Increasing incidences of mob fury have shown India as an intolerant nation, where acts of impropriety invite immediate retribution and death in some cases. Why not let the courts mete out justice?
By Bikram Vohra
Lynch them. String them up. Tie them to a post and larrup the life out of them. Parade them naked and beat them with sticks and pelt them with sto-nes. Instant justice, like instant coffee, is now the new muscle flex of power, exercised through the filters of politicians, sarpanches, religious zealots, corrupt police, self-styled keepers of the conscience and the mob (any of us) wishing to cleanse itself on the chosen sacrifice. All very pagan really but very much 21st century in India, where tacit approval for the shredding of a life in retribution of a transgression, real, imagined and often conveniently concocted, is given by the state, by the keepers of the law and by the breathless excitement and righteousness of the man on the street.
How can you fault him? He is only protecting that street, his mohallah, his village, his town, his caste, his creed, his honor, the general well-being. All these options and more are tied precariously together by the rusted guilt of neglect over centuries for allowing the virus of social misconduct and imbalance to enter the national bloodstream.
The modern spiral was aptly reflected a couple of weeks ago in the killing of a school director in Patna after the bodies of two students were found in a canal near the school. The frenzied mob found a suitable target, did an on-the-spot trial by jury and marched forth to do gory battle.
That the director may have had nothing to do with it nor was he given an opportunity to defend himself did not enter the equation. The rage was justice served hot and meted out by a bunch of indolent teenagers (as opp-osed to the parents of the students), enjoying the thrill of the killing spree. Better than lolling against a lamp post at the local mall. Such incidents are invariably accompanied by looting, burning of public property and a general free for all. What fun.
SPURRED BY PIETY
The beginnings of every such cycle are usually benign and well-meant. We have sieved the traumas of the past through our mental piercings and created a new juice for “tear around the top and pour” justice. After all, since piety was our spur, we cannot be challenged for impropriety.
Modern vigilantism, borne out of rape and assaults on women, has made for a perfect canvas for this new sport. It has become so easy to justify lashing out as a member of the mob. There is a mesmerizing sense of morbidity, safety in numbers, a slim chance of being held accountable and fame on the screen at the end of it.
The argument is easy to sell. It’s not as if anyone is helping us. The police are inept. The politicians venal and corrupt. The judiciary creaking under the weight of its backlog. The system entirely against us. Our daughters are in jeopardy, the demon is at the gate, we have to get this show on the road.
HURTLE FOR TRPs
That television has propelled the nation to do the dirty and win itself those dirt-encrusted 15 minutes of fame, made legendary by Andy Warhol is a given. Careless, totally without scruples or any sense of responsibility and ready to put the gory on a pedestal in the hurtle for TRPs, TV channels have sought the worst of every tribe to speak for the rest. It now does this pulpit-pounding incessantly, the modern drumbeat of a war that is just starting. Some years ago, bestselling author Arthur Hailey wrote a book on the creation of news by media so that scoops could be headlined and thereby, boost circulations. Making the news to break was molded into a corporate blueprint. Have no doubt. India has entered that realm. The spin on these horrific assaults is insidious.
It is also so gratifying. We can kill with impunity, feel good about it and having des-troyed a life, make the world a better place. Victor victorius.
Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doy-le’s The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, says: “The message was always subliminal. We had to save ourselves. The pagan in us salivated. Any tendril of guilt was quickly swallowed by the hubris that gratuitous violence spawns. The victim deserved it, didn’t he?
Righting the wrongs of history had to be done by crashing the applecart on its other side. There was also something deliciously evil about satisfying a long-frozen primeval urge for fame through shock. So, what started off as the projection of a man protecting his castle and his family turned into a national pastime. All we needed was a candidate for the purification and we could atone through this surrogate. If he died he asked for it.
BAYING FOR BLOOD
In an inflamed atmosphere, anyone can be pointed at and if you shout “there he goes, that’s him” loud enough, the mob will bay for his blood.
Whether he committed the foul deed is now a technicality. It does not really count. Even the media doesn’t care to confirm the facts. The body count is more important. Finding the corpse innocent would wreck the story. And for those who do not see it as it is, we have only just begun….
Woody Guthrie in the Vigilante Man asks:
“Well, what is a vigilante man?
Tell me, what is a vigilante man?
Has he got a gun and a club in his hand?
Is that a vigilante man?”
Look through the list of atrocities in the recent past and see the common link. Nor-mal people doing a normal day’s work so severely licensed by social media that they go for the kill. You can almost visualize their blood-drenched jaws drooling crimson with misplaced pride. They do not even realize how ghoulish they have become. The internet spreads the message instantly and news and rumor are now dispensed, with scalding immediacy and with equal import.
As the “rape” syndrome lost its novelty, the mob per se having tasted blood, now needed fresh kills. Strangers became a good choice. If you do not look like me, do not eat my food, speak in another tongue, you were the enemy. Deep-rooted prejudices tore through the fragile encasings of our minds. State-sponsored chauvinism, so happily espoused on multiple microphones by public figures, leapt of the stage and curdled over the past 30 years into hatred for the outsiders. Them and us gradually coalesced into a confrontation and is today central to collective violence. The series of assaults on those from north-eastern states and African students without a just cause, bear out the growing “popularity” of getting rid of the pests who are touted as the cause of our problems.
The frozen images are haunting. An African student cowering in a corner. A young man from Nagaland torn apart be-cause he had the wrong shape of eyes and a funny hairstyle. A boy tied to a pole and beaten to pulp. But they don’t haunt. They just breed more of the same.
Psychologically, vigilantism is becoming an acceptable option in its civilian avatar because it is actually a government exercise that has been practiced on the slippery slope of expediency for decades. Plastic encounters with dacoits in the Chambal Valley, fulfilling quotas for arrests, bringing down smugglers, drug traffickers and breaking contraband and counterfeit money runners have been the norm for years, blurring the line between fact and fiction. On the other side of the coin, this sort of tyranny was exercised by panchayats grandstanding as custodians of morality. Parading “shamed” women naked, exiling young lovers from different castes, ordering pain and punishment have all been part of our rural ethic and no one has ever questioned its ugliness.
On the third prong of this unholy trinity (besides sarpanches and the police) were the pantheon of earth-bound gurus who prea-ched and practiced their forms of violence upon their disciples, increasing their assaults exponentially. Vigilantism to eliminate non-believers and those who would cry foul was tacitly encouraged as the inner sanctum’s fortunes grew. Even the armed forces, faced by guerrilla goons, have had to cleanse the areas of suspects with less than due process.
Tolerance for such terrorism against the individual has stayed high because it is fortified by fear of the unknown. We are taught that the “stranger” in our midst is a threat. That he will take away our jobs, steal our children, harm our women, destroy our way of life. We believe it because it is so potent in its capacity to dismiss charges against us for acts of omission and commission.
Daniel Nina, in the African Security Review, said: “My first contention is that fear of vigilantes gives the government an incentive to enforce law. A government needs
to quell vigilantism because it is a threat to its monopoly on force, which is the basis of its power….”
Even when a campaign has merit, it tends to spawn bastards. India’s Gulabi Gang made global headlines and its founder, Sampat Pal, found herself lionized. Her army of 20,000 women were fighting the good fight, resisting abusive husbands, taking to task crooked cops and demanding rape investigations. But gradually, others found in this exercise the kernel of blackmail. Women could now get even for past victimizations. Men were on the run and in the cross-hairs of anyone who wished to accuse them of anything so far as it was shrill enough.
And while the element of gamesmanship was increasing, it was also, paradoxically, giving the grotesque members of society an excuse to continue their rampage.
Take the case of Santhosh Kumar, a 40-year-old vendor who was caught raping a teenager. The crowd went for him and this was the report: “After dragging Kumar off the girl, the group stripped him, hacked off his genitals with a meat cleaver and threw them in the street—while filming it on their smart phones, of course. It’s a shocking, if increasingly familiar, story here in India, where communities are turning to brutal vigilantism after rapes, instead of pursuing justice through the law.”
Now hold that thought for a moment. Did he deserve to be punished severely? Of cou-rse, he did. But the eye-for-an-eye justice is the precursor to an open house. So herein lies the rub. When the police rape, when politicians and bureaucrats pay lip service, when the protectors of societies become the inva-ders, then, can we preach to the mob?
Now, let the thought flow once again. What about the young man from Manipur who was beaten into an inch of his life in hi-tech Bengaluru for not being able to speak Kannada? In the absence of an anti-racism legislation in India, he was unable to establish in the eyes of the law that the attack was racially motivated.
The same punishment as the rapist.
Move on. A wild-eyed mob of 2,000 in Andhra slaughtered 10 men suspected of theft. Just theft. What fun, pass the snacks, we got them, thirsty work, anyone has a Cola? Every such incident is glossed over by post-murder interviews, eyewitness accounts and the sour spotlight of the TV camera.
In Nagaland, a suspected rapist was pulled out of jail by several thousand people and beaten to death, after which they all went home for dinner. He was just a suspect under lock and key. Must have been a slow news day.
It is a helpless situation. There are just too many forces at play. And more innocent people will be robbed of justice, others railroaded and because whatever the provocation, the guilty will not get the harbor of the law.
Until the nation understands its fundamental duties, along with its fundamental rights, and the law is changed to make violence in public places a cognizable offence, nothing can change.
Till then, the rapist and the thief, the courageous woman who takes on the panchayat and offends it, the suspect and the man who takes his evening walk and finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, will be treated equally.
Sometimes, one feels the rope is slipping away. Where do you start correcting things in a nation that won’t pass an anti-racism law, where a sarpanch can order a rape as punishment for adultery, where reporting a crime is seen as the same as committing the crime.
There are no answers. No neat little compartments into which we can shove our theories and hope they fit into the slots. We have tasted blood and the feeding frenzy is on.
Martin Luther King Jr said: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.