October 1, 2007

Kangaroo court- Mobs on the rampage

Bhagalpur in Bihar was in news last week. A ragged man of 20, Salim allegedly tried to snatch a gold chain. Like magic, a mob conjured itself around Salim and meted out instant - and violent - justice. Later, the police entered the picture, beat up the man who appeared as if he hadn't had food in weeks and hauled him over the streets, chained to a motorcycle. Do we put such universal complicity down to the peculiar Indian genius of turning everything into
entertainment, a free show?

In 1980, the Bhagalpur police poured acid into the eyes of 30 undertrials and stole their light. Largely owing to that, Indians elsewhere tend to preen and see Bhagalpur as caught in a dark, stone-age time warp. This sense of superiority is delusional, of course. The day after Salim nearly got killed under the indifferent Bhagalpur sun, a truck ran over four in the early hours in Agra, and a rather communal mob miraculously equipped with weapons of mass destruction such as stones, torches and other implements materialised out of the thin air, set fire to 20 trucks and gutted property worth over Rs 4 crore. The mob fury left 50 injured and one killed.

Last week, a teacher in a government-run school in Delhi who was accused of forcing girl students into prostitution was nearly lynched by a mob. The teacher has now been dismissed, but the mob that took law into its hands has only been faded out, and awaits another appropriate day for its acrimonious entry.

Recently in Mumbai, the driver of a Maruti car was assaulted by a mob and had to be rescued by police. In Delhi, road rage is a daily occurrence. If justice and punishment are a matter for a throng of people to dispense with, why have courts of law?

Other instances abound of mob assuming for itself a kind of vigilantism that is hard to distinguish from full-fledged riot. Just about anything could spark it. A desecrated statue, a professor who passed a lewd remark on a student, a movie with lesbian innuendoes, a scholar who said the king was naked, a novelist who laughed at a god - just about anything, including two displaced leopards, trapped and beaten to death in Nashik by the mob recently. Anything is reason for the crowd to morph itself into the killer mode of the mob. Any object, painting, truck, or wild cat could be the wand that waved a mob out of men merely staring into the middle distance and sipping tea.

The sad fact is that the mob is so much a part of the so-called Emerging India. It is people who have lost trust in the due process of law, whose sense of retribution brooks no delay in gratification. Mob is a people in a hurry to avenge. And there are so many of them. Add to it poor policing. Every thousand Indians need to make do with just one police-man. Compare that with the UN recommendation of one policeman to 400 people.

An equally contributory cause is the high level of frustration that a vengefully consumerist society - India, for instance, is one of the fastest growing car markets in the world - will transmit to the voyeuristic have-nots. The increasing incidence of mob fury is more a warning than an indication that there are a lot of unhappy people looking for an excuse to get angry as hell.

As pockets of plutocrats increase, we are likely to see more and more of the mob, representing the Indians left out from the movement forward, taking to the road and travelling backward to the stone age of intolerance and violence, a twilight land where a botched attempt at snatching a chain could be seen as an act of arch villainy and mindless violence as its inexplicable but just comeuppance.

The National Human Rights Commission has decided to investigate the Bhagalpur incident. The victim, Salim, meanwhile is still in hospital critically ill, nearly as ill as the people that landed him in the ICU. With luck, Salim will recover. The mob will take longer to cure.

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