August 01, 2016

India: Mindless Vigilantism, It is never on our side

The Times of India

We Are All Gau Rakshaks: Whether or not we care about cows, we certainly don’t mind vigilantism
August 1, 2016, 2:00 am IST

Amulya Gopalakrishnan in To name and address | Edit Page, India | TOI

Amid the outcry over seven Dalit men being beaten by cow-protection vigilantes in Gujarat, Thawar Chand Gehlot, Union minister for social justice and empowerment, declared that gau rakshak squads were simply social organisations. The problem, he said, was that they rushed off on the basis of a rumour, rather than “find out its veracity and then go”.

In other words, if the cow had truly been slaughtered, breaking the state’s law, then it would have been perfectly alright for a bunch of angry cow protectors to directly attack those responsible, rather than use that law.

This is a stunning statement for the minister to make. But chances are, most people are not stunned. The idea that trial and punishment for a crime follows a process, and is solely the state’s business, is far from common sense in this country. Vigilante action is accepted, even admired.

Definitions first: Vigilantism is extra-legal group coercion by some citizens, against others they consider out of line, for a larger cause they believe in. It doesn’t have time for the regular justice system, for law and courts and democracy; the evil it sees needs urgent avenging.

This rush to direct action, the disregard for due process is all around us. It’s in the people we celebrate, the public behaviour we endorse, the TV news and the movies we love. It’s not exclusively a right-wing phenomenon either. Many who are now aghast at the cow-protection violence would cheer lustily for anti-system action heroes in what they consider good causes.

We keep making movies, from Mr India to Gangaajal to Rang De Basanti to Madaari, where the good cop seems to be in the business of moral purification, where the courts are always unsatisfactory, politicians always venal, forcing the hero to take matters into his own hands. A movie is just a movie, but collectively, they say something about the need for vengeance and control.

Vigilantes always know there is some public sentiment backing them. The white supremacists who lynched black men in the American south genuinely thought they were acting for the greater good. But whether it has come in as a momentary, visceral reaction to corruption, or communism, or whatever – it has had ultimately repressive effects.

For all the fantasies of vigilantism as the common man’s revenge on an unyielding system, it ends up as conservative violence that picks on the errant and the non-conforming.

Even those who stand for the state are not immune to the seductions of direct action, and use it instrumentally. Think of what happened in Delhi’s Khirki village, during AAP’s first stint in power, where the law minister wanted to barge in and arrest Nigerian residents on the basis of what the neighbours said, and the chief minister acted as though warrants were merely a nicety to be dispensed with. Look at the way the Chhattisgarh government sponsored the citizen militia Salwa Judum, until the courts struck it down.

And why blame them, when even lawyers don’t recognise their duties. Many refuse to represent people they have already demonised in their minds as rapists or terrorists, and state bar associations have bullied their colleagues who take up the job. Though they let down due process by denying a fair hearing to the accused, there is no public recoil at their actions.

To see how exceptionally blasé we are about procedural justice, look at the way encounter killings are given a free pass in India. Police vigilantism is routine, and not just in insurgency-torn areas or unmanageable crime-ridden cities. The official story is that these are spontaneous face-offs with suspects, where the police kills in self-defence.

Though they know that these are largely premeditated operations, most people don’t care or consider them illegitimate. Police officials are openly identified as “encounter specialists”, their “successes” celebrated in the media and the movies.

Encounter specialists justify this as an emergency response, like some kind of Kali Yuga where crime has become unmanageable, where citizens actually yearn for them to abandon the rules. And this social sanction is a fact; recall how people rioted to defend the policemen in Bhagalpur, who had poured acid into the eyes of 31 undertrials.

The police gets away with extra-judicial killings because of this sentiment, as criminology scholar Beatrice Jauregui has pointed out; other countries with similar conditions don’t have the same attitude towards systematic homicide.

Righteous anger and hot blood are the fuel for vigilantism, and the sense of filling in for a feeble legal system. But this rough justice deals in revenge, not rehabilitation. It tends to prey on those who are most powerless, or unpopular, unable to resist or retaliate, as the brutal Una beatings demonstrate.

And no matter what the ends are, a climate of vigilantism leaves individuals unprotected against power. It is never on our side, even when it is.