India is angry, especially south of the Vindhyas. Over the last couple of weeks, South India has seen a spate of high-profile crimes – eliciting vociferous demands for stern, quick action. The perception that the legal system is ineffective has heightened the clamour for what Hyderabad-based sociologist P Raghavendra calls “two-minute noodle justice”.
Consider the reactions to the case this week of two final-year medical students in Chennai throwing a dog off a terrace simply so that they could shoot a video of it. As the video went viral, Facebook and Twitter were flooded with calls for the culprit Gautam Sudarshan to be treated the same way he treated the dog – that he too should be tossed off the same building.
Though it didn’t take long to track down Sudarshan and Ashish Paul, who shot the video, there was outrage that they got bail almost immediately. They face a fine of only Rs 50 and perhaps three months behind bars. The medical college where they are students has temporarily suspended them and there is no guarantee that they won’t eventually become doctors.
Some citizens groups want to take the case to the Chennai High Court. Top city lawyers have offered to appear for them pro bono. They may argue the case from a child-abuse point of view.
“Research worldwide has shown that those who abuse animals, graduate to abusing children next,’’ claimed Antony Rubin, one of the activists who tracked down the two accused. “We want the court to see the case in a different perspective and cancel the bail.”
A similar desire for retribution was evident on Monday when a crowd of women’s activists assembled at the DCP office in Hyderabad, demanding that Anil, an alleged serial rapist who had raped and killed a 10-year-old, be handed over to them.
“We have no faith in the system, give him to us, we will lynch him to death,’’ chanted the angry women. Anil has 19 cases against him and had been released from jail on July 1 after serving a one-year sentence in a case of attempt to murder. The prison authorities had done no psychiatric mapping to evaluate him. The very next day, he allegedly raped and killed the child.
The murder of Infosys employee S Swathi at Chennai’s busy Nungambakkam railway station on June 24 has also prompted demands that her alleged killer, Ramkumar, be awarded the death penalty. “Only then it will set an example and put the fear of law in people’s mind,’’ said S Alex, who lives close to the railway station where Swathi was killed. The outpouring of anger was evident in court on Wednesday, when Ramkumar’s bail petition came up for hearing.
These impulses, some believe, are the result of the sense that the system is unresponsive and inefficient. “The frustration has grown over not being heard by responsible authorities,” said Alokparna Sengupta of Humane Society International.
Popular cinema has also romanticised the thirst for revenge, outside the purview of the law. Clinical psychiatrist Dr Purnima Nagaraja referred to the last scene in the Hindi film Khakee, where Tusshar Kapoor, who plays the sub-inspector, kills the criminal in a fake encounter. He rationalises the murder by claiming that the legal system doesn’t offer justice. “When you feel helpless, you fight back,” said Nagraja. “This is people’s law. When it is being done, they do not think about the right or wrong of it.”
R Mani, a political commentator from Chennai, believes that the proliferation of social media has also contributed to this phenomenon. “Advent of social media has given an outlet for people to vent their anger,’’ he said. The shrill sentiments expressed online set the tone for the discourse in the real world as well, he contended.
For its part, some people in Telangana claim to already be enjoying the benefits of retributive justice. In 2008, three boys who had thrown acid at two Warangal girls who had spurned their romantic interest were shot dead by the police, who claimed they were trying to escape. Though few people bought the scenario offered by the police, there was admiration for the instant justice they had meted out.
“Since then, there have been hardly any cases of acid attacks on young girls,” claimed Mahila Congress leader Manjula Reddy. “Justice of this kind will be a deterrent.’’
However, human rights activists point to the danger in getting a popular vote on crime. “Law is not majoritarian in the decision-making process,’’ said L Ravichander, a lawyer and human rights activist. “Usually, when a state prosecutes the accused, the other players should move to the background but here, after the judgement say in a murder case, the mother of the victim is asked by the media, are you happy with the capital punishment handed out and she replies, no, I want death penalty. The failure to disconnect the crime from the survivors of the crime is adding to this yearning for revenge.’’
Added VS Krishna of the Human Rights Forum: “It demeans us as a society, if we give in to revenge. We have to worry about our morality, not his. Our form of punishment has to be civilised.’’