Vigilante justice and the legal culture of arrest on suspicion


I’m interested in the concept of vigilante justice. It seems to me that vigilante justice of a sort is reasonably common in young adult fiction and urban fantasy. Anyway, I read an interesting opinion piece on the topic; Meena Radhakrishna considered several incidents in India represented as vigilante justice by the press, even though in each case those treated to this form of ‘justice’ all proved innocent of the supposed crime.

Radhakrishna writes: “Recent incidents of lynching in different parts of the country have to be viewed in the context of the law itself allowing the arrest of innocent people on mere suspicion, especially denotified and nomadic people.” (p.16)

“, various sociological explanations have been given for occurrence and recurrence of such incidents. The Bihar lynchings in September 2007, especially, aroused a lot of comment. Horrified national and international reactions largely included denouncement of the inefficient and callous law and order machinery in the concerned state (mainly the police), and the failure of the criminal justice system. This analysis reasoned that a public fed up with delays in dispensation of justice decided to take the law into its own hands and “settle scores with the miscreants”. The solutions to this state of affairs were then seen to be, predictably, gearing up of the police, speedier trials and more self-restraint on the part of the public, however provoked.” (p.16)

However, Radhakrishna explains: “There are some commonalities which will bear pointing out emphatically. Firstly, in all the five cases, the communities suspected of theft (in the case of pardhis, of rape and murder), were nomadic/denotified communities. Secondly, in all the cases it is mere suspicion of crime, not the proof of crime which seemed to justify the public killings or other forms of punishment like rape or burning down of a whole village. Thirdly, in all the cases, the mob was not made up of unknown, nameless ‘citizens’ or a faceless ‘crowd’ as implied in the press, but was constituted of identifiable people. …Fourthly, the law and order keepers in all the …cases [described in this article] were actually present or were informed of the incident well in advance and they did nothing to stop the beatings in time to save the lives of those who were caught by the mobs. …” (pp.16-17)

There are no issues of justice to be settled here since we are talking of crimes here which the accused did not commit. In other words, innocent people have been caught and handled recklessly and in a most barbaric manner. How has any “justice”, mob, or instant, or vigilante, been dispensed?
A point to be emphasised here is that the Indian law itself allows apprehending of innocent people under mere suspicion, and denotified and nomadic people are regularly rounded up by the police under the mob was not made up of unknown, nameless “citizens” or a faceless “crowd” caste members of the concerned region. certain preventive sections of the Indian Penal Code (ipc). This gross injustice is something the rest of the civil society is witness to without questioning, encouraging a state of affairs where suspicion will continue to substitute for hard evidence for vulnerable groups. However, this daily injustice on these communities by the police machinery is not the reason for such group violence. It merely helps in justifying it for its perpetrators in the likes of cases cited above.” (p.17)

Thought-provoking stuff!!! This same culture of suspicion standing in for hard evidence is something children face, too, at least in New Zealand and other English-speaking countries I’ve been to. How wide-spread is such a culture?

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Meena Radhakrishna (2008) Crime of Vigilante Justice Economic and Political Weekly 43 (2) Jan. 12-18, pp.16-18


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