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Cover Story

How the Mob Mind Works

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Whether a mugging, road accident, or protests against a national policy -- whenever something goes wrong in our country, violence breaks out. Actions one would never even imagine taking individually are carried out by groups or “the mob”. Is this anger a response to a failing social system where people feel forced to take the law into their own hands? Does this violence erupt all of a sudden, or is it dormant inside us all, just waiting for a trigger to set it off?

Last month, 25 people were injured in clashes between students of two private universities in Uttara. When Mehedi Hasan Rana, a student of Shanto-Mariam University (SMU) went to Asian University Bangladesh (AUB) to protest his sister's assault by some men at the latter institution, he was beaten up. Following rumours that he had died, hundreds of students from SMU went to AUB and ransacked buildings, including the Vice-Chancellor's residence, torched furniture and also vandalised other buildings and business establishments in the area. Students from AUB on the other hand, went to SMU and vandalised the Design Centre of the university, allegedly causing losses of Taka 2 crore. Police in the meantime clubbed and fired teargas shells at the agitating students.

Photo: Sk Enamul Haque

At the end of last month, Dhaka University students beat to death 22-year-old Ehtesham Al Ziad, a student of Bangladesh Medical College, suspected of stealing cellular phone handsets from the university's Sir Salimullah Hall.

Just weeks prior to these incidents, students of Dhaka Polytechnic Institute in Tejgaon damaged vehicles and clashed with police following the death of a student from the institute in a road accident. The month before that, police and activists from some obscurantist religious groups clashed over the announcement of the National Women Development Policy 2008, the latter burning prayer mats and other furniture inside mosques after Friday prayers. A few months ago, people pierced a rod through the face of an auto-rickshawpuller allegedly involved in a mugging. In August of last year, violence spread throughout the country following an altercation between army personnel and students of Dhaka University leading to the arrest of a number of teachers and students from the university as well as Rajshahi University. In October 2006, everyone watched with horror the beating to death of a political activist aired on television, followed by the scene of the killers dancing around the dead body. We often see news headlines about muggers being lynched by mobs, violence at garment factories following demands or protests and, of course, political violence.

They may be different people in different situations protesting or being victimised for different reasons, but the common thread that runs through all these incidents is that of violence, more specifically, violence caused by groups of people or mob violence.

Photo: Sk Enamul Haque

The term “mob” is derived from the Latin mobile vulgus meaning “the movable common people” and refer to the fickleness or inconstancy of the crowd. A mob, which has become a politicised word, is basically a crowd that is seen as being out of control or one waiting for a trigger to set it off.

Mob violence has been a common phenomenon throughout the history of humanity, from ancient Greece and Rome, to modern Europe and the Americas, communal violence in Asia and political violence in Africa and the Middle East. The Paris violence in October 2005 in which 1,500 vehicles, several businesses and a school were burnt, many people injured and at least one person died, was sparked by the death of two Muslim teenagers who were electrocuted while allegedly trying to hide from police in an electricity substation in a Paris suburb characterised by high rates of poverty and unemployment. While the boys' deaths acted as a trigger for the violence, the underlying cause was said, by scholars, to be the relative economic deprivation and hopelessness that many Muslim immigrants suffer in such “ghettoised suburbs”.

A mob develops a mind of its own with individuals becoming highly vulnerable and suggestible to the will of the collective group. Crowds are essentially contagious, and if one person gets angry, excited or violent, others quickly pick up on these emotions or actions. Individual conscious personality disappears and is replaced by a collective mind which Gustave LeBon, the grandfather of collective behaviour theory, describes as being “credulous, impulsive, emotional, without moral responsibility, less intelligent than individuals, blindly obedient to charismatic leaders who 'hypnotise' and mobilise a crowd into action”.

A mob thinks very differently from an individual, says psychologist Dr. Mehtab Khanam. “As an individual, we have our own perceptions, our emotions are influenced by our own thoughts, because behind every emotion is a thought, though we may not be conscious of it.”

Private vehicles are a common target of mobs when violence breaks out. Photo: Star File

For example, says Dr. Khanam, when we are stuck in a traffic jam, as an individual, we may experience many different emotions. Some people may blame the roads, city planning, or a driver who seems to have caused the traffic. Others may blame themselves, for not having started earlier. “But in a mob,” says Khanam “one's reaction is not one's own, it shifts to the position of the group.” Because something like a mugging or a road accident also affects others, it is also an obstacle for them and they think yes, why not join in the action? “They say 'dhauro, maro'; individual behaviour becomes mob behaviour. Mobs encourage and build courage and we do in a mob what we would not have done on our own.”

A crowd becomes a mob in steps. First, something exciting or interesting happens -- the trigger -- for example, a mugging or a road accident. Then, the focus of the crowd converges on a common element as emotions strengthen and, united around this issue or object, individuals escalate into a behaviour that is then imitated by others. For example, someone may start to beat the mugger, followed by others, or someone may smash a car window, leading others to follow and ultimately set the car on fire. But, while crowds are affected by emotions spiralling out of control, their behaviour may also be rational responses to political, social, religious, racial and/or economic catalysts. People may also participate in such violence because of their novelty in an otherwise routine life, for emotional release, to feel powerful, or simply to go with the flow, feeling no individual moral responsibility or normal constraints on their behaviour, sometimes, with participants not even being clearly aware of what is happening.

Several restaurants and business establishments were completely destroyed during the violence of August 2007. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

But where does this dormant violence erupt from all of a sudden? Is it really sudden, and does it only happen to certain people, or is there a “shadow” in us all? According to Dr. Khanam, the eruption of violence is a result of accumulated anger.

“Frustration leads to aggression,” says Khanam, a professor of psychology at Dhaka University. There are two kinds of anger -- passive and active. In the former, a person who is angry does not show it due to their personality type. In the latter, people with low frustration tolerance or LFT, express their anger and react. Those in the former group pay internal costs, such as hormonal secretions, the volume of anger increases with every incident and one day there is a sudden outburst. Those in the latter group also pay a price but externally, in their relationships, etc. “The best way to be is assertive,” says Mehtab Khanam. “If anger-inducing behaviour occurs, one should say that one is angry while respecting the thoughts and feelings of the other person as well as oneself.”

We all react to a perceived threat with fear and anxiety, leading to anger, says Dr. Khanam, but how we will deal with our anger depends on our self-concept. “If we have a negative evaluation of self, that is, if we don't have a clear idea of who we are and what our worth is, we may resort to destructive anger. This may be depressive and internalised where we inflict harm on ourselves, the extreme case being suicide, or aggressive and externalised, where we harm others, the extreme being homicide. On the other hand, we may also practise constructive anger. This will occur if we focus on a positive self-statement, reminding ourselves of positive things about ourselves, understanding our self-worth. In this case, we can respond assertively. This is productive, where we take action to fix the situation. Without harming ourselves or others, we can tell the person who makes us angry how their behaviour is making us feel and what he or she can do to make it better. But this needs a lot of practice and very few people can do this,” says Khanam.

Anger can be caused by many factors, one of the most common being a feeling of being

Dr. Mehtab Khanam, psychologist. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

underprivileged or deprived and helpless. Frustrations caused by poverty, unemployment and social class difference, characteristic of our society, aggravate this anger. For example, those who do not happen to own a car but see cars being driven by others every day might just join a mob burning a car because of their feeling of deprivation piling up over a long time. “The actual reason behind the incident, for example, a car accident, may not be the real reason behind the violence, but the accumulated frustration of being deprived,” says Dr. Khanam.

“There is also displaced anger,” says Dr. Khanam, “where we take our anger on one person out on another. For example, if we are angry with our boss, we may not be able to express it because of the relationship and power dynamics of the situation. And so, when we go home and our child wants attention, we sometimes rebuff them or even react violently. We express anger towards those more helpless than us, less powerful and those who we feel it is safe to abuse.”

Thus, on any given day in Dhaka City, we witness people verbally and even physically abusing others on the street. People foul-mouthing other people's drivers, drivers grabbing collars of auto-rickshawpullers, or the latter beating rickshaw-pullers. When we feel insulted by someone above us in the social hierarchy, we take it out on someone below us.

According to Dr. Mehtab Khanam, a lot of anger and violence is the result of imitation. Whether it was a bad-tempered father who beat his wife or someone else we witnessed breaking things, we often pick up such emotions. “Though we may have hated such behaviour in our childhood, we sometimes end up doing it ourselves as adults,” says Khanam.

There is a common myth about anger, says the psychologist. Many people say that only external things affect them. If everything external were perfect, they would not get angry. “This is a myth. It is unrealistic and problematic to have such an expectation.”

Following most road accidents, public transport vehicles are set ablaze. Photo: Sk Enamul Haque

A father, husband or other family member may be an angry person, but we cannot say that they always cause our anger. “We have to own our feelings, we cannot hold others responsible for our anger,” says Khanam. “We may be annoyed and irritated, these are the precursors of anger. But whether or not we will be angry or aggressive is up to us and we can do a lot to deal with it.”

The nature versus nurture debate continues, but, Dr. Mehtab Khanam believes that, while genes do play some role in human behaviour, their negative aspects can be overcome by creating a positive environment. One's upbringing goes a long way, and treating children with warmth and care, giving them love and security in their earliest years can shape or break their image of the world as one that can be trusted.

The best way to deal with one's feelings of anger and aggression, says Dr. Khanam, is to focus on the positive. “Human beings are like sponges,” she says, “they absorb everything, and the negative more than the positive. There will be anger caused by negative input from others who put us down, treat us like doormats, tell us we are not good enough as mothers, wives, professionals, human beings, whatever. But we cannot let them get beyond our skin. They can touch and injure our skin but not get through deep enough to infect it. We all have our dark as well as bright spots. We need to understand ourselves, know ourselves and our worth. We must evaluate ourselves keeping in mind both our strengths and weaknesses. If we can accept ourselves completely after this self-evaluation, we will not be as affected by how others behave towards us and be better able to handle our negative emotions.”

Democratic dissent and getting quick justice in an otherwise failed justice system are

Violence in the city gives picketers the opportunity to attack private houses and vehicles. Photo: Sk Enamul Haque

the most common excuses today for people resorting to vandalism, lynching and killing in groups. Lynching is often seen as a form of popular justice in cases where a crime has been committed and, is sometimes accompanied by a carnival-like atmosphere. In 19th century America, for example, the lynching of African Americans accused of real or alleged crimes of murder, theft, rape, or challenging society and authority by being uppity or rude, was witnessed by hundreds of people who would travel miles to be at the event and pose for photographs with the bodies of the victims, which would sometimes then be made into postcards, while other spectators would take home scraps of clothing, rope or bone as souvenirs.

Sometimes, more than the pursuit of justice, mob violence provides people with opportunities to settle scores between individuals or groups. Resorting to violence in groups has become the easiest way for a mob to settle a matter in their own way. Their anonymity in a mob leads to a diffusion of responsibility for their actions, making it easier for them to get away with their own crime of punishing a culprit. Often, these mobs also get patronage from various quarters, which safely bails them out from punitive action.

A justice system which has failed the society, however, is often the justification for people taking the law into their own hands. In a BBC Africa Live Debate, while there were many people who condemned mob violence for the crime that it was, others found it to be the only means of punishing criminals who would otherwise slip through an unreliable, inefficient and even corrupt legal and justice system. In fact, a victim of mob violence in Kenya who had been caught stealing hashish was also on the forum and said it was a “good” experience because he stopped stealing as he knew that if it happened again, he would be killed. Another person who witnessed an instance of such violence in Ghana saw the actual perpetrator getting away after pointing to someone else as the thief, who was then besieged by the mob, but, luckily, saved by the police. Yet another person related an incident of a man in Monrovia who had bumped into a woman on the street and was beaten up on suspicion of being a pickpocket. It was later found that he had collided with the woman due to his poor sight as he was half blind.

Setting buildings and vehicles on fire is a common way of unleashing the pent-up anger against society. Photo: Star File

Mob violence is chaotic, confusing and a crime. It is not something someone alone and in his or her right mind would carry out. Violence only begets more violence, and is not only pointless but it actually extracts a price from society. Every building vandalised, every bus burnt is a cost to society as a whole. The legal and justice systems must be strengthened in order to ensure quick and correct justice to the people. People must be educated about the risks of mob violence. At the same time, individuals themselves have a role to play in reining in and controlling their negative emotions in order to avoid harming themselves, others and society.

Rebels without a Cause

Student politics, which has a glorious history of leading the nation towards independence, has become hostage to corruption and thuggery

Ahmede Hussain

During the fifties and sixties, the students, in the absence of a vigorous labour movement, have led the country's politics. Our history is littered with such examples: the victory of secular United Front in the general elections of 1954 that has kicked the Muslim League out of the political landscape of East Pakistan and, a better example perhaps, is the mass upsurge of 1969, when a wave of nationalism has torn the castle of military dictator Ayub Khan's castle into pieces. In fact, till 1980's the student politics have provided the national politics with great leaders who, when met with the challenge with time, has shown brinkmanship, charisma and leadership quality. Most of the leaders of national politics who make news nowadays are, in fact, the product of the student movements of pre and post independent era. From Matia Chowdhury to Mahmuduur Rahman Manna, Mujahidul Islam Selim to Rizvi Ahmed, student politics has gifted us with leaders whom no dictator can buy, who, time and again, have upheld their principles. In fact, during Bangladesh's independence war, students have worked as vanguards, kindling the light of hope in an abyss of darkness. During the anti-autocracy movement of the nineties, the student organisations, most of which had a left lenience, have shown resolve and unity to fight an amalgam of enemies: religious fanaticism at home and global capitalism abroad.

Student politics remain in the hands of corrupt politicians. Photo: Sk Enamul Haque

It has started to go wrong after the fall of Gen HM Ershad in 1990. The leaders of the mass upsurge, most of whom have been students, have quickly sold their souls to the devil. Amanullah Aman, the then VP of Dhaka University Central Students Union (DUCSU), at that time married and the father of a grown-up, has become a Member of the Parliament (MP). Many student leaders have followed suit, a few thousands like him have quickly become millionaires. Student politics, as far as Aman's success story has proven, is like a long-term investment: it yields at maturity. In fact, Bangladesh's student politics is a textbook example of what happens when politics takes a back seat and is controlled by god-father-like national politicians. The degeneration that has been slow during the military dictatorship of the eighties has spread fast in the early and mid nineties. Student politicians have become more interested in winning government tenders than bringing out street processions for better educational facilities. While the price of pen and paper skyrocketed in the mid nineties, two different factions of the government-backed student organisation have found themselves in an hour-long armed conflict over a tender of the Roads and Highways Department.

The situation is even worse at the district levels. In the absence of proper politics, local MPs and leaders of the district ruling party call the shots. Their wishes remain command for local student politicians, who become mere bullyboys of the local leaders. The politics of violent confrontation and relentless corruption that we have witnessed in the last couple of decades have given birth to the most notorious of criminals who lead the two big student organisations. These young people go to the rallies, cheering for one Begum or the other, and to fund their insatiable greed they indulge themselves in criminal activities. From extortions to killing, the long hands of some student leaders are extended everywhere.

Most educational institutes, especially at the tertiary level, do not have adequate seats at the dormitories that they have. A large number of these dormitories, if not all of them, are always controlled by the government-backed student organisation; they recruit the ordinary students by luring them with seats in the hostels; armed goons guard them; gunfight between armed student factions becomes the order of the day. The soul of our future national politics becomes the breeding ground for thugs and goons. Development suffers, education remains in the hands of a selected few who can afford to go abroad to further their studies.

What ails the education sector the most is indeed corrupt student politics. But the government cannot escape the blame: since independence, subsequent governments have never prioritised education. New private universities are set up, where education is sold at Tk 4 lakh a degree, where class rooms are of ten feet by ten feet, where universities do not have an administrative building of their own, let alone a proper laboratory for science students. Some private universities in the capital have even had ready-made garment factories on the upper floors. While basic education is going far beyond the means of the millions and the government plays the role of an apathetic bystander, an army of unemployed are entering the job market with little skill to meet the growing demand of a burgeoning economy. Thus the poor remain poor; living outside the paradigm of power. The economy of $60 billion has also had around 19 lakh young unemployed men, the amount is mammoth when one considers the fact that there is a staggering 2 crore 65 lakh 85 thousand underemployed young men and women, some of these join one of the big student or youth organisations, which thrive on corruption and misrule. As the country's squabbling politicians ignore the plight of the toiling masses, the poor and the marginalised do not have any other way to make their voices heard but translate their frustrations and grievances into angst. These unemployed youth give the national politicians the much-needed fuel in the general elections or at any other desperate moments.

Police baton-charge garment workers in Kalurghat, Chittagong: As the country's squabbling politicians ignore the plights of the toiling masses, the poor and the marginalised do not have any other way to make their voices heard but translate their frustrations and grievances into angst. Photo: Star File

The picture is indeed less than perfect for those who want to find the inner thread of the occasional bouts of violence that rule the streets of our cities at the slightest whiff of discontent. An overhaul of our economic policy is the order of the day; it needs to be made pro-people, pro-poor to be precise. It is the responsibility of the government to educate its own citizens, more public schools and universities must be set up, education has to be made absolutely free till the tertiary level. Private universities have to be forced to give scholarships for the poor students, especially those who hail from poverty-stricken areas. Vocational training and secretarial courses have to be incorporated into the secondary and higher secondary education system, so that the dropouts can get a decent job after passing these public exams. Sending skilled and semi-skilled workers is one of the thriving sectors of our economy; our primary and secondary education must go through a change so that we can have our share in the growing labour market of North and Eastern Europe.

A moratorium for a year or two must be imposed on politics on the campus. It means feuding student politicians and politicised teachers will have to learn to think and act independently. Meanwhile, the political parties must stop using students as cannon fodder. The Election Commission has to enact electoral laws that will discourage the parties from having student fronts. Students studying at different public and private educational institutions will have to be given student housing, enrolment must be based on merit alone. Students are the future of our nation, they are the nation builders of tomorrow; our future as a developed nation depends largely on how we mould them to face the challenge of the new millennium. The Private University Act has remained only on paper-- the University Grants Commission must take stringent measures to enforce it. Any private educational institute who fails to follow it must be punished. A ceiling on fees on private universities needs to be fixed. Elections to the student bodies of all educational institutions must be held on a regular basis.

Mob in Action: Politics of violence and misrule has led to the declaration of the state of emergency. Photo: Sk Enamul Haque

The reason why we talk of democracy in every breath we take and do not practice it in everyday life is because the very concept of justice and equality is not engrained in our society. The students have to be taught about democracy from an early age, and schools, colleges and universities are the places where they will learn to practice democracy to lead the nation to the path of progress and development. A bleak future awaits us if we fail to save our children from the clutches of corrupt moribund politics. Our future as a developed economically independent nation is entwined with the way we reshape the face of student politics.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008