Vigilante justice isn’t justice
Vigilante justice has now become commonplace in Bangladesh it seems. Every day people read of a man, woman, or even child being beaten up, some even murdered on suspicion that they were committing or were about to commit a crime. The suspected crime could be as trite as pick-pocketing, stealing from a store, or as heinous as attempted murder.
Rise of such vigilantism or mob rule in the country has led experts and social scientists to ascribe it to the breakdown in law and order in the country, people’s loss of faith in law enforcing agencies, and even the justice system.
People are forced to take the law into their hands because they think given the present environment where scoff laws thrive under the very nose of law enforcers, the only way criminals could be stopped is by people in the street.
Prevention is better than cure. So, they jump on the first suspicion of a crime without waiting to see if a crime at all has been committed or if the suspected person is the perpetrator.
In a recently published book, Shadow Vigilantes, the authors explored how distrust in the judicial system led Americans in the past to take the law into their own hands (particularly in the Midwest and South) and mete out instant justice to outlaws. Ironically, by resorting to such justice, the vigilantes were doing exactly the same thing as the outlaws were doing, defying law.
But the vigilantes of the Midwest in America were doing their act at a time when American society was still forming, government was trying to have rule of law in a country that had just emerged from a revolutionary war, and militia were strong in all states.
The police as we know were not an institution yet, local law enforcement was weak, and the judiciary consisted of partisans. America has come a long way since then.
What is happening in Bangladesh now cannot be remotely compared with the circumstances in America two centuries ago, but in results and consequences they are the same. Could we ascribe the growth of this lawlessness or vigilante justice simply to people’s distrust of the legal or justice system, or absence of faith in the law enforcement agencies?
Or is it something much deeper, an expression of repressed anger or venting of frustrations? It could not be that people in the country are suddenly seized by paranoia over crimes which have happened before, plenty of times.
What is unique this time, and it has been seen repeatedly for the last few years, is that such horrible criminal acts have gone on without any serious intervention from the government. People get killed in their apartments and no one gets caught, people get knifed in street in front of a crowd and no one is apprehended, children are abducted from schools or their homes and they do not return until after ransoms have been paid, and in dozens of cases people just disappear and are never heard of again.
People responsible for such horrible crimes were never found. Police filed cases, nabbed some persons on suspicion, but in most cases the actual perpetrators were not brought to justice.
When crimes of this nature continue to plague the country and a feckless law enforcement agency fails to demonstrate any results to stem these, people become suspicious of the seriousness of these agencies.
Suggestions of political complicity in failure to stop or resolve the crimes crop up, and these are easily ingested by people.
In such occasions, private attempts at stopping a suspected would-be criminal and delivering them street justice are cheered by people.
Such cheering from passers-by or the common man are not necessarily a comment on the loss of ethical or moral values in people, or an indicator of sudden rise in animal behaviour. It is more a ventilation of pent up feelings and frustration with the growth in crimes and perceived failure of the government in stopping them. At the same time, it is also a sign of the political volatility that might underlie the frustration.
For those of us who had seen the uprising of 1969 against President Ayub will remember how rampant mob actions were to round up so-called “cattle thieves” in rural areas and beat them to death. In parallel with political agitations, vigilante justice against cattle thieves as well as other small-time crooks became de rigueur.
I do not have figures now, but quite a few people lost their lives from such mob actions. Police in such cases were unable to stop these, as they were identified as agents of a government that was repressive. I think later the political leaders that time had to intervene to stop such mob actions, calling these distractions.
I do not think that mob actions in Bangladesh have to come to the level of the 1969 disturbances, but it might if not stopped now. A major reason for people giving vent to their frustrations is their inability to voice their protests in a platform where they are heard. The parliament is usually this platform in a democracy at the national level, and local government assemblies at lower level.
Unfortunately, there is little scope of hearing multiple voices and grievances in assemblies that are dominated by one group.
Even then, it would have been possible if those who represent people could be forceful and honest in their just criticism of government failure, and demand for effective law enforcement, effective agencies, and their accountability. None of this is happening right now.
It is unimaginable that a country which has one of the highest per capita police and other law enforcement personnel ratio in South Asia would witness street “justice.”
That too because people do not want to wait for police, they have such low faith in that agency.
Can our law-makers who mostly belong to one party make it happen, that this faith is restored, and the country does not fall into the precipice of complete lawlessness?
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.