In the last few years, there has been a steady increase in mob violence and brutal killings in Assam. The latest victim is Animesh Bhuyan, a 23-year-old AASU leader lynched to death by a mob led by Niraj Das, alia, “Kola Lora”. After such brutal incidents, social media gets abuzz with calls for ‘instance justice’ and capital punishment. However, such instances continue to rise after every such incident, despite strong calls for ‘justice’. This leads us to ask two important questions.
First, a very general sociological question of how such behaviour of the mob is often equated to the idea of justice, which is ironic, to say the least, as seen from the victim’s point of view. In this relation, what do such behaviours and their idea of punishment tell us about a society’s moral and social order? Secondly, do we see an increased call for such justice for violence that seemingly occurs in public space? If so, is there a qualitative difference in how people react to crimes that are seemingly public and private?
Media Personnel Leading the Calls
In any given society, crime is dealt with by some form of punishment. In modern nation-states, including India, crime is officially dealt with by certain legal institutions and some people are assigned to legitimately carry out the law.
Taking matters of crime into one’s own hands, for swift or slow justice, is deemed to be equally criminal.
The statistics of mob violence and mob lynching is certainly a matter of concern in contemporary India. The issues surrounding these types of violence include personal disputes ranging from inter-caste marriage to theft and food-related concerns.
Following the death of Animesh Bhuyan, there were some very motivated reactions from various influential individuals. Often, the calls for ‘instant extra-judicial justice’ are led by media personnel, too. In this case, a leading journalist, Atanu Bhuyan tweeted the following:
Bhuyan ‘explains’ in a Youtube live video why one of the main accused of the lynching case, Niraj Das should be shot. In the video, he warned the police that “kola lora” is a dangerous criminal and will be difficult to catch. So, if he tried to escape, he should be shot not in his leg, but either in his chest or head. Other journalists like Nandan Pratim Sharma made similar calls through their tweets. Calls for retributive justice also find space among many ‘sensible’ people, often justified with personalised arguments: “What if the victims were our relatives or family members?”
Even lynchings resulting from structural issues like patriarchy, casteism and religious binaries are individualised, and vindictive justice is quickly demanded. Seldom does the media or the society engage or discuss the structural issues leading to such crimes. Restorative justice should be the aim, but we have not ventured into such territories.
A day later, we were told that “kola lora” died while trying to run from police custody. He tried to escape from the vehicle and was hit by the second police convoy that was following the vehicle in which the accused was transported. Following his death, videos surfaced where people were seen shouting slogans of “Assam Police Jindabad”, “Assam Sarkar Jindabad”. People also burst crackers to celebrate the death of “kola lora”.
Some Very 'Impressive' Figures for 'Swift Justice'
Prag News, a local news portal, reported the following.
“The End – A headline less expected this morning yet flashed across various news channels, brought the much-needed respite to the hearts of the people of Jorhat and entire Assam following Kola Lora aka Niraj Das’s death.”
Media houses were also found sharing the residential address of ‘Niraj Das’, which amounts to calling for mob justice.
The Special Director General of Assam Police, GP Singh, tweeted that “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction - Newton’s Third Law”. He is later quote-tweeted by the Assam Chief Minister, who says, “Assam will be free of crime and criminal- come what may.”
The commitment shown by the Assam Government towards crime and their ‘zero tolerance’ motto has yielded some very ‘impressive’ numbers for people who desire swift justice. In an Indian Express report, it is highlighted that more than 40 people have been injured and 28 killed while purportedly trying to escape police custody in the past six months. “Trying to escape” and “attempting to snatch weapons” were commonly cited reasons for shooting them. The Assam Chief Minister also insists that “police cannot shoot him in the chest, but shooting in the leg is the law”.
The reactions to brutal lynchings depend on various factors, and often, it becomes a very contested site for politics. On 12 June 2020, Rituparna Pegu (26) was brutally murdered in open daylight by a group of five people in Guwahati.
Because the perpetrators of the brutal killings were Muslims, many immediately made it into a Hindu-Muslim issue. Social media calls for justice were made through hashtags like #Justice4 Hindus, #HindusLivesMatter and #HinduUnitedAgainstTerror.
It was also made into an ‘indigenous vs non-indigenous’ issue. Organisations like the Mising Students Association, Delhi, who were also actively involved in the calls for justice, had to step in and tweet:
'Act of God', says AASU
Similarly, for the June 2019 Abhi-Neel lynching in Dokmoka Area in Karbi Anglong, an entire Karbi community was termed ‘savage’. These reactions reflect the structural fault lines that exist in Assam within its group members. Discussions and deliberations on these social evils are necessary if we have to move towards a progressive society.
Another interesting fact that determines societal reactions to killing is the public nature. Northeast now reports that on Sunday, 28 November, a man killed his wife and his landlord. He was later apprehended from Sadiya, where he was hiding. However, there are no calls for ‘vigilante justice’ for this crime. While one crime was videotaped and publicly shared, which evoked charged responses from people, the other was committed quietly without an audience.
Similarly, public physical violence by men on women evokes radical responses, but domestic violence is widely accepted and confined into a ‘private issue’.
The celebrations post-Niraj Das’s “accident” both physically and on social media clearly indicate how the ‘swift justice’ model has found acceptance in the majority of society. Lengthy judicial processes, fewer convictions, etc., are used as justifications to support the ‘extra-judicial’ justice delivery models.
Many of the earlier calls for such swift justice were led by nationalist organisations. Today, AASU has deemed the death of Kola Lora as an “Act of God”. Reactions from civil society and nationalist organisations in Assam should not be guided by caste, religion and community proximities but rather by the ideals of justice. There should be no space for ‘extra-judicial’ means of delivering justice in a democratic set-up.
Moral Life of a Society Tells Us Many Things
Sociologist Èmile Durkheim argued that crime often evokes the collective consciousness of society. For him, the “passion” generated among the public towards any crime is the “soul of punishment”. The punishment that follows any crime gives us a peep into the moral life of a community, Durkheim argued. Moral life is important as community, social cohesion, and social solidarity revolves around this important aspect. It is not without reason, Crime and Punishment, one of the most celebrated novels written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, primarily revolves around the question of morality – moral freedom, moral feeling, moral dignity, moral influences, moral character, moral support, moral fatigue, etc.
Emotive acts of vengeance can harm the social ethos and sensibilities that keep the social cohesion and solidarity within a community intact. It thus becomes doubly important for civil society and media groups to behave with utmost responsibility and also keep a keen eye on how punishment is delegated by the state.
(Suraj and Manoranjan are both researchers from Assam. They tweet @char_chapori and @manoranjanpegu, respectively. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)