Incident after incident over the past week suggests that India is witnessing a wave of vigilantism, with individuals and private groups taking the law into their hands — to avenge injustice, real or imagined. In the world’s most populous democracy with an established civil service, a time-tested police force and an independent judiciary, this is a disturbing portent.
The most visible of vigilante events has been the violence in New Delhi’s Patiala House courts where journalists were bashed up as they waited to see the trial of JNU Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar, accused of sedition. Police watched mutely. Kumar was also visibly roughed up. A sting operation has revealed the contours of the brazenness with which the chief vigilante,Vikram Singh Chauhan, a small-time advocate who has been photographed in the past with none less than the nation’s home minister, defends his act. Never mind that he has no proof, or that he is no authority to enforce the law.
A BJP MLA claiming proof of moral turpitude (which has no legal standing in India) at JNU has reeled off statistics to prove drinking and sex at the university, never mind its authenticity or relevance. In Varanasi, at a function presided over by the prime minister, an unidentified man slapped a slogan-shouting youth who demanded union rights. A BJP mayor issued a 24-hour “ultimatum” to the authorities at Aligarh Muslim University for action against what she claimed was the serving of beef biryani at its canteen. In Chhattisgarh, journalist Malini Subramaniam was forced to leave after a self-styled anti-Maoist group tried to intimidate her, said to be with the blessings of the local police, because her work focused on state atrocities.
There is a pattern in all this, one in which those in positions of power respond with silence, while those associated with them run amok. Apart from the fact that rule of law is indispensable for democracy and good governance, it is also a prerequisite for economic prosperity. Vigilante justice is no way to raise India’s status as an investment destination in the eyes of the world.