54, 60, 66, 40, 50, 60, 58, 40, 55, 42, 36, 32, 32, 23, 23, 23, 26.
For the past 24 hours, this set of numbers has been doing the rounds. It is important to take a long, hard look at them because these are the ages of the 17 men who allegedly raped an 11-year-old differently-abled girl for seven months inside a gated community in Central Chennai. The accused worked as security guards, lift operators, water suppliers and plumbers at the complex, and some were outsiders.
File image of a protest against rapes. Reuters
On Tuesday evening, when the accused were brought to the Mahila Court in Chennai, a few lawyers decided to dispense instant justice. Despite the presence of the Chennai Police, they caught hold of a couple of the accused and thrashed them. That the black coats had indulged in vigilantism is a commentary on what those within the legal system thought of the judiciary's ability to dispense justice fair and fast.
Ironically, the lawyers in Chennai decided to get physical on a day when the Supreme Court urged Parliament to frame a law against lynching. It also came on a day when 80-year-old Swami Agnivesh was assaulted allegedly by activists of the Bharatiya Janata Party's youth wing, the Yuva morcha, in Jharkhand. This was four days after a software engineer from Hyderabad was lynched in Bidar in Karnataka on suspicion that he was a kidnapper.
Without a doubt, India has been shaken by what happened in Chennai. How was it that not one of the 17 men had a moral compass and felt it necessary to raise an alarm, to save the child from predators?
The crime came to light on 13 July, when the girl complained of a pain in her stomach to her elder sister. After her sister pressed her for more information, she revealed that men in the apartment complex had assaulted and even gangraped her repeatedly.
According to the statement of the child's mother to the police, the assaults began on 15 January when the lift operator took the child to an isolated spot in the apartment complex and raped her. He threatened the child to not tell anyone. A few days later, he brought in other men from outside, who also raped her in the basement of a building in the apartment complex. They drugged her and took videos of their act to blackmail her. It sickens one to the stomach to imagine that anyone who got a chance, joined in. It is even more surprising that her parents did not realise something was wrong with the child, and that no one in the complex of 300 flats noticed it.
If the instant reactions on social media are anything to go by, this act of the kangaroo court within the premises of the Chennai court has been much appreciated. That the monsters deserved it and the lawyers did just the right thing was the popular opinion. It should distress the judiciary that their own have zero faith in the painfully slothful, and often corrupt, legal system in India.
This incident reminds me of the acid attack in Warangal in undivided Andhra Pradesh in December 2008. Three boys were accused of throwing acid on two girls " both engineering students " as "punishment" for spurning their advances. The accused were arrested soon after, but within hours, the police shot them dead. Officially, the police maintained that the trio had attacked them, and they had opened fire in self-defence. It was an unconvincing excuse, but very few cared. The girls' parents hailed the encounter killing, as did a minister from Warangal, Ponnala Laxmaiah, and the society at large.
Right Mob vs Wrong Mob
Who decides which assault or act of lynching the society should applaud and which it should denounce? It is quite possible that if the lawyers had lynched one of the accused inside the Mahila Court premises, many of us would have celebrated it. If this is right, there will be those from the Right-Wing who will question why it was not right to assault and lynch a cattle trader. They will argue that there cannot be two yardsticks for a Jayant Sinha, who felicitated those convicted of lynching a man in Ramgarh on suspicion that he was carrying beef in his car, and for civil society that is hailing the lawyers.
Speak to the villagers in Bidar, and they will tell you they were convinced " thanks to WhatsApp forwards masquerading as the truth and phone calls " that a group of child-lifters was trying to escape in a red car after kidnapping children and was armed with weapons. Both were lies. India, blinded by a technological tool, has slipped back into the dark ages where a common foe can easily be bludgeoned to death. From a democracy that is meant to empower every citizen, India is becoming a "mobocracy" that gives every participant a sense of courage.
The multiple rapes in Chennai, too, were an act of "mobocracy". The 17 beasts must have drawn courage from the fact that they were not alone in the act. Like in each of the 31 cases of lynching that India has seen in the past four months, where the mob operates with the motto of "might is right", where the individual imagines he will get away in the crowd.
The Chief Justice of India should be worried that street justice is the new Supreme Court. I am not sure if a new law to tackle lynching will stop the horrific crime. After all, the country has the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act to deal with crimes against minors, but that did not stop the 17 brutes from raping the 11-year-old girl again and again from January to July.
More than another provision in the Indian Penal Code, India needs to worry about how we, as a society, are okay about giving individuals sanction to take law into their own hands, a moral authority to thrash, assault and even kill. Spontaneous justice cannot be a substitute for a slow legal system. The police machinery and the judiciary are on test because the mob is at our doorstep.