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Vigilante mobs become judge

In the past displaying brazen bigotry and intolerance was considered the sole prerogative of religious fundamentalists, reports Cooshalle Samuel.
Hindustan Times | By Cooshalle Samuel
UPDATED ON OCT 28, 2007 03:58 PM IST

In the past displaying brazen bigotry and intolerance was considered the sole prerogative of religious fundamentalists. But today a new wave of vigilante justice is sweeping across the country wherein frustration over government inaction and indifference is fast converting everyday victims into perpetrators.

Forced to solve his own problems, an average Indian no longer wears the benign expression of faith and waits patiently for justice to take its course, instead he carries a cynical attitude, wears his anger on his sleeve and has an alarmingly low level of tolerance of anything and everything.

Be it the burning of a religious book, a petty thief caught red handed, a sting operation exposing prostitution, a child murderer escaping justice, an embarrassing defeat in cricket, a government sanctioned sealing drive or delay in an anticipated movie screening, he unites with others similarly effected and expresses his anger, outrage and grief through damaging displays of defiance.

A recent case of mobs playing judge, jury and hangman was seen in Agra where a hit and run case ended with mobs setting ablaze 20 trucks, damaging property worth over Rs 4 crore, injuring 50 people and killing one. Similarly in 2006, Infosys estimated that the mob violence unleashed by fans mourning the death of Kannada filmstar Rajkumar, not only left five people dead, but also cost the technology hub of Bangalore more than Rs 650 crore.

But mob activity is perhaps at its most dangerous when it enjoys political patronage. The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) estimates that the weeklong Gujjar-Meena caste violence over the issue of reservation in Rajasthan, didn’t just claim 24 lives but cost the state Rs 10,000-12,000 crore, while Delhi lost nearly Rs 700 crore. Further the North Central Railway lost around Rs 5 crore a day and the state’s hotel industry lost about Rs 80-85 crore per day.

Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer notes that in India many such communal and religious clashes are engineered on an everyday basis over even more petty matters such as playing cricket or lighting a cracker or a hit and run case. Duke University professor and author Donald L. Horowitz explains that in such cases riots are usually engineered by spreading rumours and by playing on the emotions and insecurities of the mob, thereby provoking it into a mind-numbing frenzy of rage.

A good example of such a flare-up was seen in Bangalore on 10th March 2006, when a dispute between members of two communities on the question of barking of a dog intensified into communal violence that ultimately left nine people badly injured due to stoning.

Further, Ashutosh Varshney, Professor of Political Science and Director, Center for South Asian Studies, at the University of Michigan, argues that multi-ethnic societies like India are more prone to such kind of ethnic violence since they don’t have strong intra and interethnic social structures or even networks in place.

His research of Indian cities that have proved less riot prone indicates, that the bonds and communication structures created by organized professional and neighborhood-level associations (such as book or sports clubs), have proven to be a valuable tool in stopping rumours before they reach a critical mass within a community and play an important role in crisis management and brokering peace.

Therefore, strengthening such constructive civil society tools could to a very large degree help reduce incidents of mob activity and prevent them from flaring into a riot or worse yet, into a pogrom.

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