Tamil Nadu: The land of the lawless

Last Updated: Fri, May 11, 2018 13:24 hrs
Tamil Nadu: The land of the lawless

Not too long ago, mob lynching was the sort of phenomenon one associated with remote villages ruled by khap panchayats, the kind that one drives past quickly on the highway and does not stop at irrespective of what one sees on the road.

It was certainly not something for which Tamil Nadu was notorious.

But the horrific beating and hanging of a homeless man in Pulicat district, on the misplaced suspicion of being a kidnapper, is the second such incident in less than 24 hours.

Villagers have defended the attack, saying they believed he was North Indian, and that he had been carrying a knife.

The point is, it should not matter whether he was North Indian or was carrying knives. It should not even matter if he was genuinely a kidnapper. The mob should, at most, have held him and called the authorities to investigate.

The day before this, a group from Athimoor village in Tiruvannamalai beat a 65-year-old woman to death and critically wounded four others, again on the suspicion that they were a child-lifting gang. It turned out the five were actually in the village on a temple visit. No less than 23 people were involved in the lynching, and 67 have been secured by police for inquiry.

Some weeks ago, a North Indian man was beaten to death in Kanchipuram district.

A few days ago, an 18-year-old woman, believed to be mentally ill, was beaten up in Cuddalore district.

All these incidents have apparently been driven by fear that a gang of kidnappers has been scouring villages for children.

Why has this state descended into such lawlessness?

The fact that Tamil Nadu has been headless since months after the last election, ruled by a chief minister whom no one elected, is part of the problem.

But there is something more sinister at work – the idea that the people have power, and can get away with lawlessness.

Tamil Nadu has always had its share of vigilantism. It usually manifests after mixed caste marriages. There have been cases where justice has been served, if the conviction of those involved in murder can be called justice. There have been cases where people have literally got away with murder.

But recently, what is actually vigilantism has been portrayed as something else – a people’s movement, the idea of the people taking back the power.

The protests over the ban on jallikattu in 2016, to which the government tamely bent over backwards and hurriedly passed an ordinance which was essentially in contempt of the Supreme Court, were perhaps the starting point.

Even the media, which is supposed to play the role of watchdog, was united in its praise for the “peaceful” protest, as if it were an achievement that despite occupying the beach without police permission, the mob did not beat up anyone or molest women.

Never mind the ambulances which were stuck in traffic. It was a “peaceful” protest. It was people making sure their voices were heard, without directly killing anyone – except perhaps the people being ferried in the ambulances. What an achievement.

And the idea of the “people’s movement” has been at the fore with the Cauvery protests too.

Most people involved in the protest are entirely unaffected by the Supreme Court’s verdict, as was the case with jallikattu. Where jallikattu is concerned, the only living organisms affected by the verdict were the bulls, which had a temporary reprieve.

Yet, the protests went on for weeks, blocking roads, constant and pointless, except for wasting the time and manpower of the police and inconveniencing commuters. Cars sat in traffic helplessly, as ambulance sirens wailed. How many lives were lost because of the “people’s movement”?

The only solid outcome of the protests was that the matches of the Indian Premier League which were scheduled to be held in Madras have now been shifted outside.

The Cauvery issue itself is being sorted out by due process in the Supreme Court, entirely unaffected by the “people’s movement”.

Yet, it is not uncommon to come across a roadblock and protests over the Cauvery verdict on any given day in any given city, town, or village of Tamil Nadu.

There is a real danger to painting vigilantism in a positive light, as a “people’s movement”. It gives people the notion that the mob can deliver justice, that the power and law rest with the mob. Mobs are terrifying. The mob has no rational mind. The mob is lawless.

And unless Tamil Nadu stops indulging protests, it will only careen into lawlessness.


More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:

When death does not deter


Power play at a time of crisis

A country in denial

The gods have left the temples

What cricketers' reactions to ball-tampering show

Even Chhota Bheem knows our data was never private

No Confidence Motion: Why is the BJP nervous?

Do we really have the right to die with dignity?

Democracy has no place for mobs

The Sridevi South India lost 


Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage.