By Amritananda Chakravorty
On 21st July early morning, a cattle trader named Rakbar was lynched in Alwar for suspected cow smuggling, more than a year after dairy farmer Pehlu Khan was lynched in the same place. Since lynching has become the ‘new normal’ in ‘New India’, it caused the usual outrage in the media and among activists. A Union minister shockingly described the horrific crime as a ‘conspiracy’ to dent Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity. But as details of the incident emerged, police has been blamed for outrageously delaying hospitalisation of the victim, by first putting the two cows in a shelter, stopping for tea on the way, washing the victim so that he does not ‘dirty’ their jeep, and also assaulting him in the vehicle, while purportedly seeking to get him medical attention. When finally Rakbar reached the community health centre, he was declared ‘brought dead’. It was not just Rakbar who died on 21st July, 2018. It is the soul of India that died. It is our collective conscience that died. It is the integrity of the Indian police force that breathed its last that day.
Incidentally, this horrific crime happened four days after the Supreme Court, in an exceptionally strongly worded judgment, came down heavily on the epidemic of mob-lynching that is sweeping across this country. On July 17, 2018, the apex court in Tehseen S. Poonawalla & Ors. vs. Union of India & Ors. [Writ Petition (Civil) No. 754 of 2016] categorically observed that “lynching is an affront to the rule of law and to the exalted values of the Constitution itself. We may say without any fear of contradiction that lynching by unruly mobs and barbaric violence arising out of incitement and instigation cannot be allowed to become the order of the day. Such vigilantism, be it for whatever purpose or borne out of whatever cause, has the effect of undermining the legal and formal institutions of the State, and altering the Constitutional order.” Reiterating the responsibility of the states to prevent crimes of lynching, the court held that “the authorities which are conferred with the responsibility to maintain law and order in the State have the principal obligation to see that vigilantism, be it cow vigilantism or any other vigilantism of any perception, does not take place.”
Thereafter, in a series of directions pertaining to preventive, remedial and punitive measures, the Supreme Court laid down the responsibility of the state governments and the Central government to prevent lynchings, and to prosecute the people who committed such heinous crimes. Dismissing the Central government’s contention that this was a ‘law and order’ issue within the domain of the states, and not the responsibility of the Union, the court directed the Central government and the state governments to broadcast on television and other media that lynching and mob violence would entail serious legal consequences, as well as to curb the dissemination of fake and irresponsible messages, especially on Whatsapp, which are designed to incite a mob, and directed the police to register an FIR under Section 153A, IPC against those responsible for distributing such inflammatory messages. It also directed the Central government to issue necessary directions/advisories to the state governments to address the issue swiftly and effectively. The Supreme Court further directed that the state governments shall prepare a lynching/mob violence victim compensation scheme under Section 357A, CrPC within one month of the judgment. Pertinently, it directed that police officials found negligent or failing to comply with these directions would face necessary legal action, not just limited to departmental action. Most importantly, the Supreme Court recommended that Parliament should enact a separate law on the prevention of lynching, in order to have a deterrent effect.
Notwithstanding the laudable aims of these directions, and the exhaustive nature in which the Court has dealt with the issue, the question remains of the implementation of these directions, since it is the same police machinery that let a victim die in Alwar, instead of getting him medical help, that is tasked with the responsibility of preventing the crime of lynching. It is the same Central Government whose minister garlanded four persons accused of lynching a man in Jharkhand recently, which ostensibly has to prosecute the guilty. The futility of the Union government almost threatening Whatsapp to curb these rumour fuelled messages is for all to see, since it is the Central government that is responsible for the protection of life and liberty of its citizens, and not a private company. No amount of regulation of Whatsapp can fulfill the gaping hole in the constitutional morality of the State that has even given up the pretense of acting in the interest of all citizens, irrespective of caste and religion. Whether a separate law is needed, or as some lawyers argue, the principle of command responsibility has to be enshrined in the law to be effective against hate or targeted crimes, the issue is of the sanctity of the rule of law, and Constitutional order. One hopes that the Supreme Court judgment, especially the directions, would reinstate some of the hopes of the victims’ families to fight for justice.
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