Opinion Think

The Lynches, Lynching and the Cult of the Fasces

The Lynching of Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp. Photograper: Lawrence Beitler. Courtesy: Indiana Historical Society

A meditation on the etymology, history and lessons of mob violence.

Lynching is an American term. Its etymology has been attributed by historians to either Charles or William Lynch (not related)— executors and proponents of extralegal violence against people alleged to be criminals in the America of the 1700s. William Lynch is often confused with another of the same name who, disputed accounts suggest, was a slave-owner from the West Indies advising his counterparts in Virginia on how to manage their slaves better by exploiting differences between them and enslaving their minds.

This confusion may arise from the fact that the term lynching, in America, became well-known throughout the country for its application to the killing of African Americans as well as ‘White’ Americans who stood up for the former’s rights. Between 1882 and 1968, 4743 such people were lynched.

The Fog of History

History is foggy like that. It isn’t a straight line, despite what chronology may lead one to believe. It zigzags and is unpredictable. It loops to cross its former path. Hence, history doesn’t really ‘repeat’ itself as is often stated. A point in time that seems to have recurred in a different place is actually often the consequence of separate circumstances. But the previous point in time, from the previous place, can still serve as a prism through which to see today more clearly.

The fasces – a Latin word denoting a bundle of wooden rods bound around an axe to strengthen it – formed the titular emblem of Italy’s National Fascist Party (the Partito Nazionale Fascista, or PNF). But even today, they find pride of place behind the podium of the United States House of Representatives. They also form the centerpiece of the French national emblem.

Before Mussolini and the PNF, the fasces were used to symbolize the authority – arbitrary authority, as in the case of the Lynches – of Roman magistrates over matters including life and death. Some historians trace the fasces back further, to the even more primitive processes of the Etruscans. Ironically, while the Swastika has been stigmatized for its association with Nazism, the fasces – evoking all the horrors of Fascism, in which the seeds of Nazism were arguably sown – survive as the hallmark of an apex institution of the land of the free. The fasces on the French national emblem are superimposed by the words LiberteEqualite and Fraternite (Liberty, Equality and Fraternity). History often hides in plain view.

This is especially ironical because the fasces represent the worst of Fascism, which is brimming over with reprehensible ingredients anyhow. For one, they convey the sense of uniform entities, bound together so that each is incapable of striving towards individual expression— each rod of wood strengthening the central axe has been deadened and utilitarianized. Secondly, there is the strengthened axe, whose sole purpose is destruction. This is no Renaissance sculptor’s instrument, nor a hammer or sickle of the Communist parties. Unlike the Swastika, which might be interpreted, if viewed objectively – its horrifying association with Nazism notwithstanding – as a symbol of progress, the fasces by their very appearance epitomize ad hoc order born out of chaos, to create further chaos and widespread destruction for all concerned— not just everything that is dissenting and different, but entire worlds premised on social contracts which govern today’s republics.

The fasces stand for madness with method, and the coordinated violence of mobs that are above the rule of law and bill of rights which form the backbone of modern democracies. In this, they are in perfect synchrony with what Charles Lynch is said to have called ‘Lynch’s Law’ in 1782: an organized but unauthorized punishment of alleged ‘criminals’. Not really a law but, in another way, a state of lawlessness.

If one is to accept Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s dictum of “means are after all everything” then the fasces are the means that will render any end meaningless.

These ‘means’, rods bound around an axe, have been great corruptors of a variety of thought. The fact that they sounded the death knell for a party named after them was but natural. The Italian constitution now states: “It shall be forbidden to reorganize, under any form whatsoever, the dissolved Fascist party.” But even those ideologies which claim to have nothing to do with ‘Fascism’ are not safe from the corrupting influence of the fasces.

In fact, the conflation of the idea of the fasces and Fascism has led to a considerable bewilderment regarding either or both. George Orwell, for instance, found the word Fascism almost entirely meaningless. This was because, he wrote, he had heard of it being “applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs… ”. Political theorists like Roger Griffins would disagree. Griffins highlights three key components of Fascism which wouldn’t seem altogether alien to us today: the rebirth myth, populist ultra-nationalism and the myth of decadence.

One way of clearing this fog would be understand that the fasces, the visceral centre of fascism, signify something worse than any or all of such components— by appearance, rather than doctrine. Their unequivocal application to the wide range of ideas Orwell listed is still unlikely, but what the fasces stand for would definitely find a wider application in today’s world than ‘Fascism’ does.

A quick check. Could an axe strengthened by being bound together tightly with uniform wooden sticks represent the mobs of Blackshirts marching on Rome, on October 28, 1922, browbeating the Italian king into handing over the reigns of a democratically elected government to a would-be dictator? Yes, obviously. But they symbolize equally the reign of terror (September, 1793-July, 1794) during the French Revolution. And the mobs who lynched more than 4000 African Americans between 1877 and 1950. What about the Chinese Cultural Revolution that claimed between 500,000 and two million lives just 51 years ago? Check. Does the appearance of the fasces in the US House of Representatives seem irksome? More than the US invasion of Iraq? Check. The war in Aghanistan? Remember Nam? The My Lai Massacre? Does the French National Emblem seem irksome? Remember the French occupation of Algeria? The one the current President had the courage to call “a crime against humanity” in the middle of his presidential campaign?

Check all.

And in India…

Closer home, the fasces are reminiscent of dates that have become infamous landmarks of recent Indian history. 1984. 1992. 2002. They are reminiscent of the Sainbari massacre, one of many by mobs of CPM workers in West Bengal in the decade that followed it, where a mother was forced to eat rice mixed with the blood of her dead sons. They are most definitely reminiscent of the family of a 16-year-old boy being burnt alive before his eyes during the Sikh Riots. And when a Hindutvawaadi mob leader boasts of tearing a woman’s fetus out of her womb, the fasces spring clearly to mind.

What about today? The image of the fasces brings to mind mobs that have sprung up throughout India in the past few years, lynching people without any regard for due process.

There have been ridiculous attempts in recent times to justify devastating present day happenings by ostensibly ‘placing them in context’ of Indian history. Going by the same logic, Europe would have been embroiled in its fifth or sixth world war, and the American Civil Rights Movement would never have taken place. Oh, and we still have some way to go before a Prime Ministerial candidate can condemn human rights offences by the Indian government in Kashmir and the North East and win. History can only help to inform the present, never to justify it.

Even more ridiculous have been attempts to respond to such occurrences by citing political murders by India’s Left Front members in Kerala and the unfairness of laws in Islamic nations. It is almost as if ‘an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind’, used by Louis Fischer to explain Gandhi’s approach to violence were turned on its head. It has become, for some: ‘an eye for an eye should leave the whole world blind.’

Moreover, for those who wish to understand why recent cases of lynching are not part of a continuum or commonality, but instead comprise – collectively – a new infamous landmark by themselves, it may help to first revisit the foundation of the cult of the fasces: fear.

Innumerable news reports have labeled the recent acts of violence ‘vigilantism’. This presents an incomplete picture. Vigilantes often operate alone, constituting a menace of a different nature. Lynch mobs, on the other hand, are built up of cowards who, much like the wooden rods and the axe of the fasces, draw their strength from numbers. They are fearful of acting alone. It is doubtful whether any of the so-labeled vigilantes would have ventured out to rain blows on Mohammad Akhlaq or four Dalit youth in Una or Pehlu Khan or Gautam and Vikas Verma or Zafar Khan or Hafiz Junaid alone.

This cowardice is predictable, for fear is the raison d’etre of the fasces. The fear of poverty and unemployment, in the case of Fascist Italy— which goaded a substantial number of citizens into backing the institution of a dictatorial regime that was supposed to solve everyone’s problems magically. Then, the fear of defeat at the hand of nations this regime went to war with. For White Supremacist America, the terrifying thought that the ‘others’ that they had subjugated for so many years would hold them to account and compete with them for their share of the American Dream.

In India, this fear is the consequence of local as well as national anxieties and messaging (or, in many cases, just plain vicious propaganda). An example of the local could be fears triggered by WhatsApp messages, leading to the killings of people suspected of being child-lifters, by inhabitants of places where law and order mechanisms don’t function. National? The fear of losing a shot at a perceived ‘first-class citizen’ status among residents of a country that has not been able to furnish enough resources to satisfy everyone’s needs and aspirations.

Fear doesn’t evaporate into thin air. It needs an outlet. The fasces turn the fear they feel on others, infecting them, debilitating them. Think of a person suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. The cult of the fasces transforms delusional paranoia into a mass moment, a contagious disease. The fear that the fasces are founded upon can only lead to destruction for all. Imagining otherwise would be like imagining a paranoid person really knows what’s best for her or him or those around.

The ‘others’ in the Republic of India have been, and continue to be, Dalits and Muslims.

Even as India anticipates its second Dalit President, not more than a few months have passed since a Dalit sarpanch of a village dominated by what is still casually called an ‘upper’ caste was hacked to death in Gujarat, a state which Prime Minister Narendra Modi was Chief Minister of for the length of nearly three terms. Around this time, last year, another Sarpanch in Gujarat had led a mob with clubs and axes to kill a Dalit farmer for cultivating land ostensibly meant for grazing. Many other cases, from around the country, occupy the dates between then and now, the merciless thrashing of four Dalit youth in Una being just one of them. Caste atrocities are not new to Indian society. One of the most brutal cases of Dalit lynching which found its way to national headlines was in Khairlanji, over a decade ago. But even as the lynching continues in shocking numbers, few of them reported as Khairlanji was, the government has only symbolism on offer.

The lynching of Muslims on the other hand – on account of the purported belief that they are smuggling or slaughtering cows as well as otherwise – is clearly on the rise. It is almost as if riot squads, India’s version of the fasces once, have taken on a new avatar. Prime Minister Modi who previously governed a state devastated by the most notorious riots in the previous two decades, is now in charge of a country beset by an ever-increasing number of lynchings. He has expressed his disapproval of both. The lynching continues.

Three cases of lynching stand out among the many heinous instances which dot the landscape since Prime Minister Modi took charge. They point to things spiraling further out of control than one could have thought they would.

Three Lynchings

One. Pehlu Khan, whose beating to death was videographed. This was a killing, not only for its own sake, but also as a call to kill more. The video brings back memories of photographs of racial lynchings in America, which were then circulated as postcards. Particularly, that of Thomas Shipp and Abram SmithSpectator details from the crowd around two strung up dead bodies show girls holding clothes from the corpses as souvenirs. The postcards made out of the photographs were sold the next day for 50 cents a piece. Does this seem irksome? Is it remarkably different from filming an old man being beaten to death before circulating the video on WhatsApp?

Two. Government officials including a Municipal Commissioner accused of participating actively in the lynching of Zafar Hussein by his family. If true, this incident tears through the thin veneer separating the members of the state in India from ‘non-state actors’. The veneer has been parted now and then – such as when Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma termed Mohammad Akhlaq’s lynching in Dadri “an accident,” or when Yogi Adityanath, then an MP now the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, demanded that members of Akhlaq’s family be charged and the accused let off – but never blatantly dropped.

Three. Basit Malik, a journalist working on an article for Caravan Magazine, wasn’t killed, but beaten up by a mob when they learned he had a Muslim name. He was repeatedly called a Mullah (meaning an Islamic scholar, but in this case used as a slur to refer to Muslims), a Pakistani and a terrorist while being slapped and kicked. The attack on Malik was an assault on the other, as well as an attack on a media that may dissent. Malik was, for the mob that beat him, both a Muslim and a reporter in the line of duty. Looking back this only seems like a culmination of incidents beginning from the Prime Minister calling journalists “newstraders,” to a Minister of State calling them “presstitutes,” to a news anchor himself, using insinuations to exhort his viewers to “take on” journalists. Reading Malik’s account should make any journalist feel especially uneasy because, before the disturbing accounts of violence and name-calling begin, it reads like a day in the professional life of any reporter. In such, this is an attack on the idea of journalists asking necessary questions, spotting violent flashpoints before they occur, and trying to hold the culpable to account.

Sacred Man

To fully comprehend where the ineptness of the Indian state in dealing with the curse of the fasces, coupled with the messaging and mobilization of divisive groups is leading us, it would help to examine another repugnant Roman concept. That of the Homo Sacer, or ‘sacred man.’ Giorgio Agamben, in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, illustrates how the word ‘sacred’ is misleading. Homo Sacer, put simply, means a person who can be killed with impunity. A person reduced to “bare” as opposed to “qualified” life. “The sacred man is one whom the people have judged according to a crime,” Agamben writes. “He (or she) who kills him (or her) will not be condemned for homicide.”

Agamben then cites the example of a Jew living under Nazism. He writes her or his “killing therefore constitutes… neither capital punishment nor a sacrifice, but simply the actualization of a mere ‘capacity to be killed’ inherent in the condition of the Jew as such.” Further: “The Jews were exterminated not in a mad and giant holocaust but exactly as Hitler had announced, ‘as lice,’ which is to say, as bare life. The dimension in which the extermination took place is neither religion nor law, but biopolitics.”

Could the African Americans living under fear of lynchings in the America of the late 1800s and early 1900s be called Homo Sacers?

“In Texas they lynch Negros.”

This is how the character of a 14 year old James L. Farmer Jr. (later one of the leaders of the American Civil Disobedience Movement) began a climactic debate speech in The Great Debaters. The movie is based on the real life story of a team of African American student debaters from the American South who challenged a nation’s conscience when it needed to, in the 1930s.

Farmer’s character was arguing in favour of civil disobedience. He had cited the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre, atrocities committed by General Dyer, and Gandhi’s response to Jallianwalla and Dyer. When all else failed, the above line was what he said. Whether Farmer actually began a speech with those words or not, one does not know. But if he had, they would have said it all.

And then there’s more. It may be worthwhile to remember that 1297 White people (27.3% of the victims) were lynched between 1882-1968, many “for helping the black or being anti lynching and even for domestic crimes.”

So let’s put it this way:

In America they used to lynch people they called ‘Negroes’. And then there were others.

In India they lynch people who are Dalits and Muslims. There may well be others.

History is determined by its future consequences. It is made today.

Today we are in shame.

About the author

Rishi Majumder

Rishi Majumder is a journalist and Associate Partner at the new media company Oijo. He is working on a book on Syama Prasad Mookerjee.