Justice beyond revengeLessons from Manipur on addressing root causes and strengthening institutions to combat vigilantism

Whether vigilantism emerges during social and political unrest is a multifaceted question with no easy answer. Its rise hinges on a complex interplay of factors, making generalisations elusive. However, scholars acknowledge the intensity of unrest as a key contributing factor. When violence and disorder escalate, desperation and perceived self-protection needs can drive individuals towards vigilantism. This phenomenon intricately connects to the nature and severity of the unrest, suggesting a possible correlation between chaos and its extrajudicial response.
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s acclaimed novel, “The Sympathizer” (2015), offers a powerful case study exploring the complexities of vigilantism during the Vietnam War and its aftermath. We witness firsthand how desperation and a perceived lack of justice can fuel individuals to take the law into their own hands. These groups, often fuelled by fear and anger, targeted suspected communists and sympathisers, leading to violence and extrajudicial killings. The novel also portrays vigilante activity within the North Vietnamese regime, highlighting the complex power dynamics and internal struggles of the war.
“The Sympathizer” explores the moral ambiguity inherent in vigilantism. The novel blurs the line between good and evil, showcasing how individuals on both sides of the conflict resorted to violence in the name of their beliefs. It challenges simplistic narratives of heroes and villains, forcing readers to grapple with the ethical complexities of wartime actions. The protagonist’s internal conflict, torn between loyalties and witnessing the consequences of vigilante actions and war violence, reflects the broader moral dilemmas faced during such periods.
Crucially, the novel does not romanticize vigilantism. It emphasizes the dangers of such actions, showcasing how they often escalate violence and inflict suffering on innocent individuals. The long-term repercussions, haunting characters and societies even after the war, highlight the cyclical nature of violence and the difficulty of achieving true peace and reconciliation.
Overall, “The Sympathizer” offers a nuanced and thought-provoking exploration of vigilantism, challenging readers to think critically about its motivations, complexities, and potential dangers. This fictional lens sheds light on real-world scenarios like violence-torn Manipur, urging us to examine the root causes of unrest and seek alternative solutions that uphold justice and prevent the allure of extrajudicial action. Most importantly, it avoids romanticising vigilantism, showcasing its dangers and long-term repercussions, including the cyclical nature of violence and the difficulty of achieving true peace and reconciliation.
The prevalence of vigilantism varies across societies, shaped by historical events and cultural values. As historian Howard Zinn noted, “We can’t be neutral on a moving train,” underlining the impact of historical trajectories on shaping societal norms, including attitudes towards vigilantism.
For example, in former colonies, vigilantism may have roots in a history of weak or oppressive colonial rule, compelling communities to develop alternative means of maintaining order. This is evident in regions like Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where the legacy of colonialism has contributed to the emergence of vigilantism as a response to perceived injustices.
Certain cultures emphasise collective responsibility and community justice, potentially fostering acceptance of vigilante action under specific circumstances. This can manifest in various ways, including honour killings or self-defence groups in conflict zones. While problematic in many contexts, these practices stem from deeply ingrained cultural values around maintaining order and upholding community norms.
When public faith in law enforcement or judicial systems erodes due to corruption, inefficiency, or perceived bias, individuals may turn to vigilantism as a perceived alternative. This is observed in countries with high crime rates, weak governance, or a history of police brutality. In these contexts, the perceived failure of official systems fuels the allure of taking justice into one’s own hands, regardless of the risks and potential for further chaos.
Understanding vigilantism’s historical and cultural contexts allows us to move beyond simplistic judgments and engage in more productive discussions. By exploring these interconnected factors, we can understand why and how vigilantism emerges and work towards addressing its root causes, such as lack of access to justice, police brutality, or societal alienation.
Let’s delve deeper into the case of Manipur. The complexities of vigilantism don’t exist solely in fiction, as illustrated by Nguyen. Manipur has a long-standing tradition of vigilante groups, taking on various roles, including combating perceived immoral activities, fighting against drug and alcohol abuse, and forming watch groups to protect human rights. While some view this as a necessary response to perceived gaps in law enforcement or to build a national character, others criticise the potential for abuse and violation of individual rights. This highlights the dangers of romanticising vigilantism, even when seemingly motivated by noble intentions.
The interplay of the historical, cultural and weak governance factors is vividly visible in Manipur. The colonial policy of “divide and rule” sowed seeds of distrust among the diverse communities inhabiting the hills and valleys. Furthermore, the influx of “immigrants” during the colonial era, often used as pawns in divide-and-rule tactics, challenged established notions of indigeneity and further fuelled tensions. Those who dared to resist this unjust system were often exiled to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, further eroding trust in formal institutions. In response to this perceived injustice and lack of effective governance, vigilante groups flourished.
Additionally, the constant threat of conflict in the region has led many communities to prioritise self-defence, with some self-determination movements even transforming into ethnic-centric armed militias. Finally, the weakness of formal institutions has created a vacuum, allowing for the emergence of “Kangaroo Courts” – extrajudicial bodies often delivering brutal punishments for perceived offences. This lack of due process and accountability fuels fear and further entrenches the allure of vigilante action. The case of Manipur highlights how historical legacies, cultural dynamics, and ineffective governance can create a complex environment where vigilantism thrives, posing a significant challenge to upholding the rule of law and achieving lasting peace.
While vigilantism may provide a fleeting sense of order or justice in some instances, it poses significant dangers. It undermines the core principles of the legal system, potentially escalating violence and perpetuating injustice. This erosion of the rule of law puts innocent lives at risk, as vigilantes often act on incomplete information or personal biases. As Martin Luther King Jr. poignantly stated, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”.  The outcomes of vigilantism often contribute to cycles of violence and retribution, creating a challenging environment for restoring peace and order.
Determining whether vigilantism is considered “normal” during unrest is challenging due to its complex nature. The advantages and disadvantages, influenced by various contextual factors, necessitate a comprehensive and nuanced examination. Sociologist Emile Durkheim’s assertion that “Crime is normal...an integral part of all healthy societies” prompts a critical evaluation of vigilantism within the broader societal context during the unrest. This holistic approach allows for a more thorough understanding and facilitates the development of effective strategies for addressing the complexities associated with vigilantism.
The question of vigilantism’s “normalcy” during unrest remains open-ended. Its justifications and dangers intertwine, demanding nuanced analysis beyond simplistic judgments. As Howard Zinn reminds us, we are not neutral observers. Engaging in critical dialogue about historical legacies, cultural values, and the effectiveness of official systems is vital. By acknowledging the complexities and exploring alternative solutions, such as strengthening formal institutions and addressing the root causes of injustice, we can move beyond the allure of vigilantism. Just as historical injustices and weak institutions fuelled vigilantism in Manipur, similar efforts are needed across societies to combat this phenomenon and build a sustainable future where justice prevails. This requires individual commitment and collective action to hold institutions accountable and advocate for reforms that ensure equal access to justice for all.