As of July 23, seven people died and at least 35 were injured in mob beatings sparked off by a rumour about human heads being collected—yes, you heard it right—for the construction of Padma Bridge, the dream project of the Awami League government. So far, at least 17 districts have reported mob lynchings in this connection. However, statistics from Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) remind us that Bangladesh’s brush with such violence is neither new nor infrequent nor even totally unaccepted. According to ASK, between 2011 and June of 2019, some 826 people were killed in mob beatings across the country. During this period, the highest number of killings was recorded in 2015, when as many as 135 died, while Dhaka was witness to the highest number of deaths (350). As bodies pile up in an unceasing affront to our criminal justice system and other constituted authorities, we’re once again faced with a question that never ceases to haunt us: stripped of rules, social order and common sense, who are we, really?
A 2011 film called Perfect Sense flirts with the idea of what human beings will be like if they are stripped down to their bare humanity. It shows that the human race across the globe has begun to lose their sensory perceptions one by one. First, they lose their sense of smell. Then they lose their sense of taste, and then hearing. Finally, they lose their sight. The movie is basically a reimagining of life without these basic senses, but it stops short of showing what we would do without another sense which is every bit as essential: the common sense. We do get a hint every now and then though, from real-life situations, most notably from the recent spate of mob beatings which can be construed as a collective loss of common sense followed by a collective descent into hysteria.
To understand the gravity of this loss, one only needs to take a look at any of the video clips that are now circulating through the social media, showing the lynching of Taslima Begum Renu in Badda, on July 20. It was nauseating to watch as an angry crowd gathered to “punish” the single mother-of-two for her rumoured attempt to kidnap a child. Only, she didn’t do it. But at that rare empowering moment in their life, those people were judge, jury and executioner at the same time. And the world was suddenly reduced to a choice between a weapon and a shield. Renu had neither. She stared vacantly, not even trying to protest or claim her innocence, as the mob in their hysterical fury beat her to death. What’s even more disturbing is that these people, and those who were standing close by, watching and prodding them, betrayed no sense of understanding the rudiments of humanity and the respect that each human life deserves. In their mind, they were doing the “right” thing.
In our society, we call this “mob justice,” the dispensation of justice by the people. Swift and ruthless, it involves an act of violence which in all its permutations is understood to be a response to the failure of the existing legal system. This may be one reason but it doesn’t capture the full picture. It doesn’t, for example, explain the actions of what amounts to be little more than a bloodthirsty lynch mob. What can possibly trigger such mass hysteria that comes with no prescient warnings and fades as quickly as it takes hold? To understand that, we should first recognise that mob justice is never about justice. It’s never about what the victim did, or whether the punishment was deserved. Mob justice is more about the mob in question, their deep-seated fears, their fading life prospects, the feelings of insecurity and impotency that come creeping in, fundamentally altering their outlook on life, and all the pent-up anger that, justified or not, needs a violent release—and who better to direct that release to than some unknown, unprotected stranger on the street?
Unfortunately, most ordinary people today would fit that description in one way or another. They are as troubled by their fading life prospects, if not as publicly violent, and it is because of this that such wanton act of vigilantism continues to enjoy some degree of social acceptance. There is a palpable sense of despair everywhere. People are hurting, thanks to the lack of security, lack of political stability, and lack of better living and career opportunities in the country. The feeling of desperation has reached a stage that even in our own backyard, in the so-called educated circles, an increasing number of people are explicitly or implicitly voicing support for the “shoot, shovel and shut up” approach to dealing with criminals. After the recent spike in mob beatings, there has been no shortage of social media comments from people supporting such methods. You have most likely come across comments such as “why can’t they beat the rapists to death?”, “why can’t they beat the corrupt officials/politicians to death?”, or “why did they beat someone just on the basis of a rumour?” (the underlying message being, be sure of someone’s crime first before beating him/her to a pulp). One well-known law professor and public affairs commentator, after condemning mob attacks on the defenceless and innocents, said: “But I never saw a mob armed with guns, machetes or knives, confronting or at least chasing a criminal.”
However, what these purveyors of justice see as righteous is, in fact, self-righteous, and through their selective support or opposition they tend to relativise the universally accepted concept of justice. We cannot possibly condemn violence on a certain people while condoning or making excuses for such atrocities on another, however deserving of punishment they maybe. This is not justice—it’s what justice looks like when it is privatised, and leased out to the most dominant groups in society. But how do we check such thoughts and impulses born of desperation which seems to have invaded the deepest reaches of our existence?
So far, we have been going about it the wrong way, and are responding to the wrong set of questions. Forget about the claims by politicians. Reactions from the police authorities, who you would normally expect to be more reasonable, ranged from exasperating to disturbing. They stressed the fact that none of the mob-lynching victims were child-lifters—which isn’t the point here. They parroted a familiar political theory about rumours being spread by the opponents of the government to undermine its unnayaner agrojatra—a well-worn rhetoric that has all but lost its relevance. They claimed that none of those arrested in mob beating cases were supporters of the ruling party—which would have made better sense had the claim been made by a spokesperson of the ruling party. They issued a stern warning against spreading rumours and urged the people not to take the law into their own hands—which signals an ignorance of how/when rumour spreads and the psychology behind mob violence. Plus, one may ask, how can the police ask people to stop what a columnist called “public cross-fire” when they have failed to set a policy of zero-tolerance against extrajudicial killings for their own members?
Mob violence is the tip of a larger iceberg of public discontent, and to address that, we should start asking the right questions and addressing them one by one. Restoring the people’s confidence in the criminal justice system is the first step in that direction.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.