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Uddalok Bhattacharya, Hindustan Times
May 15, 2013
The two custodial deaths, one in Pakistan and the other in India, even while assuming there is no link of causation between the two, conjure up many visions that concern both society’s legal and other-than-legal selves. The precept of reciprocity is germane to every form of justice, even mob justice. The state’s justice system tells people more of what they should not do than what they should. The individual as a social being also has his notion of justice, which is more in alignment with that of the state. The state punishes the thief for stealing because it protects the aggrieved person’s right to property. On the other hand, the personal justice system says one should not steal because one does not want one’s belongings to be stolen. People should obey rules, because if they did not, others too might be led to lawlessness, and the consequence is a state of anarchy, which is detrimental to people’s own interests. This is the law that exists for the softer part of social existence.

In mob justice, however, the positive postulate is more at work than the negative. It is all about putting the best foot forward and making sure that the punishment is many degrees more potent than the offence. “For every action there is a reaction,” one of the country’s chief ministers said more than 10 years ago. He could have added, “A stronger reaction.”

The stony silence of the Indian political class after the assault on a Pakistani prisoner in jail speaks of a certain mob-justice mentality even if one were to assume the government was not complicit in the act. The prisoner’s death makes the silence of our leaders even more conspicuous. What may have been restrictive in the thinking of the parties is that it was seen as another of those hostile ways of getting back at each other that the two countries — India and Pakistan — are adept at. Maybe at some level it was. But what is India versus Pakistan now does not always remain so. Hostilities in different shapes and forms mutate and take place within regions, communities, and so on.

If a similar situation were to come about within the country and involve two communities (not necessarily religious), how would the parties have reacted? Would they have taken sides by being vocal or would they have remained silent? Is this not tantamount to nurturing a psychology of revenge, which, on a different plane, goads people into throwing stones at neighbours’ windows because of a dispute over the use of parking space? Or provide justification to a perverse person to assault his or her domestic help, who could be a minor, on mere suspicions of theft?

A patriotic leader of a patriotic party wanted 10 heads to be brought from the other side of the border, again as an act of revenge, because an Indian soldier had been decapitated. Whose heads she did not specify. Would any 10 heads have satisfied her?

The chief minister was guilty of misquoting Newton. But even when the great physicist’s third law of motion has been correctly applied, i.e. the reaction has been equal and opposite, an extrapolation of the laws of nature to social life does not rest with one reaction. Reactions continue, with greater intensity and orchestration.