By Dr S. Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
The Government of West Bengal has passed the Prevention of Lynching Bill in the Legislative Assembly making mob violence and lynching an offence punishable with imprisonment ranging from three years to life term for causing injuries to a person and death penalty for causing death. The bill also proposes that conspiracy and abetment in an act of lynching is also punishable as the act itself. Mob violence “on grounds of sexual orientation” including attacks on gender and sexual minorities is also covered as lynching.
In the event of victim’s death, the perpetrators can be punished with death sentence or rigorous imprisonment and a fine up to Rs. 5 lakh. For publishing, communicating or disseminating offensive material by any method, jail term for one year and a fine of Rs.50,000 are prescribed. The bill has provisions to protect witnesses and to compensate the victims.
The bill, whether a normal reaction of a government to control increasing incidents of mob attacks on persons causing death or part of party politics in West Bengal, deserves attention. Rumours of cattle theft and child lifting spread fast these days thanks to social media and believed without verification and incite violent reaction. Lynching is indeed a “social menace” as described by West Bengal CM and there can be no opposition to suppress it with a firm hand. However, opinions may differ on the efficacy of a new anti-lynching law.
Section 153 A of the IPC deals with the crime of a group or mob violence, similar to lynching. Promoting enmity between groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of social harmony by words, signs, or visible representations are crimes under this section punishable with imprisonment up to 3 years or fine or both. In case the crime is committed in a place of worship, the punishment may go up to 5 years imprisonment and/or fine. Organising and training groups for violence are offences.
But, the National Crime Records Bureau does not maintain data on lynching incidents in the country as these are counted as murder. The incidents grow in number, but punishments are rare.
A gruesome lynching incident by cow vigilantes ended in acquittal of the accused in Rajasthan. Severe beating leading to the death of a cattle trader and milk vendor, Pehlu Khan, in Behror town in Rajasthan on his return from a cattle fair with two cows and their calves on 1 April 2017 has shocked the entire country. Mob attack was instigated on the suspicion that the cows were purchased for slaughter.
The Alwar Sessions Court acquitted six men charged with Pehlu’s lynching giving them the benefit of doubt. The Rajasthan CM announced constitution of a special investigation team to re-investigate the matter. It is to examine whether there was any tampering of evidence or attempt to weaken the case or any lacunae in the investigation and fix responsibility for the prosecution’s failure to produce clinching evidence in the court.
In December last, the Manipur Assembly passed a bill recommending life imprisonment for those involved in mob violence resulting in the death of a person. In August 2019, Rajasthan Assembly passed a similar bill making lynching a non-bailable offence punishable with life imprisonment and a fine up to Rs. 5 lakh.
As incidents of lynching increased, the Supreme Court issued detailed instructions to Central and State governments in July 2017 to put in place “preventive, remedial, and punitive measures” for curbing what the court described as “horrendous acts of mobocracy”. These included stopping irresponsible and explosive messages and video which may incite mob violence, setting up fast track courts in every district for speedy trial of offenders and providing maximum punishment. The court was for declaring lynching as a separate offence and prescribing punishment.
These directions have been ignored. And lynching cases have been growing. Cow vigilantes are often accused with and without evidence. Government order prohibiting slaughtering of cows and buffaloes in public places as per existing rules which is also universally common has been misunderstood and propagated in some places as ban on beef eating and intrusion in food habits.
In response to the notice received from the Supreme Court to Central and State governments and NHRC to implement its judgement laying down measures to combat lynching, the Empowered Group of Ministers (GoM) constituted in 2018, under Union Home Minister has resumed its function.
Lynching is a term used to denote a premeditated extra-judicial killing of a person by a group. Conducted openly in public places, it is intended to punish a person and intimidate a group of persons for actions disapproved by the group of perpetrators. It is an informal tool of social control displayed as a public spectacle by a group of people taking law in their hands and inflicting punishment also. The victims belong to a particular group or believe in and practice particular ideologies. Lynching is known in all societies and is still in practice though it looks like a barbarian practice.
The usage of the word “lynching” is linked with the American Revolution. Lynch Law was a term used to denote punishment without trial. Lynching incidents became common in the US during and after the Civil War. African-Americans were victims of lynching in the Reconstruction Era. Anti-Lynching bill was introduced by L.C. Dyer in the US Congress in 1918 and was passed by the House of Representatives in 1922, but blocked in the Senate. Subsequent efforts also failed until 2018 when the Senate unanimously passed the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act which is to be passed by the House of Representatives and signed by the President to become law.
One cannot help mentioning Mark Twain in this connection, who perceived the danger of America turning into “The United States of Lyncherdom”. His essay under this title was with reference to mass lynching incidents in Pierce city in Missouri in 1901.
Latin American countries, particularly Brazil, are notorious for lynching known as “justicia popular”, but there is no reliable statistics. Lynching is common where crime rates are high. In Nigeria, lynching is referred to as “jungle justice”. In South Africa, it is part of racism. In the era of apartheid, whipping of offenders and opponents was common in the 1980s. Prosecutions are found difficult and few cases get resolved through courts.
There is a view that the principal reason for large-scale lynching is the failure of authorities to deliver justice resulting in loss of public faith in the police. Native justice system is still popular in some States to deal with minor crimes.
This crime of murder in brutal manner is invariably associated with group prejudices, ethnic enmities, and religious intolerance. It is basically a law and order problem. Suitable penal provisions in relation to the severity of execution of the offence and effective justice system must be available.
The efficacy of a new and special law is doubtful to deal with people, who do not hesitate to violate or enforce law and justice directly. It is an unnecessary addition that cannot work wonders, where trust in law and justice and cordial social relationships are missing.—INFA