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Indian instant justice: From ink to slippers

Ink thrown at billionaire businessman Subrata Roy is latest in string of vigilante-type attacks on perceived offenders.

Last updated: 06 Mar 2014 10:44
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Dentist Rajesh Talwar was attacked by a student Utsav Sharma with a meat cleaver [File: EPA]

Already faced with the humiliating prospect of being jailed, billionaire Indian businessman Subrata Roy was subjected to added insult when a lawyer sprayed ink on his face as he was being produced in court.

The ink-attack on Roy on Wednesday made front-page news, as did the assailant, Manoj Sharma.

Roy, the head of the Sahara business empire worth an estimated $12.2b, is the latest in a long line of people who have been handed out street justice after being accused of wrong-doings. While Roy - currently in jail - faces accusations of not refunding investors' money, others - ranging from ministers to alleged murderers and child molesters - have had slippers and insults thrown at them and even being knifed.

In January 2011, dentist Rajesh Talwar who was being produced in court on charges of murdering his daughter Aarushi, was attacked by a student Utsav Sharma with a meat cleaver in the court premises. Talwar, bleeding profusely, was rushed to hospital. He survived the attack.

A year earlier, the same student had knifed a top police officer S P S Rathore, who had been accused of molesting a minor girl.

Politicians have not been immune to such vigilante-type attacks. Indian federal minister P Chidambaram had a slipper thrown at him by journalist Jarnail Singh at a press conference in April 2009.

Singh was protesting against what he perceived as the government's inaction in prosecuting the guilty in the 1984 riots which saw scores of fellow-Sikhs slaughtered in the national capital Delhi.

Expressing frustration

Singh seemed to have been influenced by the act of an Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi, who flung his shoe at the then-US President George W Bush at a press conference in December 2008 at Baghdad.

In fact, not only did al-Zaidi appear to have inspired Singh to express his frustration in the way he did, the Indian Sikh journalist's action gave way to several more shoe-hurling acts across the country.

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Leading politicians including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Bharatiya Janata Party's L K Advani, and a Congress member and industrialist Naveen Jindal have had similar missiles thrown at them.

With India's justice system mired in red-tape and delays, many seemingly are choosing to take law into their own hands and express their frustration.

Manoj Sharma, who sprayed ink on Roy, is apparently a repeat offender. Ironically a lawyer by profession, Sharma had flung a shoe at former Congress minister Suresh Kalmadi over his involvement in the Delhi Commonwealth games scam.

Sharma, who claimed he was among the investors who had been allegedly duped by Roy had once reportedly procured the "death certificate" of former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee who is still very much alive.

Sharma was quoted as saying he did it to expose corruption in India where, he says, officials can be bribed to get anything done.

The ink and shoe-throwers are invariably detained very briefly and then set free on bail. Even the assailant who knifed Talwar has been freed after being jailed for a short while.

In short, punishment for such offences is not big enough to be viewed as deterrents, lawyers say.

Consequently, it appears that for those wanting to make a point, the instant media attention and resulting fame are reasons enough to launch a sudden attack.

Act of machismo?

Mumbai-based sociologist Dr Leena Abraham points out that the attackers are always male.

It is probably a masculine way of expressing anger, she says.

It is probably a masculine way of expressing anger

Dr Leena Abraham, Sociologist

Men seem to be throwing something or the other at the object of their anger. The periodic instances of acid-attacks that have victimised women are again a deplorable reflection of male behaviour, she says.

Lawyers attribute the frustration, if it can be called that, to the inordinately long time it takes for cases to get heard and settled in India.

According to Bangalore-based lawyer H B Abdul Azeem, India's judicial system is cumbersome and time-consuming. The system of providing evidence to the court is also complicated.

Even if cases are filed, they could go on for years, he says.

Where knifing or violent attacks happen, cases under section 326 of the Indian penal code (causing grievous hurt using dangerous weapons or means) can be registered which would entail an imprisonment ranging from 10 years to life.

A case can also be registered under section 307 which means attempted murder and consequently a more severe punishment. But the procedures that surround the process of filing cases and following them up negate the severity of the punishment.

One reason why there seems to be an increase in the number of attacks in court premises is said to be accessibility.

Easy targets

According to Azeem, people like Roy are otherwise never accessible to the common man and are always surrounded by layers of security.

But when they are produced in court, they are for the first time accessible to the public.

And in India which follows an "open court" system, everyone has the right to enter the premises of the court.

While this is an inherent security risk, the system cannot be changed as it has other implications and could be seen as anti-democratic.

Also, attacks on people accused of misdemeanours do not seem to arouse public opinion adversely. 

Scores of movies churned out year after year across India show the protagonists, depicted as common people, take law into their hands and mete vigilante justice to the villains.

A film titled "Indian" starring leading actor Kamal Hassan a few years ago, caused waves with its portrayal of a hurt citizen planning and executing a series of attacks on corrupt officials.

Real-life events are not far behind the ones on celluloid. Journalist Jarnail Singh has been rewarded with a ticket by the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party to contest the forthcoming national elections. His claim to fame: throwing his shoe at federal minister, Chidambaram. 

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