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The Birbhum gangrape case illustrates the oppressions of ‘community justice’.
A 20-year-old tribal woman in Birbhum, West Bengal, has been gangraped and brutalised allegedly at the order of a salishi sabha, a community body that took offence at her “inappropriate” romantic relationship. When the woman’s family failed to pay the Rs 50,000 fine imposed by the sabha, she was punished by sexual violence. Her assaulters were those with whom she shared close social ties.
‘This incident should be a sobering warning to all those who speak indiscriminately and glowingly of community justice, or believe that “the people” should decide on matters of crime and punishment or other social issues. The West Bengal incident mirrors the awful decrees of the khap panchayats in Haryana, which punish any transgression of caste purities through extreme social intimidation, even murder. These cases should remind us of the dangers of eliding the difference between structured grassroots governance and the sway of an atavistic community body.
Societies are often illiberal, and their impulses are checked by civic democratic institutions and the rule of law. In Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party government recently displayed a feeble grasp of the difference between justice and mob instinct when its law minister relied on the rumours of a neighbourhood to harass vulnerable women.
Deepening participatory democracy is indeed crucial, and the AAP is right to seek out the voices of citizens in decisions that affect their lives. But the will of the people filters through the structures of decision-making, where diverse groups elect leaders who must weigh and balance competing interests within the framework of law.
Direct democracy, which relies on popular referendums, has been demonstrated to hurt minority interests the most, and many places that work with such a model temper it with constitutional protections for those outside the norm. Depending on communities or neighbourhoods for the sense of right and wrong would effectively mean cramping the rights of women as many such social groups in India are particularly hostile to female autonomy.
And not just women, anyone who is not part of the “in-group” — whether religious or sexual minorities, immigrants, or others — is denied the right to live their freedoms. Those who represent the state must be wary of fetishising such “community wisdom” and serving mob justice in any way.