AsimAli6. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)