The recent tragic deaths of seven people at the hands of angry mobs on suspicion of being child abductors, in different parts of the country, are jolting reminders of the dangerous consequences of spreading rumours. Apparently, the latest series of mob killings were sparked off by a preposterous tale being circulated regarding human heads being collected for the building of Padma Bridge.
It is terrifying how quickly a rumour, no matter how ridiculous, can spread and create widespread panic. This panic mongering is facilitated by technology—we have seen mob lynchings in India instigated by Whatsapp messages and mass attacks in Ramu because of a fake Facebook post. Social media, undeniably, has added a dangerous dimension to such mob mentality as more and more people have access to smart phones and Internet and yet cannot differentiate between truth and fake news. They also have a tendency to believe everything social media serves to them, without bothering to verify the information fed to them.
A few days ago, three different individuals related to me the same absurd tale: a bizarre practice of human sacrifice apparently taking place (in this day and age) near our under-construction Padma Bridge! It sounded like something out of a ghoulish ancient legend—a mysterious structure, in this case a bridge, requiring human blood in order to make it sturdy. Admittedly, the three accounts were from simple folks who were prone to believing any strange gossip they were told. My first reaction was extreme annoyance at the preposterousness of the story. But then, strangely enough, two more people, a cook and a homeworker, related almost identical theories. The strange part was that one had heard this from a relative in Faridpur and another in Kishoreganj and another in Barishal. The stories were being spread by word of mouth but also through social media. A few days ago, it was reported that law enforcement agencies had arrested eight individuals on charges of spreading rumours on Facebook that “human heads and blood are required to build the Padma Bridge.”
On July 21, The Daily Star reported five people being beaten to death and 10 others seriously injured as they were suspected of being kidnappers involved in taking children as human sacrifices. What was most heart-breaking is that four of these women were mentally challenged, and one of the men was speech-impaired and had wanted to see his daughter secretly as she was living with his ex-wife, who had remarried. Another woman, a single mother-of-two, had gone to a school in Badda to ask about the admission process. Some locals ‘decided’ she was a kidnapper and beat her to death. Did anyone try to verify that they were really kidnappers? Of course not. Because, that’s not how mob justice works. All you have to do is shout out an accusation (“hijacker”, “kidnapper”) that will feed into the fears of the public, and everyone around will start pouncing on the individual and beat him/her to a pulp; if they die, even better for the sake of “justice”. The crowd becomes frenzied, in total unison, leaving aside logic, conscience and, most of all, any regard for the law.
I shudder as I recall many years ago how a mother had faced the same fate when she had got down from her rickshaw, where her child was also sitting, to help another child wandering on the rail tracks, reach safety. But this act of responsibility sparked a horrible reaction from those who had seen her. They assumed she was a child lifter and, despite her desperate pleas for help, she was beaten to death in front of her child.
So, are most people bloodthirsty creatures who just want to lash out their frustration on an individual who they think deserve to die? If so, why does this not happen in other countries? Maybe because there is a basic confidence in the legal mechanisms that they think cannot be manipulated by money and influence. Maybe because people have a fear of breaking the law.
Undeniably, the responsibility lies with the government to prevent such gross lawlessness that leads to murder, often of innocents. Mob justice cannot be an acceptable means of justice and those who take part in it, no matter how many of them there are, must be held accountable. Law enforcers are mandated to prevent such gruesome attacks but how many times do they actually intervene?
Here, there is some merit in the argument that often police are outnumbered and it is practically impossible to stop a huge mob that has reached such levels of frenzied anger. But then what is the answer? Are we going to just stand by and accept the fact that people can be attacked by a mob anytime any place for a crime, perceived or real, and the law has no role to play? Can it be acceptable to us that 36 people were killed by mobs in various parts of the country in the first six months of this year (according to Ain o Salish Kendra)?
Such acquiescence will only serve to increase public insecurity and dangerously diminish the authority of the law of the land. However flawed our legal system is, it is the only system we can rely on to ensure that individuals accused of crime will get due process.
According to a news report, suspects of the mob violence have been apprehended after being identified through CCTV footage. Again, we hope that these people are indeed the guilty ones and they will be accorded appropriate punishment—through a legal process.
But what of those poor men and women who were so mercilessly killed by a mob just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time? The government must take immediate steps to dispel these kinds of dangerous rumours and initiate widespread campaigns to tell the people that taking law into their own hands is not the answer. But to really convince the public of this, they must make people believe in the legal system, in the idea that handing over the alleged perpetrator is the right (and only) thing to do rather than taking part in a group murder. Mob justice is the result of an implicit distrust and disillusionment with existing legal systems. If perpetrators of crime did not get away through legal loopholes, if there was zero tolerance for law enforcers violating the laws they are duty-bound to enforce, if there was no such thing as influence of power and money to manipulate the system, perhaps the mob would not be so prone to pouncing on a person just because someone “said” he/she was guilty of a crime. Until this happens, the least law enforcers can do is increase their presence on the streets and remain vigilant, quickly extricate the person being targeted, arrest as many people of a mob killing/assault as possible, either on the spot or after CCTV identification, and make sure they are punished for what is clearly one of the most heinous crimes under law.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is Senior Deputy Editor, Editorial and Opinion, The Daily Star.
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