Mob justice and civil society’s breakdown

Mob justice and civil society’s breakdown

It was a week of the mob going berserk: on Tuesday, 28 August, the murder of a young Dalit, Rakesh Kumar, in Gohana, Haryana, sparks off violent protests. The police send out forces. Protesters and police clash as sticks and stones fly; public property is vandalized; a bandh is called.

Late that same night in Agra, a truck runs over four men. By morning, anger has spilled onto the streets as mobs burn vehicles and clash with police. Dozens are injured; one person is killed; curfew is imposed in parts of the city.

That same Tuesday in Bhagalpur—a town that will forever be associated with the horrific blinding of 31 undertrails by policemen in 1980—an irate mob is busy beating Salim Ilyas to within an inch of his life after he is caught allegedly stealing a gold chain. When the police arrive, they join the mob, tie Salim to a motorcycle and drag him along until he loses consciousness.

And then it’s Delhi’s turn. Two days after the violence of the mobs in Gohana, Agra and Bhagalpur, hundreds of angry parents and protesters force their way into a girls’ school and beat a woman teacher accused by a TV channel of forcing students into prostitution. The police whisk the teacher away; the mob stones buses; a police vehicle is set ablaze.

Vigilante justice is not new in India. But last week public anger boiled over nearly simultaneously in four different cities. Isolated cases of mob anger have always simmered below the surface. In February this year, two 12-year-old boys were stripped and beaten by a mob in Borivili, Mumbai—which once laid claim to being India’s most cosmopolitan city—after being caught stealing a mobile phone. In August 2004, Akku Yadav, a serial rapist and murderer, was stabbed to death in an open court by a group of women. Despite repeated arrests, Yadav was able to get bail and continued terrorizing the neighbourhood. Fed up and frustrated, the women moved in with their own decisive judgement. Two months later, in Nagpur, another group of women killed two men accused of sexual abuse and extortion.

More than 100 lawyers issued a statement urging that the women were victims, not criminals. On one level, it’s easy to understand why there is public support for vigilante-style justice: There are more than 20 million cases pending in various Indian courts. Criminal cases drag on for years, with the rich and powerful often getting acquitted. Conviction rates are abysmal: a mere 4% for rape. And there is a clear breakdown of public faith in the judicial process. It is hard not to empathize with the women of Nagpur.

But by and large, mob lynchings are what we saw on TV when poor, pathetic Salim Ilyas was taking on the force of an ugly public fury. Where does that frustration, that rage, come from? Every day we read—or don’t—stories of small-time criminals thrashed and tarred, of lovers killed or beaten, of “honour" punishments meted out by panchayats.

And it’s not just the people who often take the law into their own hands. Police sometimes kill with impunity. They do it because we support them. The chattering classes might be loath to vote but are vocal in their approval for so-called “encounter" killings. When two men—alleged to be Pakistani terrorists—were shot by police in 2002 in Ansal Plaza, a posh shopping centre in New Delhi, Hindustan Times, a paper I then worked for, took the line that the killings were wrong. We were flooded with letters that accused us of being “anti-national".

When D.G. Vanzara. who led Gujarat’s anti-terrorist squad, says the “encounter" killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kauser Bi was done out of a sense of “desh bhakti" (patriotism), he becomes a hero in his home town. Elsewhere, a deputy superintendent of the Jammu & Kashmir police proudly admits to torturing “terrorists", also in the best interests of the nation. Naxalites—many of them no more than poor peasants—are routinely killed in encounters.

In Mumbai, in Gujarat, in riot after riot where police have played a communal role, the cops have gone on to promotions and receive state-sanctioned protection. And we are quite happy to accept the state’s version of who is a terrorist and who isn’t.

The Bhagalpur clip has led to predictable officialese: suspension-dismissal-inquiry. But what about those tortured and killed away from the cameras? Does the rule of law apply only to a select few? When the mob takes the law into its hands—no matter how extreme the provocation (as in Nagpur)—or public approval for extra-judicial killings gains ground, it is a sign of the breakdown of civil society.

We can either change the rules of engagement (fast-track courts, better conviction rates) or gear up for total anarchy.

Namita Bhandare will write every other Tuesday on social trends.

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