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MC Explains | Understanding what goes on in the minds of vigilantes and mob-lynchers

The rising number of incidents are an indication of the increasing mistrust in law enforcement bodies. Filming the incident underscores that theory.

July 09, 2019 / 03:55 PM IST
Representative Image

Representative Image

Vigilantism and mob-lynchings have seen a disturbing rise in India in the recent past. The lynching of 22-year-old Tabrez Ansari in Jharkhand’s Kharswan district, allegedly on the accusation of a petty crime such as theft, has unfortunately not been a one-off case.

Let’s take a look at why vigilantism is on the rise and what measures need to be taken to contain the situation.

Mob Justice

Cases of an angry mob taking law into their own hands have been reported from all across India. On July 3, a 38-year-old tribal man was lynched on the suspicion of cattle theft; last week, a 24-year-old was brutally beaten to death in West Bengal’s Malda district on the suspicion of theft and a video of the gruesome beating went viral.

In Rajasthan, a twisted sense of justice seems to be prevailing. Recently, 55-year-old Pehlu Khan, who was brutally beaten to death by self-styled cow vigilantes in Alwar in 2017 on the accusation of cow smuggling, was chargesheeted on June 29. Along with him, his sons Irsad (25) and Arif (22) have been charged under various sections of the Rajasthan Bovine Animal (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act, 1995.

In a similar case last month, a minor Dalit boy was beaten up mercilessly by a group of saffron-clad men, a video of which went viral on the Internet. Later, the Rajasthan police filed a case against the boy, saying he was being beaten up by the mob for allegedly molesting a girl. Some reports even suggested the boy was beaten up after he tried to enter a Hindu temple in the area.

Data points out that incidents of mob lynching have increased from one in 2012 to at least 31 in 2018. Most victims belong to minority communities, including Muslims, Dalits and tribals. The lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq, Raqbar Khan and Junaid bring back sore memories.

Another dangerous trend, which ought to put an individual in a moral conundrum, is the filming of these incidents and circulating them on social media. Even heinous crimes, such as rape and gang rape of women including minors, are filmed and shared. It is one thing to break the law, but yet another to record the act and show it off like a trophy.

 Why is vigilantism and incidents of mob justice on the rise?

Criminal Psychologist and Supreme Court advocate Anuja Trehan Kapur told Moneycontrol, “Lynching happens when a mob gets together and they feel that they have a responsibility towards society and that the police or any administrative body can’t do justice to that responsibility.”

Anuja attributed the rise in such incidents to four major reasons:

  1. Judiciary

Many take to vigilantism because they have lost faith in the law of the land or the justice system has failed them because of the many limitations of the judicial system.

A judicial trial can be long, arduous and, most importantly, unaffordable. “In many cases, justice is not done because of the time period. Those who engage in mob lynching are believers of the Retributive Theory of punishment, which is also known as an eye-for-an-eye theory,” Anuja said.

The Retributive form of punishment requires an offender (someone who has broken the law in the eyes of the mob) to suffer in return and that the punishment should be proportional to the crime.

“They believe in blood, they want to see that blood. They want justice in seconds. Mob lynchers do not believe in law. They do not want to wait for natural justice,” she added.

2. Law Enforcement

The rising number of incidents are an indication of the increasing mistrust in law enforcement bodies. Filming the incident underscores that theory. Vigilantes are so coloured with their sense of providing justice, that they want to commemorate that act, without even realizing that they might be leaving behind evidence.

“The problem with mob lynching is, how to identify the main culprit from the accomplices and how to initiate proceedings against a large number of unidentified persons. This ultimately leads to impunity,” Anuja said. “There is no law to execute a mob," she added.

In addition, many accused as well as suspects have been welcomed with open arms by ministers, contested elections and even garlanded by Union ministers. Such acts, naturally, encourage vigilantes.

3. Social Media

“Social media helps drive mass hysteria through the spread of fake news,” Anuja told Moneycontrol. Many times, old doctored videos go viral, leading to rumour-mongering. This is where the responsibility of the media comes in. Instead of providing a platform to fringe groups to voice their opinion on prime-time debates, outlets need to focus on debunking fake news and heralding facts.

4. Legislative bodies and policy makers

A law to curb mob-lynching is a dire need to contain the rising incidents of this crime, something that was asserted by the Supreme Court last year.

In July 2018, a Supreme Court Bench headed by then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra had said, “horrendous acts of mobocracy” cannot be allowed to overrun the law of the land. In a strongly-worded verdict, the bench had attributed “rising intolerance and growing polarization” to the rising incidents of lynching and mob violence, asserting that such incidents “cannot become the normal way of life”.

The Supreme Court, at that time, had directed Parliament to enact stern laws so as to provide “preventive, remedial and punitive measures” to deal with cow vigilantism and mob lynching.

To formulate laws on the matter, experts need to study how mob lynching is dealt with in other countries of the world, “We need to study, on what grounds a mob can be penalised,” Anuja said.

Understanding Mass Hysteria

Anuja also told Moneycontrol that mass hysteria is one of the primary reasons behind mob lynchings. The people who fall for mass hysteria and engage in such acts primarily have two personalities:

Paranoid: These people replicate the characteristics of belonging to a cult, i.e. they believe in one ideology or one cause. Hence, the crime is committed by a larger number of like-minded people. In the case of vigilantism, the perpetrators do not project faith in the justice system and are certain that the law will fail them.

“For instance, either there will be no FIR; if there is one, there will be no trial. If there is a trial, there will be no conviction and if there is conviction, they won’t get the death penalty or even life imprisonment,” Anuja explains.

Hence, they decide to take law in their own hands. Mass hysteria, which transmits an idea like “an epidemic of the mind”, compounds the drive to commit the crime.

Predators: These are hunters – they are criminals or history-sheeters. Some of them have just been released, some of them are out on parole, and some even members of political parties.

Aakriti Handa