Prosecution by Public: Mob Justice in India

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The recent slew of lynching and other acts of mob justice in the country have led to an atmosphere of fear, resentment, confusion and widespread anger in the people of the nation.

According to the data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), communal tensions in the country have been on a surge. Hate crimes against minority groups, especially Muslims and Dalits, are on the rise. Ministry of Home Affairs, reporting the incidents stated that 336 cases relating to offences promoting enmity between different groups on the basis of religion, race, and place of birth were registered in 2014, which shot up to 475 in 2016, an increase by over 41 per cent in just two years. This increase of hate crimes can be seen prominently considering that people are taking law into their own hands and delivering their version of justice through mob lynching.

There are questions that arise in the minds of people. What is driving India towards a mob rule? What gives the people the right to take law into their own hands? Are there even any sanctions against the participants of a mob that lynches people?

The Indian Penal Code prescribes various sections to be imposed on the participants of the mob including Sec. 302 Murder, 304 culpable homicide not amounting to murder, Sec. 307 Attempt to murder, Sec. 323 Causing voluntary grievous hurt and Sec. 147&148 that deals with rioting. All these sections are to be read with Sec. 34 that defines common intention. It is clear that there’s no particular law in India that deals with mob lynching separately, which makes it difficult for the authorities to impose sanctions and easier for the perpetrators to get away with the crime. Various civic protests and actions have taken place demanding the Government to create a stringent law to deal with the menace.

“After the lynching of Hafiz Junaid, several civic protests took place including #NotInMyName but have not been successful while redressing the issue.

“The fate of the Manav Suraksha Kanoon (MASUKA), a draft law that specifically deals with the offence of mob lynching and imposes life imprisonment as punishment and makes it a non-bailable offence, hangs in the balance as it is still to be incorporated as an operating law.”

Since the Government of India maintains no central data on public lynching, media reports remain the principle source of information for the public regarding the crimes happening. From the previous year till today, there have been as many as 30 deaths through mob lynching mostly fuelled by the forwarded messages on Whatsapp spreading rumours about child kidnapping. The most recent in the string of lynching cases was seen in Alwar district of Rajasthan where a man named Akbar Khan was killed and one other was seriously injured over suspicion of being cow smugglers. In another case, in Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh, driven by messages on Whatsapp, a mob beat a woman to death on suspicion that she was a child lifter.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi, while addressing the incidents of this nature, said that social media is being used largely to target members of minority and other marginalised groups and that it needs to be exposed and fought against.

There are two trends that are recognised following these instances. First, these incidents are seen to be happening mostly in village areas, where smartphones and Whatsapp are still something new. The other trend which can noticed while looking at these incidents is that these attacks are almost always targeted at a powerless person, distinct from the dominant community. Be it a Muslim, Dalit, Christian or anyone else, the incidents demonstrate the ingrained communal bigotry and prejudice in the society, which has also been highlighted in the recent judgement of the Supreme Court of India.

“The Supreme Court delivered a crisp dictum bemoaning the “horrendous acts of mobocracy” that have spread like wildfire in the recent months and years. Central to this obituary of the “pluralistic social fabric” of India is the curiously devastating phenomenon of “men becoming law” unto themselves.”

Its malady, the Court glowingly held, is to “regulate social behaviour” where the law is the “foundation of a civilised society.” The bench consisting of Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justice AM Khanwilkar and Justice DY Chandrachud has asked the Central and State Legislatures to pass a law preventing mob lynching, and to stipulate punitive action for acts leading up to lynching as well.

This takes us to the most important question. What has India come to?

Article 21 of the Constitution which is often referred to as the heart of Fundamental Rights states – “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except under procedure established by law.” The very object of this Article is to protect and prevent encroachment upon the life and freedom of citizens. Only the State, according to the procedure established by the law, has the power to deprive anyone of this right.

The Honourable Supreme Court in the landmark case of S.R. Bommai vs. Union of India while discussing the subject of secularism held, ‘Religious tolerance and equal treatment of all religious groups and protection of their life and property and the places of their worship are an essential part of secularism enshrined in our Constitution.’ Further the Court, while emphasising upon the significance of Secularism, declared it as the basic structure of the Constitution.

Despite the sufficient laws in theory, the nation hasn’t been very successful in implementing and executing them in reality. However, the Government is now considering the possibility to modify the Indian Penal Code to deal with the offence of mob lynching. The Government is also looking at the possibility of drafting a separate model law that the states can adopt in order to prevent these incidents. Further, the Government may also strengthen the framework relating to social media to ensure that rumours which may lead to such incidents are kept in check.

But the need of the hour is to back these initiatives by a similar change in thinking from the people themselves.