Is there an end in sight?
In the newest case of two more people being lynched in West Bengal's Coochbehar district on the suspicion of cattle theft, it comes to highlight yet again the rogue phenomenon of mob lynching in India is far from gone in spite of legislative interventions. In the said incident, Rabiul Islam and Prakash Das were carrying two cows in a van when they were stopped and questioned by the locals in Mathabanga area and were eventually beaten up. They succumbed to their injuries. Police says that a dozen men have been arrested in this case but it is established yet again that the fear of law is a non-existent entity due to which no effective check has been put in place for expected mob behaviour at unexpected times. In a slew of directions that the Supreme Court had issued in July 2018 to curb offences like mob violence and vigilantism in the name of cow protection, the Centre appeared unlikely to enact a separate law to deal with mob lynching. The court had noted that "Horrendous acts of mobocracy cannot be allowed to become a new norm and has to be curbed with iron hands". The Central government was assertive that the existing suffice to deal with cases of lynching, only the enforcement was lacking. This precisely is the purpose of a deterrent law—to keep people from indulging in such anti-social activities and threaten them for the consequences of doing so. Extracting provisions of existing laws do not serve this purpose per se and the need for litigation to send out a loud and clear message that mob violence and vigilantism will not be the order of society. The Centre said that following up on the July 2018 Supreme Court judgment, it has issued advisories to states to take requisite steps to curb incidents of mob lynching and also claimed that it has done its share to raise public awareness to curb the menace of mob lynching through audio-visual media besides sensitising service providers to take steps to check the spread of false news and rumours and thus prevent violence and lynching. There is an urgent need to check the spread of false news and rumours that contribute considerably in inciting mob violence. According to a Supreme Court recommendation, state governments should depute a police officer (at least of the rank of superintendent of police) as a nodal officer in charge of preventing mob violence in each district, in addition to states setting up special task forces to maintain intelligence reports on people who are considered likely to be involved in spreading false news and inciting mob violence.
In a very pertinent query, the Centre was asked for data on the number of deaths due to mob lynching. The response from Ministry of Home Affairs came that "The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) does not maintain data with respect to mob lynching. However, the Ministry of Home Affairs have issued advisories to States and UTs, from time to time, to maintain law and order and ensure that any person who takes law into his/her hand is punished promptly as per law." Not maintaining official records of a rampant social disorder of the grave nature of mob violence is reflective of laxity on part of the state whereby this kind of rogue occurrences are not considered as grave as they really are. There are of course speculations in plenty that such a malpractice may be pre-meditated and directed against people of certain communities. The Centre, on its part, has issued guidelines to states to curb mob lynchings. The Union government formally informed the Lok Sabha that it had issued advisories to state governments and Union Territory administrations last year to take measures to curb incidents of mob lynching. The effect, however, has been absent. Mob outrage at the slightest provocation is not just a menace but threatens to fast become a social evil if not checked in time. Acknowledging that there is a need for civil society to come together to counter this notorious phenomenon, the West Bengal government has exemplarily made lynching a punishable offence when the state Assembly passed the West Bengal (Prevention of Lynching) Bill, 2019. The current status of this bill is that it awaits the Governor's assent. There is no doubt that legislation is the very first step to curb this increasing menace; putting a law in place by way of presenting a deterrent sends out a message for accountability for one's acts, but to establish a strong deterrent like death penalty for apparently randomly provoked acts of mob lynching is a loud and clear announcement for accountability and consequences of one's doings. West Bengal state's decision to inflict life imprisonment on those injuring a person and capital punishment for causing death in a lynching incident is more requisite now than ever. Such a decision came legitimately in the wake of a series of lynching cases that were reported in Kolkata and other districts in the past months and rumours of child-lifters being rife in different areas, particularly in North Bengal. Akin to the Rajasthan Protection from Lynching Bill, 2019, the draft The West Bengal (Prevention of Lynching) Bill, 2019, proposed life imprisonment and a fine of Rs 5 lakh as the maximum punishment for someone whose act is found to cause death of a person. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said that the state government had to introduce the Bill because the Centre had not formulated a law against lynchings. "Lynching is a social evil and all of us have to come together to fight against it," she said while tabling the draft law in the House. "The Supreme Court has given direction to take action against lynching. We need to raise awareness against the incident of lynchings." West Bengal has commendably taken adequate steps to curb this menace but the Central government must step up address this national concern in a more emphatic manner.