Kangaroo Courts Mock At Rule of Law

By Sandeep Sahu

Disturbing visuals of a woman being thrashed by a mob, mostly consisting of women, in Ambajoda village in Mayurbhanj earlier this week proved two things. First, the Jatland in north India does not have a monopoly on khap panchayats; our very own Odisha is not too far behind. Second, when it comes to holding someone ‘guilty’ and punishing him/her in public, men do not have a monopoly; women are equally guilty.

There have been far too many instances of mob justice in the state in the recent past for the shameful incident in Mayurbhanj to be dismissed as an aberration. A few weeks ago, a teacher was dragged, thrashed and humiliated by a mob for before being handed over to the police misbehaving with girl students of the school in Badsahi in the same district. Earlier, another teacher was humiliated in public for his alleged misdemeanor with a girl in Nayagarh district. Make no mistake. What the two teachers did – assuming that the allegations against them were true – was utterly reprehensible. They defiled the beautiful relationship between teacher and student, which is sacrosanct and hence must be punished. But can we allow a mob to mete out instant justice in such cases? What are the law, law enforcement agencies and local administration there for if a mob takes the law into its own hands and delivers instant justice? Are we not moving towards lawlessness and complete anarchy if we allow such things to happen in such frightening regularity?

It is true that the phenomenon of people increasingly taking the law into their hands is the result, at least partially, of a diminishing faith in the law enforcement machinery and its ability – and willingness- to deliver justice. This loss of trust, in turn, is the result of the guilty more often than not getting away with their crimes by exploiting the loopholes in the justice delivery system. But the solution to the problem lies not in mob justice, but in building pressure on and forcing the police to act as per the law. Mob justice behoves a banana republic, not a democratic republic like India that is governed by the Rule of Law.

In the latest case in Mayurbhanj, it was not even a case of misdemeanor of the kind that the other two cases involved. The villagers apparently had a problem with the man frequently visiting the woman’s house. Now, why should anyone sit in judgment in a case of an affair between two consulting adults, even if it is an extra-marital relationship? If the villagers had a problem, they could have resorted to the time honoured practice of a social boycott. But a resort to physical violence can never be condoned.

The three incidents cited above, while condemnable in themselves, were not the most diabolical manifestation of mob justice in the sense that they did not result in deaths. But what about the hundreds of men and women, who are branded ‘witches’ and then lynched by angry villagers across Odisha, mostly in tribal areas, every year? They are extreme cases of mob justice that mock at our criminal justice system.

The fact that a majority of such lynching cases happen in tribal Odisha, where awareness levels are decidedly low, is no consolation. As the incident in Nayagarh in January this year in which a 2000-strong crowd lynched two dacoits and critically injured a third after a bank heist, showed that the people of the supposedly aware coastal Odisha are no better when it comes to delivering instant justice.

The dynamics of mob justice are such that even otherwise law-abiding and sensible people join the ‘fun’ once someone sets the ball rolling. Reason and rationality go for a toss as no one wants to miss out on the opportunity to teach the guilty a ‘lesson’. The belief that the police cannot act against a mob strengthens the resolve for retribution. But in a country where even a remorseless killer like Ajmal Kasab was given a fair trial before being hanged – something that enhanced India’s reputation as a country run by Rule of Law – allowing kangaroo courts and mob justice to flourish is a sure recipe for democratic disaster.