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Crime of Vigilante Justice

Recent incidents of lynching in different parts of the country have to be viewed in the context of the law itself allowing the arrest of innocent people on mere suspicion, especially denotified and nomadic people. This article exposes the role of caste behind these violent incidents and reveals how the victims of violence are turned into culprits.

COMMENTARY

Crime of Vigilante Justice

Meena Radhakrishna

Recent incidents of lynching in different parts of the country have to be viewed in the context of the law itself allowing the arrest of innocent people on mere suspicion, especially denotified and nomadic people. This article exposes the role of caste behind these violent incidents and reveals how the victims of violence are turned into culprits.

I am grateful to Nasir Tyabji for comments.

Meena Radhakrishna (meena.rkna@gmail.com) is at the department of sociology, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi.

I
n the recent months, some hair-raising incidents have come to public notice, which need some careful thought and analysis. One is the widely-known and much-discussed case of the Bihar lynchings of alleged thieves “caught red-handed”. Second is the lesser known case in Madhya Pradesh involving pardhis, who were alleged to have raped and killed a village woman. In retaliation, a pardhi couple were killed (the woman was raped in revenge before she was killed), the entire settlement of 300 pardhis burnt down, and the pardhi community was not allowed to be rehabilitated by the angry villagers. Third, another little known incident, which circulated in the public domain for a day or two, occurred in Kerala. A woman and her two children were suspected of theft of a gold anklet in a shop, and so the angry shopkeepers and the public caught them. They were then punched, kicked and battered, and finally disrobed by an enraged public which aimed to find the jewellery on their persons. The fourth incident involved a young man in Bihar, who was named by the ‘ojha’ of the village that he had stolen the idols from the village temple, and he was battered to death by an enraged mob. And

finally a man, suspected of being a cowlifter was chained and thrashed by the workers and manager of the ‘gaushala’ in Punjab till he died.

Variously termed as vigilante justice,

instant justice or mob justice in the press, various sociological explanations have been given for occurrence and recurrence of such incidents. The Bihar lynchings in September 2007, especially, aroused a lot of comment. Horrified national and international reactions largely included denouncement of the inefficient and callous law and order machinery in the concerned state (mainly the police), and the failure of the criminal justice system.1 This analysis reasoned that a public fed up with delays in dispensation of justice decided to take the law into its own hands and “settle scores with the miscreants”. The solutions to this state of affairs were then seen to be, predictably, gearing up of the police, speedier trials and more self-restraint on the part of the public, however provoked.

Commonalities

There are some commonalities which will bear pointing out emphatically. Firstly, in all the five cases, the communities suspected of theft (in the case of pardhis, of rape and murder), were nomadic/ denotified communities.2 Secondly, in all the cases it is mere suspicion of crime, not the proof of crime which seemed to justify the public killings or other forms of

January 12, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

punishment like rape or burning down of a whole village. Thirdly, in all the cases, the mob was not made up of unknown, nameless “citizens” or a faceless “crowd” as implied in the press, but was constituted of identifiable people. In four cases out of five, it was made up entirely of a single caste members of the concerned region. Fourthly, the law and order keepers in all the above cases were actually present or were informed of the incident well in advance and they did nothing to stop the beatings in time to save the lives of those who were caught by the mobs. And fifthly, these cases have not happened only in much-maligned Bihar, where mob lyn ching is reported by the BBC to be “the order of the day” [Tewary 2007] but across Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala and Punjab.

As a report by the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes on the Bihar lynching made clear, there were no thieves caught red-handed by any “vigilante” committees patrolling the area. Another report by the same commission on the event involving the pardhis revealed that even the concerned district police superintendent has admitted to having no evidence that the pardhis being punished were the actual perpetrators of rape or murder, or indeed, had any past crime history at all. In the Kerala case, the pregnant woman belonging to the denotified and nomadic community was disrobed in public, but the missing jewellery was not found on her or on her children’s person. The Gadia Lohar, who was named by the ojha and killed by the “villagers” was merely suspected to be a thief, as was the supposed cattle lifter, who kept pleading while he was being killed that he was merely looking for his lost cow and that is why he was in the vicinity of the ‘gaushala’. There are no issues of justice to be settled here since we are talking of crimes here which the accused did not commit. In other words, innocent people have been caught and handled recklessly and in a most barbaric manner. How has any “justice”, mob, or instant, or vigilante, been dispensed?

A point to be emphasised here is that the Indian law itself allows apprehending of innocent people under mere suspicion, and denotified and nomadic people are regularly rounded up by the police under

Economic & Political Weekly January 12, 2008

certain preventive sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). This gross injustice is something the rest of the civil society is witness to without questioning, encouraging a state of affairs where suspicion will continue to substitute for hard evidence for vulnerable groups. However, this daily injustice on these communities by the police machinery is not the reason for such group violence. It merely helps in justifying it for its perpetrators in the likes of cases cited above.

Caste-based Violence

Explanations for such violence lie elsewhere. Firstly, the cases mentioned above are not only not cases of vigilante justice, but every single one of the above-cited cases is caste-based violence. The issues here are of systematic, not spontaneous, violence, increasingly from the other backward classes (OBC) towards castes lower in the social hierarchy than themselves. On interaction by this researcher with the concerned yadavs and kunbis in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, respectively, in the villages where the incidents took place, revealed something stunning in its sheer intensity: there is caste hatred and contempt for the victimised communities which borders on paranoia. For one, there is an obsessive dissatisfaction at the victim communities being included in the scheduled caste/scheduled tribe (SC/ST) categories and having wide range reservations than being listed as an OBC allows for. That the concerned communities are not able to take advantage of being listed as SCs or STs, because of a host of complex factors is another matter altogether.

Secondly, if there are even a few upwardly mobile members among these nomadic or denotified communities, the general view was that the entire community needs to be relegated back to its “proper” place in the hierarchy. When this researcher visited the affected village in Madhya Pradesh to investigate the numerous “crimes” allegedly committed by the pardhis, the kunbis vociferously complained that pardhis who depended on the kunbis till recently for sustenance were becoming too big for their boots (“kal tak hamare tukro par palte the, aaj bakri or murgi kat kar khate hain… hamare paon mein chappal ho na ho, ve moti moti heel ke jute pehente hain”). So, for some members of the nomadic and denotified communities to be doing better than the higher caste members was deemed, and posed as, intolerable “caste offence”. (“Inko apni jaat ki sahi jagah par rehne ki aadat daalni padegi”.)

Thirdly, there is a shared feeling among the relatively better-off/higher caste persons that certain spaces both in towns and village areas are too sacred to be polluted by nomadic and denotified sections. In the case of the pardhis of Madhya Pradesh, it is considered an offence that these denotified nomads should have been settled by the administration in the midst of the “respectable” kunbis a decade ago. The nomadic woman and her children were seen to be “suspiciously lurking around” in the market area in a Kerala town, and not seen to be present in a public place as legitimately as any one else. The conclusion drawn from their presence by the “crowd” was that they must be visiting from their home state of Tamil Nadu to steal children! In the gaushala case in Punjab, the lynching gives a message to all nomadic grazers and herders that unlike other citizens, if they are found anywhere near the sacred shelter for cows, they do so at their own peril. Most disturbingly, even after the nomads in the Bihar case were lynched in medieval style, and even after it was established that they had not stolen anything, the question that kept cropping up was: “But what were they doing in that village any way”?

Question of Hierarchy

The simple answer to the last question is that nomadic people have no territorial rights, and nowhere to call their own and so they remain mobile, and they have to visit more places than other people need to. Because their traditional occupations have got destroyed over the last century, they are now entering new public spaces rather than sticking to their old routes of travel. At any rate, that is not the point here: they have as much right to be in any public space as any one else. This right is what is being questioned, especially when there is an increasing notion of beautified, sanitised places even in small towns where deprived and poor looking people are unwelcome, and have begun to get accused of being

COMMENTARY

potential or actual criminals if they enter such spaces. An age-old wish on the part of the higher castes – now increasingly shared by the OBCs – is that the lower ones in the hierarchy do not dare to cohabit, or even pass through their exclusive islands.

The pardhi case in Madhya Pradesh is an instructive one to understand how such spacial exclusion and the notion of the outsider have other serious dimensions as far as the denotified and nomadic communities are concerned. In this case, it is not only the kunbis of the area, who are still refusing to allow the pardhis enter the village where their homes used to be. For exactly three months now, the entire civil administration, the elected representatives and the police are one in declaring that the concerned pardhis will not be allowed to return to their village. No less than the revenue minister has declared that they will not be allowed to enter the district, or even the state [Ghatwai 2007] In the name of vigilante justice and to avenge one kunbi woman raped and killed by an unknown person in a village, two members of the neighbouring pardhi community have been killed and thrown into the well and 12 women raped as punishment; their belongings have been looted, legally constructed houses under the Indira Awas Yojna on regular land pattas pulled down by bulldozers, and all other temporary shelters burnt down. These homeless pardhis are now wandering in the forest, too frightened to return as the blood hounding is still being instigated all over the district by the elected representatives of the village. In addition, the compensation which ought to be given to these terrorised people is being denied by on the grounds that criminals cannot be compensated.

Law and Order

So this is the most significant distortion that the term vigilante justice achieves in the above cases: it turns victims into culprits. Moreover, though everyone in the area, including the police, know precisely who perpetrated these murderous acts, the cases which are registered (and that only under pressure from concerned citizens) are against “unknown people” in the FIR. Misguided and facile use in the public domain of the term “vigilante justice”, then, not only serves to hide the increasing caste violence against vulnerable communities, but serves to provide anonymity and immunity to murderers who, unchecked, can set precedents for more such future violence.

Lack of Faith

We should, in fact, be discussing the utter lack of faith in the two institutions – the justice system and the police – from the point of view of the victims of such violence. Of course, these two institutions leave much to be desired from the point of view of the middle class as well, otherwise such blatant caste violence would not be misunderstood as instances of vigilante justice in the first place. The much-discussed failure of the justice system seems to have certainly taken place. The culprits know that the justice system will not act against them and so they can go ahead and indulge in these illegal, violent, murderous acts. Speedier trials are definitely needed, otherwise these bold hordes of criminals will literally get away with murder. “Failure of law and order machinery” also needs to be examined, but rather differently. In all the cases cited above, the police were either present at the time of the event and looked the other way, or were simply absent though informed well in time about the fate that awaited the victims. In the gaushala case, the police are alleged to have joined the murderers.

The pubic discourse on such cases needs to be drastically modified. The current state of the communities who suffered is a poignant reminder of the urgency with which these cases need to be settled and the guilty punished. Severely traumatised, a large number of members of these communities have hurriedly left the states where their family/community members got killed. Even after it was officially accep ted in Bihar that the lynched people were not thieves, their families simply “disappeared” according to the administration, and could not be traced by the authorities even for compensation. The humiliated and injured nomadic woman in Kerala reportedly vanished from the hospital where the authorities had lodged her for treatment even after it was clear to every one that she had not stolen anything. In the Madhya Pradesh case, where representatives of the Congress, BJP and Samajwadi Party are vying with each other to take the credit for the “justice” meted out to the pardhis by the kunbis, and where the civil administration and the police have consistently backed this caste violence, the concerned pardhis are hiding and wandering in the forests.3

The term vigilante justice applied to the above cited cases has, then, served to give legitimacy to utter travesty of justice itself, and cloaked increasing violence against nomadic and denotified communities. The behaviour of the police in all the cases, and of state officials and elected representatives in Madhya Pradesh shows that prejudices of the perpetrators of violence against such communities are widely and unabashedly shared. They are then vulnerable to similar future bloodshed and their right to visit or settle down in territories of their choice will continue to be questioned in these vicious ways.

Notes

1 ‘Opinion’, The Hindu, September 18, 2007; ‘PM Warns against Vigilante Justice’, Express News Service, Posted online: October 5, 2007.

2 There were about 125 communities which were unjustly notified as “criminal tribes” by the British administration. Upon independence, the piece of legislation which declared them thus was repealed, and so the concerned communities were “denotified”.

3 To address this state of affairs, a public interest litigation (PIL) has been filed by an independent activist to demand justice for the pardhis, and to demand implementation of the recommendations by the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes. These recommendations include adequate compensation to the pardhi victims, immediate rehabilitation of the pardhis to their original place of residence, stringent action against the elected representatives and others for fomenting hatred and violence among different communities, and action against the district police/civil administration for gross dereliction of duty.

References

Ghatwai, Milind (2007): ‘Chothia Village Off Bounds for Pardhis: Villagers Extract ‘Promise’ from Revenue Minister Kamal Patel’, Indian Express, September 17.

Tewary, Amarnath (2007): ‘Where Lynching Is the Order of the Day’, BBC News, Patna, September 13.

available at

New Light Publishing Company

Makayiram Ambalathara, Thiruvananthapuram-695 026, Kerala Ph: 09847160348

January 12, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly

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