Public vigilantism is alive and shockingly well in West Bengal—and other parts of India - Hindustan Times
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Public vigilantism is alive and shockingly well in West Bengal—and other parts of India

Jul 07, 2024 08:20 AM IST

A series of alarming incidents of public vigilantism—the instant meting out of justice to suspected criminals—is not limited to West Bengal.

The only state in India with a woman chief minister has been grappling with an alarming problem of public vigilantism and moral policing.

Kangaroo court: Tajmul Islam flogging a couple for an apparent extra-marital relationship
Kangaroo court: Tajmul Islam flogging a couple for an apparent extra-marital relationship

Earlier this week, a video of a TMC functionary called Tajmul Islam surfaced. In it he can be seen flogging a couple in public in daylight for having an alleged extramarital affair. Shot in West Bengal’s Uttar Dinajpur, the video went viral and following public outrage, Tajmul was arrested.

Hours later another video clip emerged, this one of a teenage boy and his mother being assaulted in Ariadaha in North 24 Parganas. Six people have been arrested, but the main accused, said to be close to the TMC, is absconding.

In a third incident, on Monday night, a woman died by suicide in Jalpaiguri after she received a public flogging for an alleged extra marital affair.

There is an epidemic of lynchings, finds a report in The Indian Express, with 13 separate incidents since June 19 that have left four people dead and another 10 injured. These have been triggered by a range of rumoured crimes from kidnapping to phone theft. All the incidents have taken place in the southern part of West Bengal.

“It is disgraceful that 75 years after Independence these incidents are still taking place in a state once known for its social reform movements,” Jagmati Sangwan, national vice president, AIDWA (All India Democratic Women’s Forum) said. “The fact that people from the ruling party are said to be directly involved makes it more alarming. The civil rights of these women are being openly flouted. They are being stigmatized and publicly humiliated for exercising their choices.”

Dishonour and shame

Public vigilantism is not new and nor is it confined to the borders of West Bengal. Perhaps the most egregious example took place in May last year in Manipur with the shocking stripping and parading of two women who were forced to walk through a crowd of jeering men.

The women’s crime? They happened to be Kuki-Zo, victims of ethnic strife with the Meitei community.

Elsewhere, women and girls continue to be subject to moral policing and the simple act of falling in love can have deadly consequences.

In Haryana, earlier this month, a series of so-called ‘honour’ killings merited no more than a few paragraphs in the papers. In these instances, it is not the public but the family itself that kills their own daughters for flouting social convention by choosing partners from the wrong caste or gotra or village address or economic status. In Hansi, district Hisar, a newly-wed couple was shot dead by the woman’s younger brother and cousin. Apparently the family was furious that the couple had run off and married against their wishes.

This killing like that of most ‘honour’ killings, a police officer investigating the case told me, invariably have the sanction of the community. The men who kill in the name of a misplaced notion of family honour are seen as heroes.

But ‘honour’ killings are not confined to Haryana. Cases have been reported in the recent past in western Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Kerala. National Crime Records bureau reports 33 such killings in 2021.

In Rajasthan, the family of a 20-year-old woman in Rajasthan’s Jhalawar district abducted and then killed her for marrying a man from a different caste. Police retrieved her body from the funeral pyre.

[I wrote about ‘honour’ killings in my last newsletter here]

Policing women’s choices

Public lynchings or ‘honour’ killings have one thing in common: A disregard for the rule of law.

In many cases they also signal a persistent moral policing of women’s individual choices and preferences, particularly sexual preferences. Khap panchayat wield enormous social influence on village life and they determine whether girls may have mobile phones, or are permitted to wear jeans or who they can (or cannot) marry.

It is precisely this mindset and desire to control the choices of adult women that we see in the enactment of the so-called love jihad laws in several BJP-ruled states that makes it virtually impossible for inter-faith marriages to take place in the name of “anti-conversion”. The latest to jump onto the bandwagon is Rajasthan where one of the first announcements of the newly formed BJP state government is to enact a similar law.

Most worrying are recent instances by the Allahabad and Madhya Pradesh high courts to actually deny protection to couples seeking it.

At stake is not just rule of law but the dignity and agency of the female citizens of this country.

For political parties, public vigilantism becomes an occasion to score brownie points against the opposition. In West Bengal, the BJP and CPI(M) are accusing Mamata Banerjee of presiding over a state of lawlessness. The local TMC MLA, Hamidul Rahaman said the woman who was being flogged by Tajmul Islam was an “evil beast” whose activities were anti-social.

But when the state administration sends in bulldozers to demolish the houses and shops of suspected criminals, it’s a signal to the mob to mete out instant justice instead of having to go through a cumbersome, and uncertain, legal process.

It comes as no surprise that Tajmul Islam in the West Bengal flogging incident is nicknamed ‘JCB’.

The following article is an excerpt from this week's HT Mind the Gap. Subscribe here.

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