Renowned psychologists, Sigmund Freud and William Dougall call mobs a ‘primordial hordes’ that are usually under the leadership of horde leaders who mold the emotions of masses about faith to generate a sense of emotional excitement. This eventually causes collective emotions of people to boil up to provoke mayhem that an individual otherwise would not partake in. As a result, the mob groups end up normalizing socially unacceptable behaviors. 

 It is generally believed that a large group with a common ideological goal and promising physical anonymity remain the most apparent characteristics that can easily invite individuals to participate in violent acts. There is a common conviction among mob members that they cannot be brought to trial because mob violence is collective in nature and hence a single person cannot be blamed for it. The likelihood of violence in big mobs is greater because generally, a mob that is big in size can lose more of its members to the excitement of the moment, which translates to even more dangerous behaviors. The promised physical anonymity can also lead a person to experience lesser social embarrassment.

 The history of mob violence dates back to the 17th  when people in the town of Salem, Massachusetts were accused of practicing witchcraft. The accused lot was mobbed and then executed by the opponents. Sandra Meisel, an American historian, and writer noted that the violence surrounding witch-hunts precipitated in the backdrop of theological and economic tensions amongst different Christian sects. She also added that most of those acts were alleviated by the authorities including the judiciary and the local government. 

 With time, the religiously-motivated mob violence mutated into racial mob violence; however, the incidents that took place in Salem are still deemed important in the history of Europe. The unrest caused by the violence initiated dialogue among people about religion and epistemology, which ultimately resulted in the emergence of the Age of Enlightenment. Enlightenment movement in the 18th century Europe advocated for social, intellectual, and economic progress drawn from reason, science, individuality, secularism, and democracy. 

 The epoch of enlightenment movement eventually caused the religiously motivated mob-violence to lose momentum in Europe. This, however, did not stop mob violence from swaying towards South Asia, which now has become the hotbed of mob delirium driven by religious sentiments. As per the literature available on mob frenzies, the history of mob violence in South Asia can be traced back to 1809, in the city of Banaras, India. The incident involved Hindu and Muslims pouncing on each other’s members and properties over the destruction of a pillar considered holy by the Hindus.

 By the early 20th century, the apex of mob violence as a result of ‘divide and rule’ brought further difference among Hindus and Muslims. In the heat of the unrest instigated by mob attacks, Mohammad Ali Jinnah wrote a letter to Mahatma Gandhi in which he advised that the Muslims and Hindus should be avoiding religious movement because such movements unleash bottled violent emotions that could result in the destruction of both communities. 

 A series of violent acts eventually resulted in the separation of Pakistan and India. It must be noted that partition did not dissuade people from the brutalization of religious minorities. After partition, the certain population and some religious groups in Pakistan and India continued inciting sectarian violence targeting the religious minorities. In Pakistan, the two major mob violence events occurred targeting the Ahmediyyaa in 1953 and in 1974 respectively. On top of everything, the amendment of the Blasphemy Laws further increased the number of mob violence all falling upon the alleged blasphemers.

Recently, mob mentality among students has reached epidemic proportions. Mashal Khan, a 23 year old studying at Abdul Wali Khan University was stripped and beaten brutally to death over blasphemy accusations in 2017. The excruciating attack on a young bright student is telling of the society’s socio-cultural anxieties, and their intolerance towards critical thinking.  Professor Phillip G. Zimbardo, an American psychologist believes that partaking in mob violence liberates the participants from the responsibility to adhere to socially normal behavior. Group violence dissolves guilt, shame, and self-reflection in a crowd. The university’s teachers, caretakers, and policemen who witnessed the crime could have saved Mashal. However, most of the people present at the scene rather chose to record the violence. 

The recent lawyers’ mob attack on a hospital hence proves that mob violence in Pakistan is no more limited to the religious flocks. About 250 lawyers gathered to ransack a cardiac hospital in Lahore in response to an earlier quarrel between a lawyer and a doctor. According to a local newspaper, lawyers got angry about a video that showed the beating of a lawyer who refused to wait in line at a hospital. The mob attack resulted in the death of three patients. Similarly, F. Henry Allport proposed that individuals involved in mob share a common thought process. Mob violence paves way for these individuals to express their sentiments in a more amplified manner. As a result, vicious impulses linked with one’s perception of morality, which are typically discouraged in a controlled setting, materialize in mobs.

Most of the time mob violence is rooted in socio-cultural and economic risk factors that induce these crimes. Therefore, it is necessary for the government to tackle mob violence by implementing structural interventions, which primarily aim at changing the context in which violence occurs. In the context of Pakistan, mob violence can be curbed by empowering the participants as against treating them as perpetrators. The community and the educational institutions should be made the prime stakeholders in change. With an empowered youth with the ability to think critically, and implement leadership skills, Pakistan can foster a more tolerant society. 


About Author

Hatoon Gul is a Turbat based YES alumna studying Social Development and Policy at Habib University, Karachi.

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