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Unless checked in time, India could become a Republic of the Mob

Law and the rule of law must create a secular lens that refracts stereotypes and prejudices

analysis Updated: Jul 20, 2018 19:11 IST
Mob,Mobocracy,Democracy
A view of the Supreme Court in New Delhi(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)

The Supreme Court has often been accused of overplaying its hand and taking on an activist role. But this has not prevented the court from playing the role of philosopher of democracy and a sociologist of change. Its little reflections in a Burkian sense on the revolutions of our time have ranged from gay rights to the nature of citizenship. On Tuesday, a three-member bench lead by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dipak Misra produced a major critique of mobocracy, while asking Parliament to make it a separate offence.

The power of its judgment came from the systematic nature of its 43-page argument derived from its opposition between democracy and mobocracy, a dualism which can never be bridged. The court’s ruling was a superb meditation on democracy as civics, civility, and as a civilisation.

The ruling began with a meditation on citizenship as an act of trusteeship of reflectiveness and restraint which leaves punishment to the rule of law. A mob comes into being when citizens lose this sensitivity driven by a self-projected and propelled morality. When morality turns hysterical and irrational, democracy loses its dignity. Citizenship is disfigured twice. First, when the citizen loses his restraint and individuality to become a crude collectivity called a mob. Second, citizenship as a creative and critical role is destroyed when violence becomes a spectacle and citizenship is reduced to spectatorship. The difference between the rationality of public space and the anarchy of the street is lost. A mob defies civics and the rituals of civility by demanding instant gratification. Instead of submitting to the rule of law, it becomes a monstrous version of law and order itself. When rationality loses out to hysteria, democracy becomes mobocracy.

The court is particularly hard on what it dubs “the apathy of the bystander, the numbness of the spectator” on the one hand, and the vulgar grandstanding of the perpetrator on the other. The vigilante becomes the new monstrosity of citizenship. The court’s critique of an apathetic citizen is matched by its indictment of the mob. The court realises that while the mob is a primordial phenomenon, its current impetus is modern. It survives on the technological mulch of fake news and false stories. A primordial phenomenon acquires a contemporaneity by thriving on speed. A mob in that sense is indiscriminate. It is a carnivore that feeds on the victim regardless of innocence. It feeds on all the stereotypes of law, caste, class, race and religion. Law and the rule of law must create a secular lens that refracts these stereotypes and prejudices.

The court warns that when citizens take the law into their own hands, they inaugurate the Republic of Intolerance. The opposition between the violence of intolerance and the civics of rational reflection now underwrites the dynamic of democracy.

The judgment of the court could be a compact history of the violence of contemporary times. The vigilante, who in his need for instant gratification, becomes the instant law-giver, a mad Moses driven by prejudices other than an understanding of the logic of law. The metaphor is worth pursuing because with the mob playing the equivalent of a mad parliament.

The court focused on the pathology of lynchings, showing how intolerance with a technological impetus becomes an instant mob. A mob is a monster which deprives a citizen of the dignity and protection of law. The court wants lynching capitalised as a special crime. It wanted the legislature to prepare ground for this by also creating a separate system of compensation for mob victims.

The court sensed that it was meditating on a classic moment of history, realising that more than rebellion, terror, subversion, it was the self-generated mob that had become the greatest threat to democracy. In his judgment, Dipak Misra added a literary reference that lynchings were so rampant that the writer Mark Twain dubbed America the United States of Lyncherdom. Oddly, India, which loves to mimic the US, might become the new United States of Lynch Mobs. This would be one of the great ironies of modern democracy, requiring in this case not satire but a sociological analysis of how a tolerant India, unless checked in time, could become a Republic of the Mob. One wishes the court had continued its lesson in pedagogy and democracy.

Shiv Visvanathan is professor, Jindal Global Law School and director, Centre for Study of Knowledge Systems, OP Jindal Global University

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jul 20, 2018 19:11 IST