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– Radhika Maheshwari

On July 17, a Supreme Court bench, headed by Chief Justice Dipak Mishra, termed incidents of mob-lynching in India as ‘“horrendous acts of mobocracy which cannot be allowed to become new norm and has to be curbed with iron hands”, and asked the Parliament to draft a new legislation to efficiently deal with cases of mob lynching across the country. The apex court evidently directed the police to register a FIR under Section 153A of the IPC against those violating with the peace and integrity of the nation and those found pampering in such activities.

Although the Supreme Court has suggested that a law be endorsed specifically to deal with the “new normal” of lynching incidents, it will be advisable to widen the scope of the legal remedy to include all forms of mob violence, even if doubts are likely to remain about the worth of the proposed solution.

From the start of the year, various incidents have taken place in various Indian States, which earlier showed few indications of being communal. The most common justification for thrashing of individuals has been for alleged child captures, nevertheless allegations of thefts and witchcraft, etc. have also been cited. Adivasis, mentally disturbed persons, migrant workers, single women and tourists have been targeted in such acts.

This growing frequency of lynching all over India is a symptom of a deep social dissatisfaction. It indicates a very low level of resistance to violence in our society, and a growing desperation among the poorer, less educated sections of the society.

Role of Social Media

The role played by the social media sites like Facebook & WhatsApp is also to be taken in consideration in lynching incidents. Local police claim that gruesome WhatsApp images of cows ignited passions ahead of the Dadri lynching incident. In the violent incidents of Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Baghpat and Meerut in 2013, the lynching acts were the outcome of hatred discharged by forwarding and sharing of fake news from WhatsApp. A similar situation could be seen recently in Alwar, Hapur and Assam.

On its part, the government asserted that WhatsApp should take steps to stop the spread of hate-filled messages.  As an urgent follow-up, WhatsApp has itself come out with an awareness campaign against fake news through newspaper advertisements across the nation.

Currently, lynching, which means the killing of individuals by mobs, is a public crime. However, it is not listed as a separate crime under the IPC and thus information about it can be gained only from media and fact-finding reports. So far, there have been 33 cases of deaths due to lynching in the last quarter this year, most of them carried out on rumours of child-lifting.

Speaking in the Rajya Sabha the following day, Minister of State for Home Affairs Hansraj Ahir said, the state governments could deal with such offences under existing laws. His ministry has also issued advisories to all states and the Union Territories. He persuaded them to “maintain law and order and ensure that any person who takes law in their hands is punished promptly as per law”.

The central government, though, does not maintain data on lynching acts. “The National Crime Records Bureau does not maintain data specifically on lynching,” the minister said.

Senior lawyers are also of the opinion that existing laws are sufficient to tackle mob violence. Merely enacting a new law is unlikely to make much difference, they maintain.

Vrinda Grover, a senior lawyer who is lending the legal support to the survivor of the Hapur lynching, said, the current laws against murder and unlawful assembly are adequate enough “to investigate, prosecute and punish those who lynches”. “It is an unlawful assembly that attempts to murder,” she explained. “The law recognises common intention, common object, abetment, incitement of offence and intentionally provoking a riot.” The problem, according to Grover, is not the absence of the law but how the law is employed. “Who will investigate the crime? How will we ensure punishment?” she asks. “We are in the middle of an institutional crisis because there is an institutional bias. The situation is very grim.”

Lynching incidents across the country cannot be stopped without a concerted mass effort. Political parties and social welfare organizations need to undertake mass campaigns, especially enlightening youth and students about the consequences of this horrendous culture of violence. Then, the police and courts need to take an unambiguous stand against lynching and perpetrators must be punished at the earliest. As in the case of sexual violence, a special law should be made against lynching and given wide publicity, to make people aware of the consequences of violence. If these corrective measures are not taken today, the acceptance of lynching on perceived righteousness will permeate the social fabric soon, and it will be tough to reverse the process later.

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