Contagious violence can be noticed even in the military and the police, observes Devesh K. Pandey

Incidents like the one in which a young man allegedly caught red-handed while trying to commit burglary in a shop was beaten to death in Delhi’s Patel Nagar area on Thursday create curiosity about what actually drives people to turn violent to the extent that they end up killing someone.

Going by common logic, such primitive behaviour is justified as a manifestation of people’s desire for “instant justice” because they have lost faith in the criminal justice system. Hence the perceived need to hand out immediate justice.

But from the perspective of mental health experts, “vigilante justice” is not the only driving force behind such behaviour. Rather it is also a psychological condition termed as “contagious violence”. It is usually triggered by a person who owing to an impulsive nature not only takes to violence but also draws others into it through provocation. The initiator, who would otherwise not be a violent personality in his normal life, suddenly turns sadistic. According to Rajat Mitra of Swanchetan Society For Mental Health, who has interviewed people involved in such violent acts, this happens because the aggressor on witnessing a particular incident feels threatened as it either reminds him of the situation he has already faced or he feels that he himself is under attack. Therefore he identifies with the victim. “That person goes into the survival mode in which he stops thinking about what he is actually doing,” says Dr. Mitra. The others join the person owing to similar reasons, thus forming a group that indulges in mindless aggressive behaviour.

Contagious violence can be noticed even in the military and the police. In an incident reported a few years ago, some policemen stopped a civilian for a routine check. Thinking that they would ask for his driving licence, the person was taking out his purse when one of the policemen screamed and opened fire suspecting he was about to take out a firearm. The other policemen also whipped out their firearms. While the victim escaped with an injury, it later turned out that the policeman had undergone a similar experience in the past.

The contagious violence phenomenon was also noticed when Moninder Singh Pandher and Surender Koli, accused in the notorious Nithari serial killings in Noida, were beaten up by the public on the court premises earlier this year. It was also at play in the road rage incident in which a young property dealer was bludgeoned to death by five young men at Saket earlier this week. The victim had an altercation with just two young men, but three of their friends joined later and allegedly thrashed him up to death.

On the face of it, sudden and violent incidents of a group lynching a suspect are often attributed, in layman’s terms, to “mob mentality”. But, as psychologists put it, “individual motivations” do appear to be behind such impulsive acts in public. At another level, it is also linked to an individual being under a huge amount of stress.

As for measures to ensure a reduction in such incidents, mental health experts feel that it would have to come from the individuals themselves. And self-control, counselling and self-regulation are probably the only way out.