‘Crowd’ versus ‘mob’; village  bazaar versus communal riot

A crowd is the antithesis of a mob. Which of the two is more appropriate for India?

Published: 28th January 2017 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 28th January 2017 01:08 PM   |  A+A-

Maha Kumbh Mela

A crowd is the antithesis of a mob. Which of the two is more appropriate for India?

Perhaps the best example of a crowd is the Indian village bazaar. An agglomerate of individuals intermingling to conduct their individual negotiations in a common forum. And how eclectically diverse those negotiations can be. Along the Kerala backwaters I have come across a tiny mart which succinctly summed up the bewildering multiplicity of identities and pursuits we try and encapsulate in a hopelessly inadequate three-syllable word called India. A Western supermarket, crammed with mass-produced and mass-marketed goods, would pale in comparison with the social and economic profusion represented by that backwater bazaar.

Half-naked peasant women, Gulf-returnees sporting chunky gold watches, stalls selling the votive offerings of flowers and fruit to Hindu devotees, cheek by jowl with carcasses of beef, and buzzing between the two the ubiquitous flies, carriers of the germs of our mercifully unsanitised and culturally uncleansed democracy. 

Each in this crowd is there of choice, each allowing the others space so that in turn they allow reciprocal space to him or her. This is the crowd we call India. A chance-medley, a coherent confusion, a functioning anarchy. Mingling, jostling, arguing, haggling. Living and letting live. 

Now imagine a sudden shout of ‘fire!’ Gripped by panic, the crowd would instinctually metamorphose into a mob, a conglomerate creature with many limbs but one unitary thought: How do I escape? In its collective frenzy, the mob is invariably destructive, wilfully or otherwise. In the stampede, children, the elderly and the infirm, can be trampled to death. The mob has no conscience. It has no reason, but is powered by the raw, visceral emotion of fear or hate. It can injure, kill, loot, burn or rape without remorse or reflection: There is no ‘I’ that is doing all these things; there is only the faceless, identity-less mob. There is no individual hand that wields torch or knife; only the anonymous tentacles of the many made one. 

Once the immediate threat passes, the mob disperses. Till the next alarm comes, when again 
it will become mob-ilised. Politicians have always harnessed the primal, unthinking energy 
of mobs.  

All a mob needs is a trigger to release the potential violence locked within it, after which its self-perpetuating rage will sustain it. As Canetti says, the music of mobs is the sound of shattering glass, the roar of flames. Hitler and Mussolini systematised mob control as state policy. India—home and host to the world’s biggest crowd as symbolised by the Maha Kumbh mela—has so far, by destiny or default, escaped mobism. There have been obvious aberrations, like the 1984 Delhi riots. Perhaps not coincidentally, Delhi ’84 was sparked by the assassination of the author of the Emergency, a failed experiment of mob control of another sort. 

But long before the atrocity of Godhra, and the carnage which followed, modern India has flirted with the lure of the mob.  The Indian crowd, disparate, diverse, has always been weak and vulnerable to external and internal threat, the argument goes. That’s why the Moghuls conquered us, then the British did. That is why China is outstripping us in every field. If we could homogenise, semitise, collectivise, steamroll over our divergences, we could become strong and powerful. We could revenge ourselves on our own flabby history of weakness and failure. 

That is the premise, and the promise, of Hindutva, of the cultural nationalism of which today Praveen Togadia and the RSS are the most assertive champions: Force majeure through Force (or Forced) Majority. There is, however, a fundamental problem with this beguiling proposition: Who in Crowd India is a majority? I know it is not me: A doubly-displaced member of a Kutchi community (which is trying to get OBC status to enjoy the benefits of quotas), married to a partition-affected Punjabi, an economic refugee from Kolkata now living in Gurgaon and who was once wanting to move to Bangalore.

How can such a mixed-up creature be any sort of majority? And for all I know, you are like me. In your own different way, of course.  So on which side of the majority mob will you or I be when they come for minorities like us?

Gandhi said it all: If India lives, who dies; if India dies, who lives? But then Gandhi, that foremost citizen of Crowd India, would be the first to be lost to the mob.

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