Social activists stage a protest against mob lynchings. Photo: AFP / Times of India/ Moeed Faruqui

The term “mob violence” suggests an act of violence carried out by a group of people with a shared agenda. It is organized violence by a dominant group in society against other groups that are understood as enemies. At last count, Hate Crime Watch, a database of religious-bias-motivated hate crime in India, reported 282 incidents of mob violence, which resulted in 100 casualties.

Nearly all cases of mob violence have an underlying narrative. The incidents of Muslim men lynched for allegedly possessing beef and Dalits beaten up for “stealing” water from community wells are symptomatic of the mobs’ perceived need to serve justice. They take the law into their own hands and punish those who aggrieve them.

Mob violence in India is most commonly fueled by hatred toward a religious community other than one’s own. Known as hate crimes sparked by religious bias, these crimes have a specific motivation behind their execution, which is to punish an entire community for its religious beliefs and related practices.

Motivation behind violence

To tackle violence, it is important to understand where it stems from. Psychiatrist James Gilligan of the Center for the Study of Violence at Harvard Medical School says: “[I have] yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated … and that did not represent the attempt to … undo this ‘loss of face.’” Evolutionary psychologists Margo Wilson and Martin Daly too have shown that feeling disrespected or humiliated is the most common trigger for violence, especially for men.

Is it possible that, like their counterparts in the West, perpetrators in India are also looking to establish a status advantage over others through violence? Political analysts point to an “atmosphere of hate and suspicion against [minorities], created through a sustained political campaign.” But why are mobs angry in the first place?

The populist catchphrase “Hindu khatre mein hai” (“the Hindu is in danger”), cited dangerously often by political leaders and Hindu-nationalist groups, is suggestive of an experience of group-esteem threat by Hindus. This is because the narratives of our religious and cultural groups dictate our perceptions of reality. Under the Hindutva ideology, narratives are woven especially to fuel emotions and actions in the direction of populist claims. Therefore, perhaps the violence perpetrated by Hindus is not unfounded or irrational. To regain status and dignity, aggrieved Hindus could be engaging in violence as a form of compensatory behavior for the loss of group-esteem.

Violence against minorities and Muslims should be viewed as an ailment that is rooted in societal prejudices, misinformation and a consequent experience of socio-cultural anxiety – the idea that one’s own religious community or beliefs are under threat. Hate Crime Watch recorded 196 such incidents between 2017 and 2019, of which 81% involved Hindus as perpetrators.

Curbing violence via policy

Policymakers think it best to introduce harsher retributive punishments to curb rising crime. However, an increasing body of research in psychology and sociology is proving otherwise. Daniel S Nagin, Francis T Cullen and Cheryl Lero Jonson found that 67% of the prisoners in the US and 70% in the UK are re-convicted within a year of release. Hence they are skeptical about imprisonment’s alleged deterrent effect on criminal behavior.

Now, policymakers in India are taking the approach of trying to scare away crime, when they should be looking to address socio-cultural and economic risk factors that induce crimes in the first place. They should seek to change the environment in which violence perpetuates.

Structural interventions are designed to act on risk environments, by altering the context in which a problem occurs. They empower people as opposed to treating them as victims or perpetrators. The community is made an active stakeholder in reform and change. A structural intervention can be designed keeping in mind the Indian context.

A structural intervention in Limpopo, South Africa, called IMAGE (Intervention with Microfinance for AIDS and Gender Equity), was aimed at fostering and strengthening communication skills, critical thinking and leadership in women so that they combat intimate-partner violence. Loans were given to women in the village to foster income-generating activities, along with year-long sessions on gender roles, cultural beliefs, relationships, communication, intimate-partner violence, and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Many satisfactory results were accomplished, including an increase in household assets and expenditure. A total of 99.7% of the disbursed loans were repaid, indicating successful entrepreneurial endeavors. Women began communicating more with family and partners about sexual health. Most notably, incidents of intimate-partner violence decreased substantially. There was observed psychological and personal growth too: Women reported greater community participation and improved self-confidence.

Tackling the stressors

Policymakers must locate the stressors that birth violence and comprehend how the stressors shape behavior, via large-scale qualitative and quantitative research. According to World Health Organization guidelines, it is important to explore the following:

  • Socio-economic context and position of the population, that is, laws and systems, and the social fabric.
  • Exposure and environments of the population, that is, socio-eco-political institutions, such as nationalist groups, as well as the caste system.
  • Differential vulnerability of the population, that is, within-group differences in a diversity of risk-proneness.

Next, policymakers must identify target areas that can be penetrated and affected. The WHO details three kinds of interventions:

  • Availability interventions: If violence is stemming from either (1) a lack of or (2) excess availability of any behaviors or contexts, the availability of the problem-causing entity can be tweaked accordingly. For example, if violence is found to be correlated with below-average household incomes, the intervention could have microfinance, skill-training and employment-generating components (income inequality is positively correlated with rates of violence.
  • Acceptability interventions: social norms and values of a society can absolve a violent act of its “criminality,” so to speak. Interventions, therefore, should aim to reduce the social acceptability of the act, by putting a social cost to it. Role modeling – that is, having influential people implore others not to fall for extremist religious-bias narratives – can help. Community leaders help establish conducive norms for people to conform to. Human rights must be promoted by shaming norm breakers and not lauding them in the public eye.
  • Accessibility interventions: Power equations between communities can give birth to aggression, competition and feelings of inferiority. Violence takes place where there are perceived inequity and differences, leading to frustration and aggression. Power and resources, therefore, can be manipulated to influence the genesis of violence. In a stubbornly hierarchical society such as India’s, it is the people at the lowest rungs who suffer the most; religious minorities were the victims in 75% of mob attacks. Opportunities for social development, empowerment and upward mobility must be extended by the state, in the form of education, health services, food rations, finance and banking services, etc.


Mob violence in India is not an individual’s problem. There are social, political and economic bedrocks in which violence germinates. It cannot be resolved by incarceration, or the fear of it. Therefore, retributive measures are nothing more than Band-Aid fixes for a disease that is multi-causal. The leaders of India must set aside their own biases and focus whole-heartedly on finding solutions, not scapegoats.


Shivangi is an alumnus of the Ashoka University and the Indian School of Public Policy. She has previously worked with the Boston Consulting Group and the Accountability Initiative on projects related to maternal malnutrition and public finance, respectively. She is currently working with the Centre for Effective Governance of Indian States (CEGIS), an organization that works in tandem with state governments to achieve better governance objectives. Her topics of interest include education, health,...

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