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Vigilantes And Violent Mobs Are Only Following The Law, Really

The complexities of extrajudicial justice in India.

30/03/2017 3:02 PM IST | Updated 03/04/2017 1:56 PM IST
The India Today Group via Getty Images

One year ago, in an instructive essay titled "Section 377, Aligarh, and the Curious Case of Dr Siras" published in The Wire, poet-writer Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee wrote:

"The law itself is a product of and run by the dominant class. It suits this class to be within law. But once the hegemonic order is threatened by people who challenge their social, cultural and sexual norms, the dominant class takes recourse to violence outside the law, in the name of another law. It is the notion of justice before justice—a pre-judicial justice, violently meted out by the moral vanguards of society."

Although Manash then was opining within a specific context of gender normative subversion, his words ring true across a larger spectrum of the Indian society. Our casual affair with extrajudicial action has a history longer than most would like to concede. Yet, a few specific events in recent memory (and the wider response to them) reaffirm the tendency with vigour.

These episodes reflect a popular penchant for extrajudicial justice that runs strong amongst a large section of the Indian populace. This isn't merely confined to soft justice, but rather hard, retributive justice delivered through brute force. Surprising, as it may seem, the constituency for extrajudicial action is strong and ubiquitous in this country.

Are these vigilantes anti-law? Of course not. In fact, they love the law, but only if it buttresses their own belief system.

The instrumentalisation of the law to deliver vested, ad-hoc justice is visible in many forms, including blatant show of support for shoddy use of force by the state (remember the Bhopal encounter). But, the most explicit and dramatic of these is violent vigilantism, or express support for it. In the past few months, we have witnessed several instances of this.

From the crass display of violence in Delhi University's Ramjas College to the lynching of a Nigerian national by an irate crowd in Greater Noida, disregard for the law appears to be a not-so-uncommon inclination within a dominant mass mentality that feeds on selective morality and a bigoted understanding of constitutional democracy.

Let's take the Ramjas episode. If we keep the politics of the ruckus aside, we are still left with one glaring component—mob violence against students and professors. At the outset, one would expect unanimous condemnation of any kind of violence in a university campus from all quarters of the immediate citizenry, especially those who pride themselves on being ethically conscious, socially aware and law-abiding. But, this was hardly so.

Many took to social media to express their support for the perpetrators, arguing that "proportionate justice" had been meted out. Some even went beyond the standard rhetoric to declare that more should have been done to teach the "anti-nationals a good lesson." For them, it was simply a cathartic manifestation of their own sense of justice that is not based on hard evidence but rather abstract, self-appropriated notions of right and wrong.

The recent incident of mob violence against a Nigerian individual in Greater Noida is no different. The unfortunate incident took place at a mall, and involved an angry crowd of about 100 beating a lone Nigerian man to pulp after a local boy died (allegedly) of drug overdose. The ruthlessness with which the crowd assaulted the foreign national—a usual suspect because of his distinct identity—was, at the least, outrageous to the naked eyes. In a way, it was almost medieval.

For many, [the law] is a tool of personalised judicial deliverance—an effective device of group hegemony that can be twisted and moulded as per their whims...

Despite this, a constituency of support for the lynchers has emerged on social media. Most of them have either invoked a preclusive defence of the mob action, in highlighting the so-called "legitimate intent" behind the violence (the boy's death), or dismissing it through emotive exoneration, calling it an "emotional outpour." They had no problem with the fact that in beating up the suspect, the crowd circumvented the law in the most uncouth manner possible. This, to say the minimum, is utterly bizarre and rather unfounded, simply because there is literally zero evidence of drug peddling or murder against the individual targeted.

A similar tendency became manifest in the ongoing "Anti-Romeo" drive in Uttar Pradesh, courtesy the new Chief Minister's agenda to prevent sexual harassment of women in public places. As per protocol, the task to round up "eve-teasers" was delegated to the state police. However, some members of the right-wing youth organisation that the CM himself had founded—Hindu Yuva Vahini—were also seen delivering the state directive, unwarrantedly so.

When one reporter asked one of these self-proclaimed moral vanguards as to who gave him the permission to conduct these drives, he nonchalantly replied, "One does not need permission to carry out a good task." Clearly, many in India—particularly those of whom have suddenly become affiliates of the political mainstream—carry very different conceptions of "justice" and "law-and-order", ones that contravene the very constitutional setup of the country.

Are these vigilantes anti-law? Of course not. In fact, they love the law, but only if it buttresses their own belief system.

For example, during last year's sedition row in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), those who backed the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya for sedition, vehemently argued that no one has the right to question the law of the land, which has pronounced Afzal Guru as a terrorist. This is regardless of the fact that there exists a legitimate appellate mechanism for court judgments. The point here is that, since the law legitimised a specific political morality in this case, it automatically warrants unconditional adherence.

Thus, it is amply evident that the law isn't a homogenously understood or equitably accepted entitlement in India. For many, it is a tool of personalised judicial deliverance—an effective device of group hegemony that can be twisted and moulded as per their whims and fancies. It is all but an entity enslaved in the restrictive confines of selective morality.

The question here is, how long before our legitimate judicial institutions reclaim their rightful monopoly from those innumerable kangaroo judges of India who are so fond of what Manash refers to as "pre-judicial justice?"

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