Two democracies and their vigilante problem

Synopsis: With incidents of mob justice and vigilantism increasing, it becomes important to understand the dimensions of the word Vigilante.


This article highlights how the word “Vigilante” has different meanings in two different democracies.

What is Vigilantism?

It is a process of law enforcement undertaken without legal authority by a self-appointed group of people. Or It is the practice of ordinary people in a place taking unofficial action to prevent crime or to catch and punish people believed to be criminals:

Vigilantism In the case of India: Vigilant behaviour can be seen through incidents like beating couples on Valentine’s Day, love jihad etc. It is considered anti-democratic. Law and order machinery takes punitive actions varying from police cases to arrest of the accused.

In the USA: The criticism is guarded and balanced.  In fact, the laws in the USA make vigilantism respectable.

E.g. in the USA, “Citizen Arrester“(Vigilantee) enjoys the legal status and his/her actions are protected by law. Laws in the USA permit an individual to pursue and arrest a person accused of breaking the law.

How the USA allows the practice of Citizen Arrester?

It is carried from the legal convention of 12th century Common Law, which was prevalent in England. This law allowed a Citizen arrester to physically arrest a person who has been accused of breaking a law. There are procedures to be followed, safeguards and risks involved for wrongful arrest. Given its potential for abuse, there are debates regarding the need to reduce its scope. However, recent legislation in the USA seems to encourage citizen arresters.

USA’s legislation to promote citizen arresters

Recently, Texas introduced the Heartbeat Bill, which prohibits abortion of any child after the foetus registers a heartbeat (about 6 weeks into pregnancy). Further, this bill provides an award of $10,000 to anyone (including a Vigilantee) who can sue abortion providers. Thus, anyone who helped in the abortion process, from the taxi driver who drove the women to the hospital or the doctors and nurses etc. can be sued by any citizen.

In another incident in the USA, a bill had to be passed for voter reforms. In that, the experts pointed that the representatives were more worried about citizen representatives than the officials themselves.

What needs to be done?

The oldest and the largest democracies, it seems, both have a vigilante problem today. So, the trend of the State asking citizens to do its duty – like arresting offenders, needs to be checked, given its potential of misuse.

Source: This post is based on the article “Two democracies and their vigilante problem” published in The Hindu on 17th September 2021.

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