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India: Political Scientist Neera Chandoke on Vigilantism and Mob Justice

Vigilantism is about failure of the system

Thursday 13 January 2022, by siawi3

Source: https://communalism.blogspot.com/2022/01/india-political-scientist-neera.html

January 07, 2022

India: Political Scientist Neera Chandoke on Vigilantism and Mob Justice

(Originally published: The Tribune, Jan 7, 2022)

Vigilantism is about failure of the system

Life, goes the cliche, imitates art. But life is not a film that ends in a few hours.

Updated At: Jan 07, 2022 05:40 AM (IST)

Vigilantism is about failure of the system

Sign of the times: The cynical use of religion as a means to power has never been clearer. PTI

Neera Chandhoke
Political scientist

When it comes to interpreting the vigilante as a hero, Bollywood is second to none. Amitabh Bachchan perfected the role of the lonely cop wending his own way through the shattered landscape of injustice. Disillusioned by the failure of the Indian State to punish the wrong-doers — from corrupt police officers to zamindars and industrialists — our hero dished out retributive justice. His justification ranged from personal vendetta to occupation of the space vacated by a tardy system of justice. Delirious audiences clapped when Bachchan declared in his sonorous voice in Shahenshah: “Rishte mein to hum tumhare baap lagte hain, naam hai shahenshah.” This must be one of the silliest lines ever written for a hero by a scriptwriter, but the audiences lapped it up. Finally, a father figure had appeared on the horizon, dressed in plated armour, with a lock of hair falling onto one eye, to punish the criminals. The applause this indifferent film received was a damming comment on the lapses of the State.

Life, goes the cliche, imitates art. But life is not a film that ends in a few hours. That is why the explosion of vigilantism in our society over the last few years is a cause for worry. This avatar of vigilantism is not an alternative to the State; it completes the agenda of dominant ideologies — racism, homophobia, patriarchy, casteism and communalism. Is vigilantism the new normal? Perhaps! Still, we were shocked when saffron-clad sadhus called for genocide at Dharma Sansads in Haridwar and Raipur.

Other films were more sophisticated. The slickly produced thriller A Wednesday, starring the ultimate actor Naseeruddin Shah, showed an ‘ordinary Indian’ killing three prisoners. They had not been executed till then, so he stepped in to fill the gap! The ultimate in vigilantism was Rang De Basanti. A group of friends shoot the defence minister. He is held responsible for the death of their friend. Subsequently, Rani Mukherjee in Mardaani blithely says: “This is India. If in India, 50 people take the law into their hands and kill someone, it cannot be counted as an encounter, but as public outrage.”

The dialogue should have raised eyebrows as much as the patriarchal title of the movie did. But apparently consumers of whatever Bollywood gives us are simply not bothered by the glamourisation of vigilantism. Few people bother to question the over-simplistic solutions offered to complex questions of generalised injustice. Vigilantism is acceptable. The macho decisive hero, or his female counter-part, provides an alternative to a non-performing State.

Life, so goes the cliché, imitates art. But life is not a film that ends in a few hours. That is why the explosion of vigilantism in our society over the last few years is cause for worry. This avatar of vigilantism is not an alternative to the State; it completes the agenda of dominant ideologies — racism, homophobia, patriarchy, casteism and communalism. In England, the Skinheads, distinguished by their haircuts and their dress — jeans, T-shirts, leather jackets and heavy boots, erupted onto the political scene in protest against immigration in the 1960s. Their preferred mode of violence is mind-numbing. They stomp on helpless non-whites with their murderous boots. Closely associated with this ideology of white supremacism are bands that play the music of a violent sub-culture.

From England, the ideology of Skinheads spread to the United States and reinforced the racism of the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK, emerging in the aftermath of the civil war, specialised in wreaking vengeance on the emancipated Blacks. The group was reinvented at the beginning of the 20th century. In Europe, the explosion of racism and vigilantism in 2015-16 was a reaction to mass migration. From Nordic countries to Poland, Austria, Italy and France, these groups spout hate and violence against the non-whites.

Sadly, India is no exception. We have seen goons surrounding a member of the minority community and lynching him to death. Vigilantes kill citizens on the mere suspicion that they are engaged in transporting cattle, or because they indulge in ‘love jehad’ or because of a WhatsApp message, or for any reason whatsoever. They have introduced unspeakable violence in Indian politics. Death by lynching in a public place where people stand around and watch, or worse, film the despicable event on their phones and upload it on the social media, is routine. The killing of defenceless fellow citizens has become a spectator sport, rivalling ancient Rome that had devised unique ways of putting men to death in public forums to storms of applause from the audience.

Is vigilantism the new normal? Perhaps! Still, we were shocked when saffron-clad sadhus called for genocide at Dharma Sansads in Haridwar and Raipur. The abuse and violence that came out of these assemblies violated not only propriety, it infringed the Constitution, poached upon the power of the State, and established a direct relationship between the instigators of violence and the people they speak for and to, over the heads of an elected government. It is difficult to reconcile these images with the idea of the saffron-clad renouncer, or the holy man as an apostle of peace.

The contrast between religion as faith, and the cynical use of religion as a means to power, has never been clearer. Religion has been tarnished. Democracy has been dishonoured. Urdu poet Saghar Khayyami (2008) powerfully sums up the way politicians seek power via the route of religion: “Aisi koi missal zamaane ne paayi ho/Hindu ke ghar mein aag khuda ne lagaayi ho/Basti kisi ki Ram ne yaaro jaalayi ho/Nanak ne sirfraah Sikhon ko dikhayi ho/Ram-Raheem-o-Nanak-o-Eesha toh narm hai/chamchon ko dekhiye toh pateeli se garm hai.” Can anyone, asks the poet, give an example of God setting fire to Hindu homes? Has anyone witnessed Ram burning a settlement? Can anyone believe that Nanak showed the right path only to Sikhs? Ram, Raheem, Nanak and Eesa are gentle. Their courtiers burn more than a scorching pot. This is, in a nutshell, vigilantism justified by religion.