Empowered circles, impatience and injustice

There is flawed logic in the reactions of those who mistrust an institution of power but accept the ‘solution’ it puts forth

Published - August 19, 2020 12:02 am IST

The weirdest thing about mainstream Indians today is that, often, the very people who legitimately critique a police force for being corrupt, incompetent or unaccountable, turn around and demand that any ‘suspect,’ rounded up by the same police force, should be summarily lynched or ‘encountered’.

Background and response

Take the sad case, in July, of journalist Vikram Joshi, who was shot in the head in Ghaziabad , presumably by men he had accused of molesting his niece. It was reported that the local police had ignored a complaint by Mr. Joshi about the molestation. Social media was understandably incandescent with righteousness over the crime. A journalist, shot in open daylight, with a prior complaint ignored by the police: there were good reasons for protest. But soon, the same police announced that they had arrested the ‘culprits,’ and the people who had been criticising the police force started tweeting about the pressing need to decapitate, grievously torture, lynch or ‘encounter’ the suspects.

These were educated people. Their blithe twittering on social media — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the rest — indicated that they were educated people. So, one assumes, they had the intelligence to notice a logical flaw in their posture: how can you trust a police force that you consider incompetent, corrupt or apathetic to arrest the right ‘culprits?’ That is why, in law, the people arrested are never ‘culprits’. They are only suspects, and their guilt needs to be proven by due process of law.

I disagree with people who put absolute trust in any institution of power, but I understand their logic when they support any action whatsoever by these institutions of power. In general, such people are called ‘fascists’ — which is a system of power that is justified in and as power, and hence it can exist on both the ‘left’ (Stalin) and the ‘right’ (Hitler). However, what is the logic of people who mistrust, with good reason, an institution of power but then turn around and accept the ‘solution’ that the same institution puts forth? How, in other words, can you accuse a police force of not doing its job and then be ready to lynch any suspect produced by the same police force? How can you consider a force corrupt or incompetent in its approach to a crime and then accept it as having honestly and competently arrested the right ‘culprits?’ There is obviously no logic in such a position.

But that does not mean one cannot understand it. One fails to understand it only if one sees it in the light of right and wrong, accountability and power, justice and injustice, law and crime. Because, even though its adherents think it is about these matters, it is about something else altogether.

What it is about

First, it is about impatience. Then, it is about self-righteousness. And third, it is about ‘getting it over with.’ These are all dominant ingredients of our age, particularly in circles with some degree of empowerment — perhaps best indicated in a country such as India by the index of twittering literacy.

All three are ‘human’ tendencies, but then everything done by human beings is a human tendency. Human beings do not have the tendency to flap their arms and fly in the air, or grow their feet as roots into the earth. But when we talk of mercy, fairness, good, evil, tolerance, xenophobia, forgiveness, hate, love, trust, distrust, generosity, selfishness, etc., we can always talk of some human tendency or the other.

Take patience, for instance. One can claim that patience is a trait of many complex organisms. When a cat crouches by the hole of a mouse, waiting to strike, it is being patient. By the same token, one can talk of a cat that gives up the crouching earlier than another cat as less patient. But ‘impatience’ might well have a more human dimension.

For instance, certain lifestyles might breed impatience. Farmers, who depend on agricultural seasons, are characteristically seen as patient people — though often the derogatory word, ‘slow,’ is attached to them — compared to city dwellers. Neoliberalism, with its focus on short-term profit, arguably breeds an even more impatient lifestyle than classical industrial capitalism.

‘Getting on with it’ is an aspect of this lifestyle: most of us recognise it in the empty lamentation that we occasionally offer about the withering away of human relations, the ‘abandonment’ of aged parents, the shrinking ‘attention span’ of younger people, etc. And finally, self-righteousness is a particularly human tendency, because of our complex awareness of our self.

A complexity

Other animals can be said to be aware of their self in certain ways — obviously always in the present and, to a reduced degree, in the past and future (as is indicated by squirrels that hoard nuts). But the complexity of human self-awareness is unmatched on this earth: among other things, it consists of ethical issues that can only be encountered by a species with a highly developed, abstract language. One natural danger of this is self-righteousness, which is further exacerbated in an unequal world — where we need to justify our own privileges to ourselves.

And hence, when we legitimately criticise a police force for corruption or incompetence but then want to lynch any ‘suspect’ arrested by the same force, without due process of law, we are not motivated by justice. We want to get it over with, and return to our zones of comfortable twittering.

Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark


0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.