The dangers of the mob in India

A video grab of the girl's assault Image copyright Other
Image caption The teenager was assaulted on a busy road

In the heart of Guwahati, a bustling city in the north-eastern state of Assam, a mob of men assault a teenage girl coming out of a bar as a journalist records it on his video camera and people gawk.

Gloating before the camera, the mob paws her, tries to strip her and burns her with cigarettes. The police arrive late - as is usually the case - and rescue the girl.

Last week, India came to know of this shocking act of depravity only after video of the assault went viral and the mainstream media picked it up. Predictable outrage gripped the airwaves and the social media. The police made their first, feeble arrests, though most of the attackers are still at large. There were allegations that the journalist, belonging to a local news channel, had incited the mob - he quit his job after denying the charge. The editor has now quit his job too.

Such attacks are becoming distressingly common in 21st Century India. Earlier this month a female lawmaker from Assam's ruling Congress party was assailed by a 100-strong mob, apparently for marrying a Muslim man without divorcing her first husband. (Assam has a steep rate of crimes against women - a shocking 36.9 per 100,000 a year, against the national average of 18.9). On New Year's eve in Gurgaon, an upscale suburb outside Delhi, several women coming out of a pub were assaulted by a group of men. And in Calcutta, a girl was picked up from outside a pub and raped, prompting the authorities to order a midnight shutdown on nightlife.

There could be many reasons why young women are becoming targets of attacks in India's big cities. More and more women are stepping out of their homes to go to work. Many believe that such assaults are a backlash by a patriarchal and stiflingly male-dominated society unable to cope with the sight of a confident, empowered woman with a mind of her own. "You drink liquor!" the Guwahati mob barked at the girl as they went after her.

More pointedly, such attacks also point to the rising tensions between two Indias - the India of the privileged and upwardly mobile reaping the benefits of a growing economy, and a darker India of urban malcontents, the jobless, lonely migrants, all seething in resentment even at the sight of young people going to a bar to have a drink.

These are the people who largely comprise "the mob" in India. It is a toxic throng of chauvinists and malcontents that revels in acting the vigilante and the moral police at the same time. The mob usually picks on soft targets - women emerging from night clubs, courting young couples. They are also known to mete out rough justice - people caught thieving, for example, are instantly lynched. Even though they represent a minority and most Indians abhor their behaviour, the "mob" also believes not much will happen to them if they are caught - the police are dysfunctional, laws are weak, witnesses are fickle and outrage is ephemeral.

Protecting women - and law-abiding citizens - from such acts need serious institutional reforms to the way India's police and laws operate. Real issues are being trivialised and debate in India has degenerated into shrill headline-grabbing histrionics.

What about a relentless campaign for a stronger police and firmer laws, argue campaigners - something India has been debating without any result for years? From democracy to mobocracy would be a dreadful descent.