When the police finally filed a chargesheet against the five adults accused in the gang rape case, according to media reports, some women lawyers shouted in the courtroom that there was no need for a trial because it was an “open and shut case” and the accused should be “handed over to the public”. They were shushed by colleagues quickly but it's still disquieting.
It’s one thing for the public to be baying for blood. It’s another matter entirely when lawyers want to dispense with the legal process altogether.
Yes, temperatures are white hot. Yes, this crime was particularly brutal. Yes, there is a need for some cases to become exemplary cases.
But this is not a gang for a gang. The answer to gang rape cannot be gang justice.
It’s not unexpected that the great festering anger over a complete lack of governance that turns something as basic as boarding a bus into a game of Russian roulette will stay contained in candlelight vigils and silent marches. It can easily take an ugly turn. And it already has in more than one instance.
On December 22, five alleged eve teasers were beaten to death by villagers in Jharkhand’s Khuti district. “We were fed up with their misbehaviour with women of the villages,” a villager told a news channel.
On January 3, a 25-year-old stalker tried drag a 16-year-old girl towards some abandoned jute mills near Howrah in West Bengal. Alerted by her cries, some commuters came to her rescue. They thrashed the man who would have been lynched had the police not been able to somehow extricate him. By then the man was bleeding profusely from head injuries. A local resident told the TOI “Such people should be dealt with by the public. It is no use handing them over to the police.”
On January 3, Assam Congressman Bikram Singh Brahma was thrashed and stripped by angry men and women after he was accused of raping a woman in a village in Chirang district. The villagers refused to hand him over to the police and demanded the officers record him confessing to the rape first.
And it's not just men at the receiving end of mob justice.
On December 28, a woman was lynched by locals in Kolkata’s Topsia area. Locals suspected she was a trafficker after several young women went missing in the area. The woman was hit on the head with blunt objects and died in the hospital. “She broke down and confessed to have trafficked girls,” a local told the media.
All of this is worrying not just because mob justice is always worrying. It’s worrying also because it clearly shows people have absolutely no faith in the system of governance to deliver justice. As is clear in the Brahma case, villagers were convinced that a man with connections to the ruling party would never have to really face the consequences of his action if he was just handed over to the police. The residents in Howrah thought it no use handing the molestation suspect over to the cops.
Offences are non-bailable on paper but in practice it just depends on who you know. A man arrested in Kolkata on Wednesday this week on charges of holding a 24-year-old woman captive in his home for a fortnight and molesting her walked out on interim bail on Thursday even though one of the charges against him is non-bailable. “It is unusual for a person accused of extortion and wrongful confinement to be granted bail within a day of his arrest,” a senior cop admitted to The Telegraph. The university professor who forwards a cartoon that lampooned Mamata Banerjee spent 16 hours in police custody. The Trinamool Congress supporters who were eventually arrested for beating him up after a public outcry walked free on bail in less than three hours.
What’s on trial in the Delhi gang rape case isn’t just the men accused of committing the crime. The government itself is on trial in how transparently and efficiently it handles the case. But as it wades through 17,000 suggestions for how to tackle violence against women, one of its biggest challenges will be restoring the citizens’ faith in the system itself.
It’s hard to find much room in ones hearts for any sympathy for rapists. But those who think a little mob justice is not so bad if it strikes fear in the heart of would-be rapists, consider what happened in Topsia not so long ago.
A few days after the woman was lynched in Topsia on suspicion of being a trafficker, another woman was walking in that area with her toddler. The toddler threw a tantrum and would not stop crying. Locals immediately surrounded the woman and started slapping her and accusing her of having stolen the child which caused the toddler to cry even louder feeding the mob’s frenzy even more.
This young mother was lucky. The police managed to get there in time to rescue her.
The next person might not be so lucky.