Brutal punishments are back into public debate in India with the airing of the video below. A boy who had snatched a chain from a woman was caught and brutally punished by a mob – relentlessly. A Policeman joined in meting out this “justice” by finishing the act by tying the boy to his bike and dragging him in the road. Even before this furore has died from public debate there has been another mob action today emulating the infamous Bhagalpur blindings epitomised by the movie Gangajal.
The Bhagalpur Blindings
In 1980 many undertrials (people in Jail who have not yet been convicted yet) were tortured by the police by poking needles into their eyes and by pouring acid in their eyes to blind them. The act came out into the public with a series of articles by Indian Express led by Arun Shourie and it took close up pictures of the brutalised eyes to raise the public furore. But furore was not the only sentiment expressed about the incident. There was also a great deal of public support for the incident in the crime prone state (Bihar). The dilemma was brilliantly filmed by Prakash Jha in the movie Gangajal almost two decades after the incident. In Gangajal police gouge out the eyes of goodans used by a local goon winning great public support for the act. The acid is euphemistically called Gangajal (the holy water of Ganga) and people enthusiastically take this method of punishment in the streets in response to crime. Today a repeat of the incident happened in Bihar where a mob gouged out the eyes of three young men who had stolen a bike at gunpoint from a man. ‘Justice in the street’ has once again become an issue within weeks in Bihar.
Justice: from courts to streets
There is a genuine frustration in India about long delays in the legal system and the ability of those with money to have their way in the criminal justice system. The lack of confidence judicial and legal system is indeed a context for some of the mob violence in the streets of Bihar today. I am all for street action. But an action of a completely different sort. Criminal justice system in India cannot be rescued without strong democratic protests by us. Mob violence over petty crimes is neither just nor a solution to a crime infested state.
I cannot help noticing that most of these violent incidents are meted to relatively poor people who have indeed committed a crime. Such violence is both crime and punishment – but punishment far in excess of anything that a decent society will consider. Mob punishments, lynching, beating, rape and other forms of violence are undeniable realities in India today. These are chief instruments for keeping ‘people in their place’ be they women who demand a just treatment or a Dalit who wishes to break the injustice of the casteist society. The context of gender, class or caste cannot be ignored in the system of street justice in India. They often go in the name of justice but are nothing more than crime in the garb of justice.
Despite the fact that many see an element of justice in the recent incidents I condemn them for the crime that they are, in the name of human rights and for their ability to justify violence that then becomes an instrument to sustain injustice in India today.