(noun), a member of a self-appointed group of citizens who undertake law
enforcement actions without legal authority, often
involving physical violence against an accused or suspected law-breaker.
USAGE: The gau-rakshak samitis have constituted
themselves into vigilante groups, intercepting and assaulting anyone they
suspect to be transporting cattle illegally
Though the word vigilante derives in the first place from the Spanish word for ‘watchman’, by the mid-19th century its usage in American English referred to a ‘member of a vigilance committee’ set up by communities to reinforce policing actions in the Wild West. Both words derive in turn from the Latin vigilantem, meaning ‘watchful, anxious, careful’, as does the English word vigil — to keep vigil is to be watchful and awake for signs of danger or intrusion.
Vigilance committees kept informal, if rather rough, law
and order going on the expanding US western frontier and in similar places
where official authority had not been fully established. A vigilante served
such a committee in the belief that he was serving the security interests of
Since law and order has been pretty much formally established everywhere by now, why do vigilantes still exist? Vigilantes often justify themselves, or rationalise their roles, by arguing that too often the formal mechanisms of law enforcement aren’t doing their jobs properly. In their telling, official legal forms of criminal punishment are either insufficient or inefficient.
Vigilantes normally see the government as incapable of enforcing the law; in India they often claim the police are either corrupt or not energetic enough to tackle crimes like cow slaughter, so they feel a “moral obligation” to take the law into their own hands. The vigilantes justify what they are doing as fulfilling the wishes of the community, which the police have been either unwilling or unable to do.
As we know all too well from the recent flare-up of vigilantism in northern India, vigilante conduct involves varied degrees of violence. Vigilantes tend to assault their targets both verbally and physically, vandalise their property, and beat or even murder individuals. People accused of crimes that carry high emotional resonance with the vigilantes, especially those involving cow protection or assaults on women, are often punished by vigilantes to general public approval.
There are many problems with vigilantism, the most obvious of which is the denial of an opportunity for a suspect to prove his innocence. The vigilante goes after an accused without any of the niceties of the genuine law-enforcement officer; no rights are read to the target, nor is he given a chance to explain his innocence.
Vigilantism has often involved targets being killed or irreversibly damaged on the basis of mistaken identities. People wrongly accused of rape or theft, or of trafficking in children or slaughtering cows, have been the particular target of vigilantism in India since 2014. This is why most people think the actions of the vigilante are often worse than the original crime he claims to be avenging.
Vigilantism strikes the modern mind as wrong and
unacceptable, but it is not always frowned upon by the communities on whose
behalf it is conducted. Folklore and legend are full of tales of vigilante
justice told with great approbation, since in these tales the vigilante
challenges the amorality of the official order to redress injustice. When
legitimate authority is either weak or tyrannical and the formal apparatus of
governance is ethically inadequate, many ask, why shouldn’t a vigilante step in
to restore justice? After all, Robin Hood was at bottom
The answer lies, of course, in strengthening the official apparatus of law-enforcement and justice, streamlining and speeding up the judicial system and strengthening the institutions of governance so the public will have their faith in the official system restored — not in giving a free rein to vigilantes to take the law into their own hands, thus shaming us all. Today’s vigilante is no modern Robin Hood, but just a hood robbing us of our dignity and rights.