The mob justice meted out to 13-year-old Samiul Alam Rajon, who was beaten to death in Bangladesh by an angry mob resolute on teaching the youngster a lesson for stealing a bicycle, is a classic case of mob madness witnessed on our streets every day. Throughout Asia, deteriorating rule of law and ineffective criminal justice systems are resulting in people losing trust and resorting to mob justice.
Mob justice is often defined as the verdict of the crowd by subverting legal procedures and institutions in a situation of great injustice and mass suffering. The right to mete out punishment belongs to the state, but not so in societies where weak courts and poor law enforcement are combined with institutionalized injustice. The failure of judicial systems to deliver has aggravated the general frustrations of societies, resulting in feelings that grievances can only be adequately addressed by people taking the law into their own hands. Where cities are ever smarting under violence and where the grip of the law is loose, it is not unusual for citizens to act as police and judge. Protesters turn into vigilante mobs with ready justifications for committing acts of murder.
Increase in mob justice is directly proportionate to the backlog of cases in the courts. The mobs in Pakistan in particular, take the shape of mad vigilantism in blasphemy cases. Many crimes have been committed by charged up mobs that are often incited by local religious leaders to perform their religious duty and kill any person accused of blasphemy. People are desperate for justice and unable to access it, and so resort to taking the law into their own hands. Frustration with the criminal justice system, lack of police visibility and lack of trust between police and particular communities are some of the main drivers behind incidents of mob justice.
Such justice cannot be ethically condoned or tolerated in modern, liberal, democratic societies, but is overlooked by governments and the judiciary in our part of the world. The culprits, if apprehended, are acquitted by the court for lack of evidence, as their direct involvement is questionable due to the number of people involved. In the August 2010 case involving the lynching of two teenage brothers from Sialkot, Pakistan, for instance, the judge sentenced seven men to death while five co-accused were acquitted for insufficient evidence. Similarly, in the famous Best Bakery case during the 2002 Gujarat riots, where a Muslim family of 14 was burnt to death by an angry mob chanting communal slogans in Hanuman Tekri, Vadodara, all of the 21 accused were acquitted on 27 June 2003 by the additional session’s judge. On 9 July 2012, the Bombay High Court upheld the life sentences of four accused, while it acquitted five for lack of evidence.
Mob justice is not just a sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It is the direct result of the persistent inability of our legal systems to conclusively resolve so many criminal cases. Increasing cases of mob justice are being reported from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India, where people take matters into their own hands.
In July 2011 for example, six alleged robbers in the Noakhali area, southern Bangladesh, were beaten to death by a mob after the gang they were part of shot a villager dead. The video of the public lynching of Samiul Rajon in Bangladesh went viral, wherein the men are shown laughing and taunting the 13-year-old as they hit him repeatedly with a metal rod, while he begs them to stop and asks for a glass of water. Likewise, in southern Assam’s Karimganj District, India, a mob judged that a man was guilty of raping a girl and punished him by cutting off his penis. Another rapist was dragged from his prison cell and hanged to death by the mob. On 5 March 2015, the charged mob broken open the gate of the supposedly high security Dimapur Central Jail in Karimganj and dragged out the accused Syed Farid Khan onto the streets, where he was tortured and later hanged in the presence of jail security that stood as a silent spectator to the horror.
Petty theft is one of the main triggers for lynching in Indonesia. According to data from the National Violence Monitoring System, 20 percent of victims that were killed, badly hurt, or permanently crippled are victims of mob justice. In 2014, there were nearly 4,300 incidences of mob justice causing three hundred deaths. Similar trends can be observed in Sri Lanka, where a Buddhist mob was incited by monks after the alleged assault of another monk by Muslim youths in the town of Aluthgama, killing three people in Muslim areas. In Pakistan, a Christian couple was burnt alive by an angry mob alleging blasphemy.
Societal intolerance and growing despair of the lengthy and ineffective legal process has caused people to take revenge on petty criminals, while corrupt leaders, being influential and wealthy, enjoy complete protection of the system that perpetuates judicial incompetence. In these cases, a mob’s mentality is not so far different from extremist groups such as ISIS, which forcibly impose their version of moral and religious ethics, killing those who disagree.
The governments of South and Southeast Asia must invest in strengthening judicial and police institutions; establishing the rule of law has to be given priority over everything else. The legitimacy of any government depends on the rule of law, which requires establishing policing and judicial institutions that are effective, fair and transparent. Educating the public about how courts work and the principle that people are innocent until proven guilty, and visible policing, are some of the things to begin with.
In seeking justice, society must temper vengeance with reform. A mob is the method by which good citizens turn over law and governance to the criminal or irresponsible classes. Checks and balances are needed to prevent governments from either devolving into autocratic tyranny or autocratic mob mentality. Petty crimes should be dealt with at the magisterial level to lessen the burden of the lower judiciary; petty criminals should be reformed by community service and not by serving jail time, as this will only add unnecessary burden on the judicial system and the national exchequer. The state must proactively take urgent steps to restore people’s faith in the system before it is too late and geopolitical stability is threatened by a charged mob ready to bring down the government, resulting in anarchy and chaos.