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The Madding Crowd: A Brief History Of Mob Violence

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A mob of lawyers attacked Punjab Institute of Cardiology on December 11, leaving at least 6 dead as the doctors and paramedical staff was forced to flee the scene. Nadeem F Paracha in this article traces the history of religiously-motivated mob violence back to the 17th-century witch-burnings in the United States. The first recorded incident of mob lynchings in South Asia, according to historian Sunthar Visuvalingam, dates back to 1809 when Hindu and Muslim mobs attacked ‘members and properties of each other’s communities over the felling of a pillar considered sacred by the Hindus’, he writes.

The earliest known incidents of mob violence fueled by extreme religious sentiments occurred in the late 17th century in the town of Salem. Salem is situated in present-day Massachusetts in the US. The area was a British colony at the time.

Over a dozen people, mostly women, were accused by the town’s people of indulging in witchcraft. They were soon mobbed before being arrested and then executed. The frenzy was sparked by the publication of a book by a Latitudinarian Christian writer and Puritan, Joseph Glanville.

Published in 1663, the book claimed that denial of the belief in spirits and demons was a denial of belief in Christianity. Glanville then tried to prove the existence of witches and demons. It must be added that ‘witch-burnings’ had already taken place across Europe before the epidemic reached Salem.

In 2012, the American historian and writer, Sandra Mielsel, wrote that witch-hunts were largely the outcome of theological and even economic tensions between different Christian sects. She also added that witch-burnings by mobs were often facilitated by judges and government officials.

A sketch of a mob of Christian fanatics pushing a woman accused of being a ‘witch’ into a fire in Salem.

By the 18th century, mob violence triggered by religious beliefs came to an end. The Salem incidents are important because as historian, George L. Burr, wrote in his 1914 book, Narrative of Witchcraft Cases:  ‘The Salem witch-hunt was the rock on which theocracy shattered.’ Burr was suggesting that such events across Europe and in Salem triggered a backlash against theology and monarchism and heralded epochs such as the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ — an 18th century occurrence in Europe that advocated social, intellectual and economic progress through reason, science, individuality, secularism and democracy.

Even though from the 18th century onwards, violent mobs driven by religious sentiments vanished from Europe and the US, mob violence itself did not. The ideological motivation behind such mobs changed. It mutated from being religious to becoming racial or ethnic.

In fact, in a reversal of fortunes, during the late 18th century French Revolution, mobs attacked churches. In the United States, race riots involving white mobs attacking blacks became common across the 19th and 20th centuries.

During the French Revolution mobs also often attacked churches and clergymen. The dethroned monarchy and its sympathizers blamed secularism for this.

A mob of white Southern racists lynches a black man in the US in the late 19th century.

While mob violence driven by religious sentiments was withering away in Europe, it was emerging in South Asia — a region which is now considered to be a hotbed of religiously-motivated mob frenzies.

Major academic sources that are used to document this region’s history speak very little of any major religiously-motivated mob action before the 19th century. However, a 2016 feature in Germany’s academic journal, Springer, historian Sunthar Visuvalingam places the emergence of religiously-motivated mob-violence in South Asia in 1809, in the city of Banaras, India.

It involved Hindu and Muslim mobs attacking members and properties of each other’s communities over the felling of a pillar considered sacred by the Hindus. According to Visuvalingam, before 1809, there is no mention of religiously-motivated mob action in the region.

This incident took place during a period when the 500-year-old Muslim rule in India was withering and British colonialists were consolidating their dominance in India. It was in the 1920s that religiously-motivated mob violence emerged in the region in a much fuller manner.

So much so that in 1919, Muslim leader (and future founder of Pakistan), Muhammad Ali Jinnah wrote a letter to his Hindu counterpart, Mahatma Gandhi, in which he warned that the Muslim and Hindu communities should be kept away from religious movements because such movements would unleash untapped violent emotions that could destroy them both.

In 1921, Muslim mobs brutally slaughtered dozens of Hindu landlords in Kerala. In February 1922, a mob of anti-British Hindu and Muslim agitators set fire to a police station in the town of Chauri Chaura. 22 policemen holed up in the station were burned alive.

By the 1940s, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim mobs were attacking perceived enemies on religious grounds – a phenomenon which began being called ‘communal violence.’

Thousands lost their lives as rabid mobs of Hindus and Sikhs fell upon Muslims in areas where the community was in minority; and Muslim mobs attacked Hindus where the Muslims were in majority. Historians have called these killings as some of the worst cases of religiously-motivated mob violence and carnage in 20th-century history in which men, women (many of them pregnant) and children were mercilessly slaughtered.

By the 1940s, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim mobs were attacking perceived enemies on religious grounds – a phenomenon which began being called ‘communal violence.’ This violence continues to haunt India — now more than ever — despite the creation of Muslim-majority Pakistan in 1947.

A mob sets fire to a police station in Chauri Chaura.

Communal mob violence involving Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs reached unprecedented peaks in South Asia in the 1940s.

A Hindu lynch mob brutalizing a Muslim in India in 2018.

In Pakistan, only two major incidents of religiously-motivated mob violence took place between 1947 and 1981. Both were against the Ahmadiyya community (one in 1953 and the other in 1974). The 1953 mobs were crushed by the military while the violence instigated by the 1974 mobs led to the constitutional ouster of the community from the fold of Islam.

However, frenzies driven by religious motivations saw a manifold increase in the 1980s, mainly involving ‘sectarian strife’ between Pakistan’s Sunni majority and Shia minority. In the 1980s the country’s Blasphemy Laws had also been strengthened. From 1990, incidents of mobs falling upon alleged blasphemers saw a drastic increase.

Interestingly, the whole concept of such a law was first introduced by British colonialists in India in 1860, as the intensity of polemical treatises between Hindus and Muslims grew. This law was further strengthened in 1927, during an increase in Hindu-Muslim riots and a rise in cases of persons of one ‘insulting’ the religious sentiments of the other (and vice versa).

Pakistan adopted this law as is in 1947 but it was not made part of the 1956 and the 1962 constitutions or in the initial version of the 1973 constitution. Between 1947 and 1990, only 14 people were accused of committing blasphemy. The number of accusations and mob attacks on alleged blasphemers saw a dramatic increase after additional clauses to the law were introduced by the Zia regime in 1986.

A mob in Lahore sets fire to the furniture of a shop owned by an Ahmadi during the 1953 anti-Ahmadi riots.

A mob approaches to attack an Ahmadi neighborhood in Punjab during the 1974 anti-Ahmadi movement.

A fanatical mob in the process of killing, Mashal Khan, after accusing him of committing blasphemy in 2018 at Mardan’s Wali Khan University.

Renowned German psychologist, Sigmund Freud and psychologist William Dougall described mobs as ‘primordial hordes’ led by ‘horde leaders’ who exploit simplistic emotions about faith found in the masses. To Freud, the mob mindset could be curbed by neutralizing horde leaders. This can be done by encouraging the pursuit of individuality among citizens.

The American psychologist, Professor Phillip G. Zimbardo believes that participating in mob violence frees the participant ‘from the necessity of normal social behavior’ because personal controls such as guilt, shame and self-evaluating behavior dissolves in a charged crowd.

Another American psychologist, F. Hennery Allport suggested that mobs are comprised of like-minded individuals who get the chance to express their beliefs in a more intensified manner than they would in more normal circumstances.

Violent impulses associated with one’s idea of morality and faith which are rejected and discouraged in a more rational and controlled setting, come alive in mobs.

On 11 December this year, a mob of lawyers attacked a heart hospital in Lahore. At least 3 heart patients died due to the attack and the hospital was sealed.


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Naya Daur