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The Appeal Of Vigilantism

The Appeal Of Vigilantism

April 13, 2012

Can the police be trusted to uphold justice for India's women and girl children?

Extreme assaults are a sadly regular feature of daily news reporting in India. Even so, a recent story concerning an assault on a child made for unusually repugnant reading.

Neha Afreen, three months old, died in hospital on 11 April from cardiac arrest. The injuries which led to Baby Afreen’s death were inflicted by her father, who admitted that it was not the first time he had beaten the child. The details of those injuries, meanwhile, suggest a wild, excessive and animalistic attack. Afreen’s mother claims that the father carried out the beatings because he wanted a boy rather than a girl.

Also recently, a 23-year-old pub worker was gang-raped in Gurgaon, near Delhi. The response from Deputy Commissioner P C Meena of Gurgaon Police included demands of greater surveillance in pubs, a clamp-down on drink driving in the area, and the institution of a registry of women who work later than 8pm.

The Baby Afreen case came barely a month after the death of Falak, a two-year-old girl, at the hands -- and teeth -- of her 15-year-old guardian. The guardian had herself been abused by her father and raped repeatedly by pimps.

On top of this, the rape of a three-year-old girl was reported in Uttar Pradesh this week.

Listing the above four cases one after another seems to cheapen the girls’ awful fates. I wish I could say that Baby Afreen’s death was the last straw for patriarchy in India, that the ever-increasing list could end now. Unfortunately, there is no sign that the assaults against women and girl children are anywhere near over. A survey last year named India as the fourth most dangerous country in the world for women; this reputation is sadly being upheld, and defenceless children seem to be collateral damage in the equation.

Not surprisngly, the responses on social media and opinion pages to these recent cases has been fierce. A few days ago, I joined a Twitter discussion with two mothers from Mumbai about what should happen to child molesters and murderers. Given the fact that such cases keep on appearing, week after week, the extreme step of chemical castration was raised:

A: There seems to be no alternative.

B: They're animals. I'm not going to apologise for the fact that i strongly believe in this as deterrent. They're not afraid of the law. As we see repeatedly, WE should be afraid of the ignorance of police, politicians etc. Me: Still haven't worked out my beliefs. Violence by the state feels very wrong, but if I were that child's parent... 

A: Trust me, if I were that parent, I wouldn't wait for the law.

B: I don't think it's about being a parent or not. Imagine a young relative, your pet dog: Violence against helpless.

Me: That's a broader question, I think: whether (and when, and to what extent) vigilantism is right. But if the law did not protect those close to me or bring justice to those who wronged them, it'd be on my mind.

B: If you are a proven child molester, why not chemical castration? Or a tattoo on your evil forehead?

A: I’ve been saying chemical castration, registration at local police station and website bearing names & addresses.

B: Registration is de rigeur in the west. No argument against it.

Each party in this conversation expressed a will to mete out vigilante justice from outside the law. This is something that I personally would never have considered before I lived in India. The way I saw it, if one wants to be part of a healthy society, one must trust that the police and courts will uphold justice, as set out by the laws of the land. To take the law into one’s own hands and become a vigilante, no matter how severe the crime, seemed irresponsible and ultimately anti-social.

My time in Kerala didn’t exactly reverse that view, but it certainly added a few shades of grey. My girlfriend at the time was threatened and assaulted on more than one occasion, often by men who assumed she (being a white woman) would be receptive to their advances. My dog was poisoned and ultimately died, aged only two. Countless other women, both foreigners and locals, told horror stories of rape and assault in their own lives or among those close to them.

Everyone seemed to have been impacted in some way or another, and the attitude among the local police suggested that cases of violence against women were a distraction from real work. Rickshaw drivers, one I got to know them, started sharing tales of vigilante justice from around the Varkala/Kallamballam/Attingal area. One man abducted in a car and beaten for repeated violations of female bus passengers; another stabbed to death for raping somebody’s sister; another hanged in his front yard for raping with somebody’s wife. These actions seemed generally to go unpunished by the police, though they did nothing to stop more assaults against women happening in the community.

Around this time, I also learned of the Pink Gang in Uttar Pradesh (pictured above), an unabashed vigilante group composed entirely of women. In a state where violence against women and prejudice against girl children remains common, the Pink Gang is seen by many women as their last hope for justice.

Over time, when I considered what I would do if my girlfriend were seriously assaulted, the police became my second thought. The local superintendent had chastised us for living together unmarried, stating that it was against the law in India. It isn’t. I reasoned that if the head of my local police unit believed in different laws than those written down in legislation, I couldn’t trust him or his officers to uphold my rights. I had plenty of strong, well-liked male friends among the local community; it therefore seemed reasonable, in desperate circumstances, to rally them together and carry out our own justice against any gross transgressors -- especially if there were unlikely to be criminal consequences.

That sense the law enforcement system has failed you is what gives rise to vigilante action. The will to justice is, after all, a powerful force in human lives. (This is what makes Gurgaon Police’s edict following the pub worker gang rape so difficult to stomach; it’s also what leads people like my two Twitter friends to cry out for the strong measure of chemical castration when assaults on young children keep happening.) When we find that the government agency to whom we have entrusted that justice - the police and courts - either cannot or will not uphold our right to that justice or, more distressingly, have a different definition of justice from ours or even from what is written down in legislation, the urge to take justice into our own hands becomes quite compelling.

I now live back in New Zealand, where law and order has a better reputation, and the appeal of vigilante justice is diminishing. Vigilantism remains impossible to defend in absolute terms because justice, however much it can be generalised or tied to statutes, remains a subjective concept. As Charles J Edwards wrote in Changing Policing Theories for 21st Century Societies, “vigilantism at its worst deals with those whom the vigilantes see as acting against popular sentiment in a way which they feel the law fails to punish”, demonstrating the subjectivity of something as loose as ‘popular sentiment’. Edwards goes on to comment that the path this can go down - events like the anti-Jewish Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany - cannot be accepted or tolerated.

But what exactly is justice in modern India? What if your child became the next news story? Would you turn to the police, or seek justice outside the law? Is it even possible to judge this before it happens?

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1 Comment

  • C. Suresh
    C. Suresh
    16.04.12 01:43 PM
    I, honestly, cannot see any serious objections to chemical castration by due process of law. As for vigilantism, I'd say that the better course would be to rally the same people around to create a ruckus against the failure of the system. Encouraging vigilantism could well lead to a situation where vigilante action may be taken against the author for living together!

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