CNBC TV18 Column: Broken Windows and Broken Laws

I write about the broken down rule of law, for CNBC-TV-18

Among the more inexplicable trends that exist today is gangs of people tying up others and forcing them to chat religious and nationalistic slogans, before being beaten up. The first time it was reported, the reactions to it were shock. Most couldn’t believe that this would take place in India. However, as more of them began to occur, with different degrees of brutality, the shock has turned to denial. There are many, mostly on the right of the political spectrum, who steadfastly believe that this is a conspiracy to defame the religion, the nation, and everything else that they hold dear.  There are those, on the left of the spectrum, who believe that this is a sign of growing fascism in India. But, it isn’t just one thing. Recently there was the story of a Hindu temple being desecrated and vandalised by a mob of people, irate at something or the other. The reactions on social media were similar. One side said it was a minor parking incident and a minor altercation. The other looked at it as an extension of terror. In the scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter who the sides are, and what they support. What is important is their collective voice when it comes to denying a crime. It is almost as though the rule of law does not apply to the side they support.

These incidents have something else in common. The first is exposing the tinderbox of communal passions – that India knows too well. The start of the last century to almost the end, has seen regular communal riots, where people kill each other, and everyone else in sight. The second issue is the exaggerated support to one side, and the toning down of the crime as being ‘minor’ as opposed to vandalization or murder. While social media warriors on both sides are out to prove that a ‘crime’ is not a crime, or indeed ‘a communal crime’ is not communal – the state cannot act like an ostrich.

We have a problem – and the problem is that people who commit crimes like this rarely get punished. In fact, it is a way of climbing up the career ladder in politics. And, therefore the incentive to commit the crime is high – recognition and promotion – and the penalty for committing these crimes is low – rarely accompanied by a jail term. And, this is what various state governments must fix. The taking away of the advantages accruing to the person for committing violence and leaving only the penalties for the infractions.

There is another part to this entire set of actions – and that is the extremely slow response from state government law and order machineries. For example, the first of the lynchings on suspicion of eating beef was in 2015, when a mob of people broke into the home of Mohammad Akhlaq and bashed his head in with a sewing machine. His alleged killers were feted and are roaming free. It is hardly surprising therefore that murder under the guise of cow protection, or protection of religion, is becoming a somewhat profitable venture, that yields rich dividends for those who commit the crime. When people see others getting away with crime, and profiting from it, the tendency to be less law abiding rises to the fore. And this is what the state governments need to curb with strong action.

Broken Windows is a theory in sociology that looks at the impact of unchecked crime and disorder in modern settings. It says that for police to maintain law and order, and relative peace in society, they have to tackle the more visible aspects of minor crime. For example, vandalism, or ‘eve teasing’, or petty crime. It is when these are tackled on a regular basis, and the word goes out that the police mean business when it comes to maintaining law and order, that the message goes out that terrorising people or vandalising structures will no longer be acceptable. So, focusing on minor crimes, ends up preventing major crimes.

While it is important to arrest those who break the law – be it gau rakshaks or those who vandalise temples – and sentence them to the full extent of the law, prevention is a vital part of cure. Crime has to be nipped in the bud, before it spreads across society. And, that means a focus on community level policing. It is to make sure that laws aren’t broken. That gangs of men don’t bully women. That there is no illegal parking. That there is no infringement of public space by shops and other establishments. That no one seemingly gets away with crime.

The reason why crimes like this take place is two fold. The first is the belief that you will get away with it. The second is that you will be rewarded for it, in terms of career growth and progression. It is time to clip the first. If a person goes to jail for committing a crime against others, then it acts as a huge deterrent for others. Right now, we are seeing copycat crimes that dot the Indian landscape, simply because people are getting away scot free. And, that has to stop.

News Reporter

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