Rome came into its own during 1st Century BC as the capital of a vast empire. The loot and plunder from countless cities and towns went towards making grandiose public buildings and theaters. Even as the lifestyle of the Roman rich became more opulent, life for the poor became more oppressive. Thousands headed for Rome, as much as 500000 lived on free grain at one time. Confined to narrow alleys and the dirt and squalor of extreme poverty, anarchy prevailed. Having disposed off his co-ruler Marc Antony (and with him Cleoptra), to maintain law and order the nephew (and adopted son) of Julius Ceaser, Augustus, created a corps of fire-fighters. They had a secondary task of keeping “vigil” to prevent crime, helping the Praetorian Guard on an “as required” basis. Called “vigils”, they were the forerunner of the self-appointed “Vigilance Committees” in the US in the nineteenth century, keeping a very public eye over wrongdoing. “Vigilantes” is a term normally used for those citizens who take law in their own hands and mete out crude justice, targetting mainly those who have the influence and money to escape the clutches of justice.
Vigilantes ruled supreme in Argentina for a number of years in the 60s and 70s, killing criminals and the corrupt in the judiciary and law enforcement alike, not to mention corrupt bureaucrats, crooked businessmen, anybody amassing inordinate wealth, etc. A movement from a small village called Nagalbari spread in the 60s in India throughout the East and South East as the “Naxalite” movement. Naxalites even today remain a potent force to contend with in some Indian States. Vigilantes may come from law enforcement agencies (LEAs) and/or from the public, those who are frustrated by the injustice of a corrupt judicial system and/or the procedural delays because of lacunaes in the law and/or the system being overwhelmed by numerous cases and want to bring criminals to justice. Frustrations can be contained in a society where the intent of rendering justice is sincere, but if the whole system is corrupt and the justice meted out unjust and unfair, frustration boils over, forcing those seeking justice to take law into their own hands. Many times the target is the person who sits on judgement. One can describe individual crime to an extent, how should one classify the individual who murders out of vengeance rather than murders out of profit (or even sheer lunacy)?
Vigilantes have been operating for centuries, both for and against the ruling class, when a great number band together to overturn injustice and oppression, it turns into a rebellion. It may have Islamic overtones but why and how did the Talibaan movement come about in Afghanistan? Indeed how did the communists come into governance in the first place? Vigilante justice is also alive and well in Pakistan as practiced by the law enforcement agencies (LEAs). It is conveniently called “extra-judicial killing”, becoming fashionable during the reign of Amir Mohammad Khan of Kalabagh as Governor West Pakistan. Frustrated by the courts operating strictly according to the rule of law and faced with dacoits ruling the countryside, Kalabagh let loose police in the Punjab and Sindh on the dacoits. Those captured were soon killed in “encounters”, this continued over the years under different rulers. The State gives some protection to uniformed personnel when dealing with dacoit gangs during anti-dacoit operations but who gives protection to the witnesses? Indeed who would be brave enough to give evidence against these criminals if they were ever brought to court? For that matter how many judges would have the courage to convict them? In the early 90s MQM’s militant wing operated outside the rule of law, mostly targetting members of their own community, not to forget the taking of “protection money” from businessmen. Barring some who certainly had political motives, most militants had criminal intent and were “in business” on their own. These militants became the biggest victims of vigilante justice meted out by the LEAs when many of their armed militants were hunted down and killed without recourse to trial during the urban guerilla clean-up campaign in Karachi in the 90s. Many of them were certainly murderers, a quite a few were not so guilty as to be condemned to death without a benefit of trial. A number were killed in actual gunfights, a substantial number were rumoured to have been killed in captivity once they had confessed to murder. The problem is, once a man is in custody, third degree (on the South Asian pattern) will get him to confess to anything and that remains a dilemma for people with conscience who have a moral obligation to uphold the rule of law. Among those killed in “encounters”, how many were innocent and how many really guilty, given that our LEAs have a very bad record of fabricating false evidence? As senior person as GOC Hyderabad involved in telling lies in attempted cover-up when an Army major (later hanged) killed some villagers as “dacoits” when in fact it was a personal problem. Howsoever much we justify the peace that followed one cannot shake off the nagging stain on our conscience because of the many innocents who fell victim because of vigilante justice.
On taking over as GOC Hyderabad Maj Gen (later Lt Gen) Lehrasab Khan was faced with a moral dilemma when he went after Sindh’s dacoits who were on the rampage in the interior in 1992. Luckily for his conscience Sindh’s dacoits give no quarter and ask for none, as such there were no fake “encounters”, simply pitched gunfights. When Mian Shahbaz Sharif was Chief Minister Punjab, a spate of “encounters” took place where many criminals were killed by the Punjab Police. Many criminals may have been permanently eliminated, how many innocents also eliminated in custody simply because they were individual enemies of someone in the LEAs?
Before sitting on judgement on vigilante justice, we must reach deep into our own conscience to analyze what we would do in a similiar situation. Would we adopt the high moral ground and strictly abide by the rule of law even while the criminal has an advantage in violating the laws of the land at will? Or turn to our baser instincts and go outside the law to deal with such people who have committed grievous harm to one’s self, livelihood, to one’s family? If the harm is done without any cause given, pre-meditated, consciously and cold-bloodedly, than it puts the victim in moral jeopardy, how can one than remain platonic about civilization and society? The nature and gravity of the provocation will determine the response, raw emotions may lead to a reaction far beyond “the eye for an eye” concept. Those assaulting a person without cause must know that the response will be to “fire back at will”, that he will be far more dangerous when grievously hurt. That knowledge will create a deterrence, the theory behind MAD, “mutually assured destruction”, that kept the US and USSR from a nuclear war.
The fabric binding society is the belief that those that are supposed to uphold the law will do so, if one has reason to fear these very people of violating the laws of the land then the very basis of civilization fails. The judiciary has a very crucial role to play in securing the rule of law, public perception must not see them as being biased and/or corrupt. Loss of faith in the judicial system is a very potent breeding ground for vigilantes, therefore, it is imperative that the credibility of our judiciary not be called into question, their integrity must never be compromised. When a person’s life depends upon the integrity of the judge and that person deliberately favours arguments having no relevance to either the facts or to the law, what should the affected individual do? Roll over and allow the judge to convict or bankrupt him, well knowing the verdict to be absolutely wrong? When the affected person is stating God’s truth and knows what the other is stating is nothing but outright lies, it is difficult for him to accept stepping into the grave being dug for him. An educated and civilized person would probably bear such an atrocity in silence despite the cruel bias of the judge to an extent, but deep in the heart there will be a simmering vengeance. Indeed if one has the means the organized mind will plan suitable retaliation, to make that corrupt judge (indeed his entire family) pay for the wrong he is subjecting the innocent person and his family to. This reasoning must stand good for crooked lawyers. Vigilante justice is nothing but the law of the jungle! When criminals function in the name of justice, justice becomes a crime. Where else do we live but in a jungle, therefore, why should not the laws of the jungle apply? Vigilante justice may not be right, but should one bear the cross of injustice in a “civilized manner”, remaining within the parameters of the law while the person in who sits on you in judgement defiles those parameters?
Accountability in a civilized society, therefore, assumes utmost importance, the transparency and integrity of the process must ensure that those who are the ultimate arbiters of rendering fair and equitable justice, the guardians of the rule of law, law enforcement officials and the judiciary, must remain above reproach. Or else vigilantes of the Talibaan kind will appear to take justice in their own hands, sooner rather than later.
Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan). He was Chairman APSAA for the year 2000, now acting in adhoc capacity pending elections for the year 2001.