India 2007 appears to be on a very short fuse. No sooner is someone suspected of wrongdoing, howsoever minor, than a mob seems to materialise to dispense instant justice. The latest victims are 10 suspected robbers who were beaten to death by a mob in Bihar. This comes after a series of such incidents of vigilantism in recent times. Three teenagers were beaten to a pulp by a mob on suspicion that they had stolen a bicycle, one has lost sight in one eye. In Bihar, an alleged chain-snatcher was not only beaten to within an inch of his life but also tied to a motorcycle by the custodians of the law and dragged around. A Delhi schoolteacher was set upon after a so-called sting on her activities. The gory list goes on. In the latest case, the explanation given by the villagers who killed the men is that the apathy of the police forced them to do this.
Yes, the police are indifferent to mobs taking matters into their own hands, and sometimes even participate in such ‘justice delivery’. But surely in a democratic system that is meant to have a due process of law beginning with apprehending a person suspected of a crime to securing a conviction or acquittal, the mob on the street has no role. Barring, at best, bringing an offence to the notice of the law enforcement machinery. What we see instead is a blurring of lines between the police and the public where roles are easily interchangeable. There is merit in the argument that the criminal justice system is both excruciatingly slow, indeed often non-existent for the vast majority of Indians. But this does not mean that a baying mob can be judge, jury and executioner.
Many may argue that this lynch mentality is the result of lack of education and awareness of the law. This is disproved by the fact that there is a sharp increase in road rage in metros like Delhi where even a minor accident leads to one or the other party either sustaining serious injuries or losing his life. The first step that must be taken is for the law to make clear that collective murder can have no social or legal sanction. And the next is to send out the message that policing will be effective and will not be left to people on the streets.