Photographs of a public lynching in Nagaland’s largest city, Dimapur, on Thursday, that have been swirling all over social media, are a grim reminder of the barbarity that lurks beneath the potato skin of civilisation as we know it in these troubled times. The shocking pictures tell us many stories, including how dangerously close we as a nation are to the precipice of frightening lawlessness.

First, the facts as they have emerged till Friday evening. Last month a complaint was lodged with the police, accusing Syed Farid Khan of raping a Naga woman (of whom few details are known at the moment) several times. That was on February 23. Khan, a 35-year-old migrant from Assam (reports say he was a Bengali-speaking Muslim) was a dealer in old cars.

Security personnel near a vehicle that was torched by a mob during a mass protest where they pulled out a rape accused from a district jail and lynched him in Dimapur, Nagaland, on Thursday. Pic/PTI
Security personnel near a vehicle that was torched by a mob during a mass protest where they pulled out a rape accused from a district jail and lynched him in Dimapur, Nagaland, on Thursday. Pic/PTI

In local media reports Khan was described as an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh. That further fuelled popular outrage which was tapped into by Naga Students’ Federation and Naga Women Hoho, both of which have a mass base. On Wednesday the two organisations called for a bandh to protest the alleged rape of a Naga woman and press for “stern action” against the accused man.

To drive home their point, the protesters ransacked shops owned by ‘outsiders’. To control the rapidly deteriorating situation, the administration imposed Section 144 prohibiting crowds from gathering. But that had no impact whatsoever in restoring calm.

On Thursday, crowds gathered and marched to the Dimapur Municipal Council, where they demanded that trade licences given to ‘Bengali-speaking Muslims’ should be cancelled. Next the mob, which had now swollen to several thousand protesters, stormed the central jail, overcame the token resistance put up by the prison guards, and dragged Khan to the street.

Their intention was to hold a public trial (for which an open truck had been organised to serve as a dais) and then execute the alleged rapist by hanging him from Dimapur’s historic landmark, the Clock Tower. The lynch mob didn’t quite stick to the plan. Khan was stripped, kicked and beaten. By the time he was dragged to the Clock Tower by a motorcyclist, he was dead.

Nevertheless his limp, bloodied body with the face smashed in, was strung up as the frenzied mob jostled to record the ‘punishment’ on cell phones. Khan, stripped of clothes, life and dignity, was displayed on the Clock Tower like a trophy. It was at once an act of defiance by the masses, taunting the law of the land, and a meek acceptance by the Indian state that it has failed.

Make that miserably, colossally and unquestionably failed. Anything less than that would be a travesty of the truth. For the state has allowed the criminal justice system to crumble and wither away, eroding people’s faith in the courts and make our robustly worded laws appear enfeebled and paraplegic.

When courts allow hundreds of thousands of cases to pile up, when judges elect to give precedence to IPL over IPC, when hearings are put on hold to facilitate bail for high profile activists ironically on the run from the law, when fast track hearings are turned into a farce as in the infamous Delhi gangrape trial, when rapists are let out on bail to rape again, you make a mockery of the very concept of justice.

Perfectly law-abiding citizens turn into vigilantes and endorse kangaroo courts and cheer the meting out of mob punishment, as they did in Dimapur, when the belief that courts will not deliver justice strikes root. The state’s abysmal failure becomes the cloak of legitimacy for that which is patently illegal and unacceptable in a civilised society.

Those of us who have read Mario Puzo’s ‘Godfather’ or watched the eponymous film would recall how the mafia secured popular legitimacy. Similarly, we will now witness mobs securing legitimacy in the wondrous land of ours where justices of the Supreme Court appear to have convinced themselves that fixing cricket administration is of paramount pressing concern for more than a billion people.

Cry, my beloved country.

The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta