IN a landmark judgement on July 17, the Supreme Court has ruled that mobocracy cannot be allowed to become the “new normal”. The judgement came at a time when incidents of widespread brutalities against dalits, adivasis and minorities were being committed by well-organised vigilante groups in different parts of India. Coming down strongly on recurring incidents of mob lynching, the Supreme Court directed that the central government should bring a separate law to deal with such incidents and parliament should pass it. The court in unequivocal terms said, “This is necessary to instill fear in the offenders and to preserve rule of law in a pluralistic society as India is.” The court said that it is shocking that such incidents are taking place and no timely and stringent steps are taken by law enforcement authorities. It, therefore, directed the central and state governments to discharge their constitutional duty of maintaining law and order, ensuring peace and protecting secular ethos of the country. Such atrocities, mostly on the pretext of protecting cows, began after the BJP government headed by Narendra Modi assumed office in May 2014. And these were mostly reported from BJP-ruled states.
Pointing to the activities of vigilante groups, the three-judge bench comprising Chief Justice Dipak Misra and justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud observed that “the so-called vigilante groups could only report a crime and would be sternly punished if they took law into their hands”. The court then set out guidelines for compensation, setting up of fast-track courts and directed action against officials failing to discharge their duties.
Writing the judgment for the bench, Chief Justice Misra said, “It is axiomatic that it is the duty of the state to ensure that the machinery of law and order functions efficiently and effectively in maintaining peace so as to preserve our quintessential secular ethos and pluralistic social fabric in a democratic setup governed by rule of law.” The judgement then says, “The exigencies of the situation created by incidents of mob lynching require us to sound a clarion call for earnest action to strengthen our inclusive and all-embracing social order which would, in turn, reaffirm the constitutional faith in the people. We expect nothing more and nothing less.” The court stated that trials in cases of lynching and mob killing should be conducted by designated courts or fast-track courts on a day-to-day basis and the proceedings be concluded within six months. This should include all pending proceedings in such cases as well.
Going further, the bench observed that trial courts should set stern examples in cases of mob violence and lynching. On conviction of accused persons, the trial courts must ordinarily award maximum sentence under various offences as laid down under the Indian Penal Code. The apex court also said that the trial courts and authorities should provide protection to witnesses and conceal their identities. The Supreme Court has said that authorities and police officers failing to comply with the guidelines outlined in the judgement would be held guilty of an act of deliberate negligence and/or misconduct for which appropriate action must be taken against him/her.
Secular, democratic and left parties, as well as the media, have welcomed the judgement. But, neither the BJP nor Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said anything about it. The Times of India, in an editorial, said that “by denouncing the new wave of mobocracy in the strongest possible terms, the Supreme Court has lived up to its reputation as the last resort for citizens when fundamental rights are threatened”. The court’s activist stance is in stark contrast to the silence of top political functionaries at the central and state levels.
India stood witness to BJP leader and union minister Jayant Sinha felicitating 10 lynching convicts when they came out of jail on bail. This was followed by his ministerial colleague in Bihar, Giriraj Singh, expressing solidarity with attackers arrested for inciting communal tension. What we see surprisingly is that despite ministers supporting violence, there is no word against such provocative statements and brutalities coming out from Prime Minister Narendra Modi or BJP president Amit Shah or from RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat. There was no utterance whatsoever against these atrocities in the Prime Minister’s reply to the no-confidence motion in parliament.
That is why just four days after the Supreme Court judgement and two days after Narendra Modi winning the no-confidence motion in Parliament, a lynch mob killed a man from Haryana’s Mewat district, Rakbar Khan, in Rajasthan on July 21. The lynch mob comprised 8 to 10 cow vigilantes. The mobsters alleged that Rakbar Khan was a cow smuggler. Following this attack, junior home minister Arjun Ram Meghwal said, “Such lynching cases will go on rising, as Prime Minister Modi’s popularity goes on increasing.” This reveals BJP-led central and state governments’ patronage for such acts of cruelty.
In April last year, Mewat dairy farmer Pehlu Khan was killed in a similar way in Alwar district in Rajasthan. Within a period of one-year-and-three-months since April 2017, Rajasthan has witnessed three such mob killings by cow vigilantes. The second victim was 35-year-old Ummar Khan who was killed on November 9, 2017. The protective stand taken by the union and state governments has been exposed in several such cases. Instead of sternly telling their followers not to commit such heinous crimes, Sangh Parivaar leaders simply wash away their responsibilities by pointing out that law and order problems are of the states.
Here it becomes necessary to mention the attack by BJP youth cadres on noted social activist Swami Agnivesh in Jharkhand on July 17. The attack took place the day the Supreme Court judgement against mobocracy was pronounced. Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) and Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP) activists in Pakur in Jharkhand carried out the attack despite Swami Agnivesh having informed the state government and its police department of his programme organised by a tribal group. Following this attack, a minister made shocking remarks that “Swami Agnivesh is a cheat and a foreign agent.”
Another shocking news that came a day later was the appointment of a lawyer for the accused in the Kathua rape-and-murder case as additional advocate general by the governor of Jammu and Kashmir. BJP ministers in the then Mehbooba Mufti-led government and some right-wing people and lawyers had taken out a procession in solidarity with those accused of rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua.
The perception that there is patronage of the BJP-ruled central and state governments for these heinous crimes has been strengthened by remarks of ruling party leaders. A Times of India report begins thus: “The MLA is with us: nobody can do anything to us. Put him (Rakbar Khan) on fire. It was with such words that the ‘gau rakshaks’ were lynching Rakbar Khan in Rajasthan. Here, the MLA from this area is none other than BJP’s Gyandev Ahuja. The reports further revealed that the police who came to the scene of crime were keen to take the two cows to the cowshed first and not the victim to the hospital.
It is not that mob killings do not take place in the world. Even in Kerala, a politically conscious state, two such cases happened in the recent past. One of the victims was Madhu, an Adivasi. The other victim was a migrant worker from West Bengal. Both were suspected to have committed theft. But unlike in other states, the police took immediate action in both these cases. In other states, such killings bear the shadow of ethnic, racial, religious and communal character. These types of mob killings began in India after the BJP came to power at the Centre and in several states. The number is nearing 50. Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh are the lead states in this heinous crime. The first of such killings took place in Dadri near Noida in Uttar Pradesh. Mohammed Akhlaq was killed on the suspicion of eating beef. Union minister Mahesh Sharma, who is the MP from the area, justified the cruelty in the name of protection of cow.
The situation in Gujarat is shocking. According to a report by the Frontline magazine, a total of 20 cases of mob lynching took place in the state when Narendra Modi was the chief minister. Even after the Supreme Court order, two cases of mob killings were reported – of 22-year-old Ajmel Vahomiya, a tribal in Dahod district, and 18-year-old Sanjay Makwana, a Dalit in Ahmedabad.
As such killings continue even after the Supreme Court directive, the silence of the prime minister and senior BJP leaders is a telling comment on the state of affairs.