Is Mob Rule India’s New Justice System?

Is Mob Rule India’s New Justice System?
Manoj Kumar/HT

[Note: Chaos reigned supreme in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, on Monday when a mob of Hindu right-wing ‘activists’ clashed with the local police. As per reports, what was allegedly cow remains were found in farms in Mahav village so a Hindutva mob blocked the highway that runs through the village and proceeded to the nearest station to file a case of cow slaughter. As time went by larger groups started gathering and a fight broke out between the two groups.

What started as an argument turned to stone-throwing and a riot-like situation where two people, including policeman Subodh Kumar Singh, were killed and many severely injured. Police cars and some parts of the local police station were torched, without fear of consequence. This is the New India, where rumours of cow slaughter and animal-related atrocities are used to incite violence and polarise groups. The loss of life becomes a secondary aspect of the incident – collateral damage.

In the 2 FIR’s that have been filed since the incident, one is against a number of people that were part of the mob and another against two children among the seven Muslims that have been named in the alleged cow slaughter case. We should point out that the latter of the two was filed by a Bajrang Dal leader who also happens to be the main accused in the mob violence case.

What do the rest of us citizens do when policemen are killed with impunity? How emboldened have mobs gotten to even carry out such acts? It is also suspicious that Inspector Singh was among those that investigated the 2015 case of Mohammad Akhlaq’s lynching in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh.

The ruling party has been silent on the matter, while the state’s Chief Minister along with the country’s Prime Minister continue on their BJP campaigning trail with no mention or acknowledgement of any kind (however much they are complicit in the creation of today’s tense environment). Read how the events unfolded here.]

Four days ago, a string of Whatsapp rumours warning locals against alleged child abductors in the Jharkhand area made its rounds. In a matter of days, as many as seven people were lynched by a rage-fuelled mob. Clothes were ripped, faces disfigured and lives were lost in a tragic triumph of animalistic urges over better sense and the truth. But this was not a one-off. In the last three years alone, an 18-year-old in Kolkata was killed by an angry crowd on the suspicion of being a mango thief, a Tanzanian woman was beaten and stripped by a mob in Bangalore for a crime she had nothing to do with, a man in Dimapur accused of rape was lynched inside a prison, and dragged out for the world to see by close to 10,000 locals, and a man in Dadri was killed because he was suspected to have eaten beef in what has become one of the most divisive and defining incidents of the early Modi government’s reign. Not so long ago, The Wire went as far as to claim Mob Justice seemed to have become the law of the land in Rajasthan, where government has consistently chosen to turn a blind eye to, if not rampantly encourage, the rising number of such cases in the state.
With such incidents clearly on the rise, it’s imperative we start asking tougher questions of ourselves and our governance. The sheer variety and volume of them make this phenomenon impossible to trace back to a single location, or even a standard cause. What, then, has made us Indians so thirsty for blood? Why are there so many citizens completely removed from the reality of these lynchings onground, actually supporting mob justice when it serves their agenda or sense of justice? Where is all of this headed?

Many who celebrated a father’s torture and killing of his daughter’s alleged rapist (he turned himself in right after) or the recent genital mutilation of a Kerala ‘godman’ by a young woman he had raped for many years have reasoning that’s easy to understand. There is a huge lack of patience for the unbearable slowness of our justice system–many cases like these stay tangled up for years leaving known criminals free to hurt more people–and a rising frustration towards sexual violence in particular. More and more voices calling for punishments as violent as the crimes ring through social media and at an individual level, they’re easy to understand. At an individual level, I feel unwavering empathy for a father wanting to grievously injure his child’s rapist, and at an individual level, I feel certain I would have done the same as the young Kerala student after years of sexual abuse. That revelation alone is enough to make me grateful for the judiciary though, even with all its flaws. Law was not created for us to extract individual revenge. It needs to be better than us, and society needs to be better than the individual. The law needs to represent our ideals, and have the ability to properly, procedurally suss out whether or not an accused person is guilty or innocent. Only then can we speak of what ‘degree’ of justice is enough? Whether the juvenile justice age needs to be lowered in rare cases of brutal violence? Whether capital punishment is the mark of a progressive society or a regressive one?

Another terrifying, yet hugely important point to consider in all this is the role of fake news. This Jharkhand lynching is a prime example of how dangerously wrong things can go when we spread misinformation. There is and was absolutely no proof that any of those attacked had anything to do with child abductions in the area, let alone any activity of child abductions at all. Even more recently, there were calls for violence against Arundhati Roy reaming through twitter (catalysed by Paresh Rawal’s tweet suggesting we tie Roy to the front of army jeeps in Kashmir, no doubt) and it has only just come to light that all this frenetic activity started because of a fake news post. Well known right wing propaganda machine, published a piece attributing a quote she never gave to her (it was not sourced) and multiple media outlets republished it from there.

Empathy is a lot harder to muster up in these cases, where all objectivity and reason is traded in for a need to ‘resolve’ things quickly and violently. What are we to make of cases wherein completely innocent people are being targeted due to no fault of their own? Whether or not communal and casteist bias play a regular role is still technically up for contention but given the clearly racially-motivated incidents against the Tanzanian woman and the more recent attacks on African nationals in our capital (again, based on rumours of cannibalism and worse) how can we say that a climate that allows for mob or vigilante justice is one oppressed communities can feel safe in?
The judicial system in India has a distinctive purpose - to serve justice to those who have committed crimes and those who have had crimes committed against them. But in our quest to get all the bad guys, we often forget that one of the great duties of our judiciary is also to protect the good ones. From crimes against them, and from being violently ‘brought to justice’ for crimes they did not commit. Our bloodthirst and need for instantaneous justice infringes upon the very constitution of India, nothing less than a violent attack upon democracy itself. It is simply not upon us to decide the fate of another human being because the law is not for the taking.

As long as baseless whatsapp rumours exist, as long as communal, nationalistic, jingoistic, puritanical thought processes exist, as long as normal human emotions exist - we will need the judiciary in all its unbiased, unemotional glory to find out the truth and prosecute cases almost clinically. Given the vortex that is the internet, the deeply polarised political climate that’s dividing the country, and, well, the fact that we’re always going to have trouble controlling our personal feelings–a time where all of these are negligible seems inconceivable.

Feature image: Manoj Kumar/HT

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