What law can be applied when a man, carrying out an occupation his family has done for over 40 years, is surrounded and killed by a lynch mob, and the priority of the police, who arrive on the scene, is to ensure the two cows he was taking home for dairy use are transported elsewhere? The lynching of Rakhbar Khan in Alwar on July 20, 2018 and the seemingly unconcerned response by Rajasthan’s state police, brings yet another test of our criminal justice system, and yes, our very humanity.
Law touches the lives of people in very different ways. For some, the primary worry may be about the obligations imposed by law, others may worry about how it affects their rights. The rich may worry about taxes, the poor on whether they can have access to education and healthcare, or protection from exploitation and cruelty under the law.
A country’s laws are not only inextricably bound with the vastly different lives of all its citizens, they must also be helping to deliver what is, in essence, justice for all. Who makes laws? How are they implemented? What are the inclusions and exclusions that get reinforced by the interpretation of a law in courts? All these are questions that underline the complex relationship between a society and its laws.
The recent remarks of the Supreme Court, asking for Parliament to consider a law against lynching in the wake of many horrifying incidents of mob violence leading to deaths in the first seven months of 2018 alone, have brought an urgency to the question of whether we have strong laws that can act as deterrents for the hate crimes we now see daily. The last time we had a national uproar for a new law, it was after the December 2012 Nirbhaya rape case. This time, the rate at which lynchings are making the headlines, even the due process that was followed in the passing of The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013 seems a luxury.
After all, The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, which led to amendments in both, the Indian Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code, and considerably expanded the scope of anti-rape laws that had existed earlier, came after many peaceful public demonstrations showing the mood of the nation. Based on the recommendations of the committee headed by Justice Verma that received more than 20,000 inputs from the public and the legal fraternity, it addressed offences like stalking, voyeurism and sexual harassment in much more detail, and brought sexual assault alongside rape.
Interestingly, Justice J S Verma, when submitting his committee’s report, had identified the “failure of governance” as a root cause of sexual crime. Since that report was submitted and the law based on it was passed, India has seen a manifold increase in such crimes, so much so that we have begun to be classed as the world’s most dangerous country for women by an international survey (Thomson Reuters Foundation) that had, four years ago, placed India fourth. It would appear that now, with better anti-rape laws, we have overtaken Syria and Afghanistan in terms of the threats faced by women.
In envisioning a new law against lynching, we therefore have to ask today whether such a law is even possible in the present environment. We only have to see two reactions to this latest lynching in Alwar from those whom reporters routinely label “lawmakers” in their articles. The day after the lynching, Union Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal declared that such lynching incidents were happening to defame the PM and the BJP in the run up to the 2019 elections, and as the PM gained in popularity, more such incidents could be expected. BJP MLA from Ramgarh, Gyan Dev Ahuja was quick to declare immediately after the incident that Rakhbar, or Akbar, was a cow smuggler. Earlier, in December 2017, he was reported to have told journalists that those who engaged in cow smuggling would be killed. If we add these two examples to the earlier instances already cited many times in the news of Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha garlanding convicted members of a lynch mob, and Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma draping the body of a member of the Dadri lynch mob that had killed Mohammed Akhlaq with the tricolour, we can see very clearly where the sympathies of these “lawmakers” reside.
And yes, their sympathy, or whatever label can be applied to this emotion, is overwhelmingly in favour of the lynch mob members, the perpetrators, not the victims. What kind of anti-lynching law can we thus expect these “lawmakers” to usher in? Even the Supreme Court will have to pause and consider this in today’s context.
In addition, further along the continuum that defines a society’s relationship with its laws, we also have to consider the efforts and initiatives that support the aims a law is meant to achieve. India’s NGO sector becomes a football in political terms when governments change and begin to attack the funding and resource for groups working in the social sector. But without citizens coming together, with information and intent, to educate, rehabilitate, heal and help, how will society change for the better? We can already see this in the post-Nirbhaya law rise in gang rapes and child rapes. There is much more to be addressed around increased sexual crimes, or mob lynching and violence, than merely putting perpetrators in prison.
For instance, in the Nirbhaya case itself, we had the juvenile. This youth was painted by Subramaniam Swamy as a Muslim who was befriending a Kashmiri terrorist in detention. The victim Nirbhaya’s mother herself characterised him as the most brutal. But seen from a mature long- term perspective that aims at our social well-being in a more just and equitable frame, the juvenile actually represented an opportunity for us to understand the conditions faced by him in his own life to bring him to such an act. As a society, if we used that understanding to provide him, and others like him, with the support needed to stay away from such a heinous crime, we may have been able to make the Nirbhaya case a faint and distant memory. But have we lost forever the ability to even think in such terms? Has our approach towards justice stopped taking any other factor into account except the need to immediately “Maaro saale ko!”, the rallying cry of lynch mobs?
With “lawmakers” such as the ones described above, lynching has emerged as another dark area representing the failure of governance that Justice Verma had alluded to. We cannot be disinterested bystanders at such a time in our history. We cannot assume that making laws that strike fear will save us all from further collapse. If we want to continue to smile at strangers, or exchange kind words with children without fear of being killed, we will need a people’s movement to counter the mobs.