Palghar incident spotlights need for special anti-lynching legislation; Parliament must enact SC's prescriptions to curb mob violence

On 16 April, 2020, India witnessed yet another mob lynching incident in Maharashtra's Palghar when a large group of villagers pummeled three men to death suspecting them to be thieves.

Prarthana Kashinath April 26, 2020 14:51:44 IST
Palghar incident spotlights need for special anti-lynching legislation; Parliament must enact SC's prescriptions to curb mob violence

On 16 April, 2020, India witnessed yet another mob lynching incident in Maharashtra's Palghar when a large group of villagers pummeled three men to death suspecting them to be thieves.

Palghar incident spotlights need for special antilynching legislation Parliament must enact SCs prescriptions to curb mob violence

Two sadhus and a driver were killed by a mob in Palghar on 16 April. ANI

While the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has not released any data relating to mob lynchings, according to media reports, there have been over 100 such incidents across the country since 2015.

In these disconcerting times, when one perforce beholds a purported “civil society,” one cannot help but trecall Martin Luther King Jr’s words: “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important.”

The Palghar incident once again brings back into focus the void in our criminal justice system to adequately address and deal with such instances of mob violence and lynchings.

This article scrutinises the extant framework of jurisprudence around lynchings in India and suggests a potential way forward.

MASUKA and its aftermath

In 2017, in response to the rising instances of mob violence and lynchings, activists and youth leaders launched the National Campaign Against Mob Lynching which culminated in the drafting of a specialised law, Manav Suraksha Kanoon or The Protection From Lynching Act, 2017 (MASUKA).

It swiftly garnered national attention, given that it was the first time in India’s history that a law attempted to define terms such as, “lynching,” and “mob.” The draft law was instantaneously made public and open for public comments and suggestions.

A year later, in 2018, one of the activists from the campaign filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking relief relating to grievances pertaining to cow vigilantism, targeted violence, lynchings, and commission of offences by mobs “under the garb of self-assumed and self-appointed protectors of law.”

The three-judge bench, led and authored by the then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, in Tehseen S. Poonawalla v. Union of India vigorously criticised and came down hard on incidents of mob lynching and related forms of violence, and issued comprehensive directions to the Centre as well as the states, by way of preventive, remedial and punitive guidelines.

However, even after nearly two years since the judgment, neither the Centre nor the states (barring three that have passed bills pertaining to mob lynching) appear to have materially acted upon the Supreme Court’s directions.

Had these directions been meticulously and rigorously implemented, India perhaps would not have witnessed the Palghar tragedy. Further, three years after its launch, the campaign also has fizzled out.

Potential way forward

Although India does not have any statute or statutory provisions specifically relating to mob lynching, our criminal laws do contain generic provisions (such as those pertaining to murder, unlawful assembly, criminal conspiracy and rioting) that may be invoked to deal with mob lynching.

However, as evidenced over the past few years, these generic laws have proven to be inadequate to deal with aggravated crimes such as mob lynching. For instance, the generic laws do not hold the law enforcement authorities (or complicit politicians) accountable for dereliction of duty, or for their inability to prevent such crimes, especially when they have demonstrable power and ability to prevent them.

The Palghar tragedy is the latest textbook example of failure of law enforcement authorities to forestall such lynchings. Further, these generic laws woefully fail short of doing justice to identity-based lynchings, that is when a lynching intends to, and does in fact put to fear, an entire community.

This is a markedly legitimate concern, given that, in the lynching deaths that have occurred between 2010 and 2017, 84 percent are reportedly Muslim. It is in this backdrop that there is an eminently compelling need for specialised laws to deal with mob lynchings.

Ordinarily, this can be achieved by either enacting a comprehensive Central law, or by having state laws tailored to their respective socio-political milieu.

Enacting a Central law

An overwhelming majority of mob lynchings in India, have involved minorities. These incidents strike at the very root of articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution, that enshrine the principles of equality and non-discrimination. However, there is no statute in India that even remotely attempts to implement and fulfil these constitutional promises.

Pursuant to the directions of the Supreme Court in the judgment, it is about time that the Parliament hastens to bring about a comprehensive Central law to deal with mob lynchings.

It must aim to serve as an umbrella legislation to deal with incidents like the Palghar lynching and also those that take place pursuant to “mistaken understanding” as to the motive of the victims of lynchings.

India can also take its cue from the United States, where a century after lawmakers first attempted to bring in an anti-mob lynching law, the US House of Representatives finally voted (in February) to make lynching a federal crime.

Directing states to enact laws

Adhering to the directions of the Supreme Court in the judgment, Manipur, Rajasthan and West Bengal have passed bills to prevent mob lynchings and have quite satisfactorily incorporated most of the guidelines laid down in the judgment.

These bills await the consideration of President Ram Nath Kovind. Although these bills are being debated for their potential utility and shortcomings, the legislative process has begun.

Using the extant state bills as templates, the Centre can perhaps pass a model anti-mob lynching law and direct all the states under articles 256 and 257 of the Constitution to emulate and adopt them.

With the Palghar tragedy illustrating that the victims of mob lynchings can also belong to the majority community, the Central government may after all be incentivised to pursue a solution to prevent mob lynchings.

Nonetheless, all said and done, merely enacting specialised laws is still not a holistic solution to address mob violence and associated lynchings, unless it is supplemented by a resolute political will to create a robust law and order infrastructure to ensure implementation of the law.

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