Murder in Madhya Pradesh: I am Bhanwarlal

The murder of an elderly man in Madhya Pradesh a few days ago ratted me deeply. Of course, such acts of wanton cruelty are hardly uncommon in this country. What broke my heart was that the victim, Bhanwarlal Jain, was described by his family as being “mentally challenged”. When interrogated, and then mercilessly beaten, by his assailant demanding proof of his religion by repeatedly asking him if his name was “Mohammad”, he became terrified and disoriented, unable to grasp the nature of the evil he was confronting and responding to his torturer’s questions. Surely, I would not comprehend such mindless violence either. The blows rained down on this bewildered, hapless man until he died.

While Bhanwarlal’s actual religion is an immaterial footnote to this crime, for gratuitous violence is unforgivable under any circumstance, it later emerged that he was a Hindu. As was his assailant who, blinded by his hatred for the other, murdered one of his own.

What was even more gut-wrenching was that a bystander recorded the assault on video, in essence watching a helpless man being murdered in cold blood and recording it for posterity, instead of interfering to stop the beating. That the assailant was soon arrested and charged with murder should have alleviated my anguish, but then another thought tormented me: What if the victim was, indeed, a Muslim? Would the police have acted as swiftly? And then, an even more distressing thought: What if the assailant had been a Muslim? Would the police have sent bulldozers to demolish his home?

At first glance, this murder could be viewed as just another incident in the sordid history of callous behavior displayed towards persons with mental illness. From a medieval past, when people who were struggling with a sickness could be whipped, branded and burnt because they were believed to be possessed by evil spirits, we evolved to modern times when the afflicted were executed (few are aware that the first victims of the Nazi gas chambers were persons with mental illness, bussed from mental hospitals to their deaths), incarcerated, tied up, beaten and sedated, denied their fundamental rights to freedom, dignity and inclusion by legal diktat. It took a landmark inquiry by the National Human Rights Commission in 1999 to begin the long-overdue task of reforming our colonial-era mental hospitals. But shameful attitudes and discrimination continue to pervade our communities and, every now and then, a person with mental illness is lynched. Just last December, a young man with mental illness was murdered in a gurdwara in Kapurthala because he was suspected of committing sacrilege; he is said to have entered the shrine to get food to relieve his hunger. Over the past decade, countless others, not least many women with mental illness, have been lynched on account of suspicions of them being witches.

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But this latest egregious killing is, in my mind, an even more worrying symptom of a sick society where myriad prejudices blend into a malignant whirlpool and random cruelty becomes unpredictably routine. How else can we describe a society where a person can be lynched in a public setting without any fear of the police, watched and filmed by others as if this was some kind of ghoulish entertainment? Bhanwarlal is only the most recent addition to the growing list of lynchings in modern India and many of those who have suffered this terrible fate were not struggling with a mental illness. His lynching could only have occurred because our society has long been a fertile soil for the othering of groups of people with violence. To the long history of othering of Dalits and persons with mental illness, we now can add the othering of religious minorities, persons who look “foreign” and prisoners. The shocking murder of four men, including two adolescents, accused of rape and murder in Hyderabad, by the police in 2019 is only remarkable because, on this occasion, a Supreme Court-appointed commission found them guilty of staging an encounter.

India’s heart of darkness is characterised by a manufactured hatred towards groups of people who are perceived as being different, the ability of aggressors to attack individuals from these groups with complete impunity, the collusion of the police with this violence, and the growing tolerance of such cruelty in our communities and political classes. This toxic brew will, ultimately, poison us all.

Indeed, this is exactly what I witness happening in the US where the incarceration and killing of people with mental illness, often by the police, is only a symptom of a deeply disturbed society where polarizing ideologies have fractured communities and fueled a mounting toll of and deaths due to hate crime. Just in the past month, the mass killings of children in a school and black people in a grocery store reminds us how hate spews deadly consequences on the innocent by eroding social connectedness, that intangible but essential thread which holds us together, binds us to one another and, ultimately leaves the fabric of our community.

The killing of Bhanwarlal Jain makes me wonder what kind of infernal hell has India, home to an infinitely diverse people with a shared history, culture and home, descended into. What has become of our convictions to stand together in solidarity which, not so long ago, saw us unite against and defeat our foreign oppressors, while teaching the world the power of non-violence? How can ordinary individuals be so consumed by hatred that they can pummel and extinguish a defenseless and innocent life purely on the basis of their identity? No matter how deep I dive into my years of experience as a mental health professional in search of an answer, only one comes to the surface: Such violence is not simply the act of a single deranged individual. Such can only be understood as a violence of a society which has lost its moral compass, a society which is sick at its core.

Healing this sickness will require us all, no matter where we stand on the ideological spectrum, to recognise and address the existential threat this violence poses to our nation, our communities and, ultimately, ourselves. Unless we do so, with each Bhanwarlal who is murdered, a part of each of us will die too, until there will soon be nothing left to live for.

The writer is The Pershing Square Professor of Global Health at Harvard Medical School

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