Mobs are above the law

This is the 17th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

I felt an intense desire yesterday to go out and burn a bus. There was no specific reason for this – it was like a craving for ice-cream – and I also figured that I would throw stones at shop windows afterwards. Being in a social mood, I called up a couple of friends to ask if they would like to join me. They politely declined. Oddly, they also asked if I was okay. “I’m just fine,” I told them. “You go have latte and feel sophisticated.”

But I understand their apprehension. Had a couple of us gone out and burnt a bus, we would have been arrested instantly, and later thrashed in the lock-up. On the other hand, had a couple hundred of us gone, nothing would have happened. We would have been allowed to burn buses and throw stones, and even hurt or kill a few people as long as they weren’t anyone influential. All we’d need was a banner or two, or even just some slogans to shout. “We want justice,” we could proclaim, while figuring out whether you set fire to the tyre before or after it’s around the hapless passerby. It takes skill.

In India, mobs are above the law. The events in Rajasthan in the last few days are an illustration of this. The losses to business because of the protests by the Gujjars and their clashes with the Meenas are estimated to run in the hundreds of crores, and I think you’d agree with me that a lot of it was avoidable. Most mob violence in India is.

Now, mobs are a problem across the world. Sports-related mob violence takes place in most of the developed countries, and earlier this week around 1000 people were injured at protests at the G8 summit at Rostock. But mostly, police struggle to stop such violence because of logistical issues. Countries across the world recruit police keeping relatively normal times in mind, and find themselves over-stretched when riots take place.

In India, our police is certainly below par, but it isn’t all about logistics. Mob violence is often not controlled even when it can be, which is not something you’ll see in the UK or the US. How often have police in India been known to stand by and watch as rioters damage property and/or people? They do this mostly because they know that the violence they are witnessing is not a mere law-and-order issue, but a political one. It is outside their domain.

Politics in India has been sanctified, and you’ll never find a cop arresting a politician, unless he is being used as a tool by an even more powerful politician. Any mob activity that has political sanction has, by default, the implicit support of the law-and-order machinery. This applies to bandhs, to morchas, to strikes and even to riots, as we saw in Delhi in 1984 and Gujarat in 2002. And because the polity is so fractured and votebank politics is commonplace, many relatively small groups – such as the Gujjars – can disrupt normal life and get away with it.

While the police is biased towards the powerful, the legal system is also dysfunctional. Even if someone gets arrested for rioting – it has been known to happen, though always at the bottom of the food chain – do you seriously expect him to be brought to justice? The fellow will get bail, the case will drag on for years, the cops will be too incompetent to file a proper chargesheet and witnesses will change their tune. In the end, justice will not be done.

An excellent illustration of police bias and legal incompetence is the difference in the handling of the Bombay riots of 1992-93 and the blasts of 1993. Around 900 people died in the former, 250 in the latter, and yet, those who were behind the riots, as part of mobs that had political support, have yet to be punished. Justice has been done in the latter case, but were the riots any less criminal than the bomb blasts?

In case all this makes you so distraught that you are tempted to turn to prayer, don’t. God is part of the problem here, not the solution. Nothing insulates mob violence in India such as the excuse of religion. Forget religious riots—have you ever tried walking the streets of Mumbai during Ganpati, when drunk young men clog the streets, dancing and throwing colour with abandon? Anything that is done in India under the guise of religion is immune to the law.

Festivals in India enable mob misbehaviour, and the way they are celebrated in modern times virtually gives social sanction for hooliganism. This applies even to a relatively non-religious festival like Holi, which is no longer a wholesome celebration of spring but an excuse to harass women (and even men, sometimes) whom one doesn’t know.

Anyway, I have written enough, and I will go now to indulge a craving. No, you won’t find me burning any buses today. Instead, I’ll go get some ice cream. But if a few hundred of you ever desire to go out and set the town on fire, get in touch with me. I have contacts, and we’ll have a blast.

(Note: Some earlier posts on this and related subjects: 1, 2, 3. And thanks to Gaurav and Sumeet for their inputs.)