Nothing can justify people taking the law into their hands and kill or maim people. A few days back Sajal Jomaddar, a suspect in the Bhandaria gang-rape case, was found dead in the district.
Jomaddar’s body was dumped on a paddy field and the note hung around his neck had read: “I am in this state because I raped a madrasa student”. Only six days after that incident another accused of the gang rape Rakib Hasan was found dead, again with a note hung around his neck. The note read: I am Rakib who raped … in Pirojpur’s Bhandaria. This is the fate of rapists. Rapists beware -- Hercules.” Apparently an individual– or a group of vigilantes– took it upon himself to be the judge jury and executioner. In the social media many people actually congratulated the killer and said this is the manner in which criminals should be dealt with. So many people are convinced that justice had been done. However few are thinking ahead about what would happen when everyone with a grievance or two tries to become a Hercules. These indicate a deep malaise that has pervaded our society.
The human race has spent centuries developing legal and judicial systems. What is the purpose of the system of trial if not to sift facts and come to the truth? All of it is based on centuries’ worth of human experience. All of it is designed to prevent innocent people from being punished for crimes they did not do and to serve an appropriate penalty on those found guilty of wrongdoing. While some would say in today’s environment when the conviction rate is so low, the vigilantes must not be blamed. This writer begs to differ. A civilised society simply cannot condone the attitude of anyone who would seek to ignore the plain truth: no one can be judge jury and executioner over another. No one should take it upon themselves to kill or maim another human being. Rapist or not. Two wrongs do not make a right.
I am not sure whether we have any correct statistics on how many cases of such killings have taken place since our independence. In all probability, we will never know how many innocent people had to die in this manner. And very unfortunately such deaths will never stop until and unless the law-enforcing agencies step in to ensure that an individual vigilante or mobs under no circumstances able to take law into their own hands and commit barbaric acts. Unfortunately rarely do the onlookers or the common people in general care to show any sympathy for such victims. We know that more often than not the police prefer to look away when such violence takes place in their presence. What holds the police back from preventing the ghastly incidents is anybody’s guess. The story of the police’s non-committal role does not end here. There are instances when the police tried to dismiss such brutal incidents as the spontaneous outburst of the people’s wrath on the criminals. Put differently, does that mean to say that whatever the mob has done to establish its own style of "justice" is nothing very serious to worry about? In that case, what is then the need for maintaining the law-enforcement department under the state, if the mob has the freedom to take care of the law?
The question is does anything justify people taking the law into their hands and killing people? While we cannot support lynching under any circumstances we also have to try and understand why people felt it necessary to capture alleged criminals and dispense their form of instant ’justice’. In many cases they have a choice before them and instead of reporting to the police they chose to sort the matter out themselves.
Quite clearly trust in the law enforcers is dismally low and the trend of vigilante justice is becoming increasing common. There is an urgent need on part of the law enforcers to pull up their socks so that trust on them is ensured. However for that to happen institutional reforms are necessary and political pressure on these forces must come to an end. It is also the responsibility of the leaders of the society to educate the people about the fact that the rule of law is sacrosanct and vigilante justice is no justice at all.
Increasingly we are observing a rise in the number of people who have little or no respect for the law or tolerance for the rights of those with differing points of view. While most of us are always talking about our rights we tend to forget about our responsibilities. From constantly laying claims to our legitimate rights as citizens, we need to evolve to an understanding of our role as public citizens with concomitant behaviour to support that privilege. It is useful to remember that in ancient Athens’ direct democracy, major governance decisions were made by the citizens all of who were eligible to participate in the Assembly, which debated all public issues, often at great length, before making final decisions. Citizens who go around beating a bus driver to death or slapping a small tea shop attendant aren’t particularly qualified to make decisions.
Almost all over the world vigilante groups have existed, even in the most developed nations. United States of America witnessed vigilantism in the post-restoration period. Peru is the most affected presently. Not in remote past, but only after 2000, Britain, Guyana, South Africa has had a taste of vigilantism. The problem with vigilantes is that they do not look into the eyes of a felon and see past the crime. They do not scrutinise the way a judicial system would. In a courtroom, an accused has his/her entire life - beginning from infancy - inspected by the jury before a verdict a reached.
Anyone who has read British author William Golding’s ’Lord of the Flies’ is familiar with the concept that the institution of civilisation is the only wall between humans and savagery. The absence of justice brought out the monsters of revenge in us - and I do not just mean the vigilantes. This includes every person who remained quiet for years and years while lives were shed in the hands of mobs. It may just be time to prove that people can recognise a wrong for what it is. The temptation to take the law into one’s own hand is much greater when people believe they can get away by playing vigilantes. This is why it is extremely important for the authorities to take a hard line on all kinds of violent vigilantism, paying particular attention to those cases where the punishment meted out is bloody and harsh.
There is a reason why laws exist in our society. Mob justice can take care of one or two cases at best but effective legal action on the other hand can help in questioning and changing the unequal distribution of power in our society. Historically speaking, mob mentality has been known to spread havoc rather than bring a positive change in society. Public disgrace and shaming of people who are termed as “offenders” is not only outside of the social and legal sanction, it also fuels an anarchist and regressive mindset. Vigilantism is often the handiwork of an unthinking and angry mob, which fails to understand that the revenge it extracts is not just unlawful but is more often than not also grossly disproportionate to the crime. In the long run, there are a host of social factors that need to be addressed in order to reduce vigilantism and restore public faith in the criminal justice system. At the immediate level, however, it is important to see the phenomenon for what it is — a criminal activity — and put it down firmly.