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Mobocracy; and the Indian State fails its citizens

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, writes C Uday Bhaskar for South Asia Monitor 

C Uday Bhaskar  Aug 3, 2018
 
 
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 cudaybhaskar@spsindia.in)

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