India, the world's largest democracy which is preparing for its 72nd Independence Day, has the ignominy of being perceived as a nation where the sanctity of law is abysmally poor and selective. The State is either unwilling or unable to apply the law to ensure the safety of all its citizens - irrespective of religion, caste or creed - in a fair, transparent and equitable manner.
In a scathing indictment, former Chief Justice of India TS Thakur asked a very pertinent question in the capital that should shame those governing and administering India, He enquired : “When we see day in and day out, mobs lynching people, it’s a complete failure of rule of law. If a mob can take the law into its hands and administer summary justice, what kind of rule of law is this?” Specific to the growing incidence of lynching by mobs, Justice Thakur noted that this is a “complete failure of the principle of rule of law.”
The Supreme Court passed a stern order (July 17) condemning the growing incidence of lynching across the country that it described as "horrendous acts of mobocracy" and advised Parliament to enact new legislation to deal with this complex internal security challenge. Yet another Indian citizen was beaten to death on July 20 in Alwar, Rajasthan. The crime? Suspicion that the victim and his companion were guilty of cow smuggling. And the name of the victim? Akbar Khan, a 28-old-resident of a neighboring village in Haryana.
This is not the first such case of a mob taking the law into its own hands and beef-lynching, that is the murderous attack on those citizens engaged in legitimate business activities involving the sale and slaughter of cattle, particularly cows, has been on the increase over the last four years. This period is co-terminus with the BJP-led Modi government.
The Rajasthan government has promised to take strict action in the Akbar Khan case but this means little.It may be recalled that in April 2017 there was a similar case in Alwar, when another victim, Pehlu Khan, was lynched by a mob on identical allegations and justice is yet to be done. In an ironical but familiar pattern; it is the victim’s family that is running from pillar to post in dire penury – for the bread-winner has been killed – and the perpetrators of these crimes remain free. The fact that almost all the targets in such mob-led violence are Muslim citizens of India has its own sub-text.
The mobocracy that the Supreme Court deplored was also evident in allegations of child-kidnapping (often aggravated by social media) and many innocents have been killed or grievously injured. That the mob does not discriminate among those it targets can be seen in two other high-profile attacks. One mob attacked the office of Shashi Tharoor, a sitting MP in Thiruvanathapuram, Kerala and the second was a physical assault against political veteran and social activist Swami Agnivesh in Jharkhand. In both cases, the trigger was the perceived insult to the Hindu religion and local BJP / Hindutva cadres claimed responsibility and, to compound the crime, threatened to repeat the ‘punishment’ if there was a similar transgression.
Mob violence culminating in targeted killing is not new to post-1947 India and the political linkage with communal /sectarian overtones has been documented by academics and activists. The more vividly recalled incidents of such seemingly spontaneous mass killings with a subterranean political direction include the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the 2002 Godhra killings that targeted the local Muslim population. In both cases the state abdicated from its primary duty (what former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s referred to as ‘rajdharma’) of protecting the citizen and the local police was either unable or unwilling to enforce the law. The reprehensible but often subdued charge is that some elements of the state tacitly colluded with and encouraged the perpetrators of these dastardly killings.
What is disturbing and has very serious implications for the internal security fabric in the current times is a corrosive socio-political ecosystem that is nurturing intolerance and hate by stoking religious sentiment. This erupts as sudden yet covertly organized violence which intimidates the target and, more often than not, law enforcement agencies turn a blind eye. This reticence on the part of the police is shaped by an unstated political orientation that cynically manipulates majoritarian sentiment.
The Supreme Court directive to enact fresh legislation that will instil ‘fear’ in the heart of the mobster and prevent such acts of intimidation and violence leading to lynching is well-meaning but is unlikely to be effective. Existing laws are adequate to deal with hate speech and acts of public disturbance or violence – but only if the local police act with alacrity and in a fair and firm manner where all citizens are deemed equal. However political compulsions and electoral considerations have distorted this basic constitutional provision, which in turn allows the culture of impunity to grow in an alarming manner.
The index of internal security in a democracy stems from the credibility of law enforcement, compliance by civil society and institutional integrity that ensures speedy rendering of justice to the victim. Today in India these elements are conspicuous by their absence and criminality and impunity are spreading. The spectrum of crime is growing and not confined to mobocracy alone. Sexual violence against vulnerable children and women has become rampant. The kind of sexual depravity that is reported in the media on a daily basis reflects a dangerous regression in moral values and loss of basic humanism. This again is not due to an absence of law or inadequacy in existing provisions.
The Supreme Court of India cautions the executive about mobocracy and lynching on July 17. Three days later Akbar Khan is lynched. The Indian Parliament meets on the same day and, alas, while sharp and venomous political barbs are exchanged between the BJP and the Congress, lynching in particular and internal security in general are brushed aside as ‘state’ subjects.
This indifference to the internal security fabric of the country and deliberately creating a socio-political ecosystem that stokes hatred and intolerance is a recipe for disaster. Absent political will and resolve, no amount of fresh legislation will reduce the incidence of mobocracy and lynching.
One recalls a conversation with the late Nirmal Mukherjee, former cabinet secretary, at a closed-door internal security conference. He asserted that an upright district administration (comprising the collector, district magistrate and superintendent of police) had enough legal provisions under the Indian Penal Code to maintain law and order in an effective manner. He added that where fidelity to constitutional responsibility is compromised no amount of legislation will help.
The onus to restore India’s internal security to an optimum level lies with Parliament. The Supreme Court has done its duty and a former chief justice has shown the Indian State its ugly face in the mirror.
(The author is Director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)