On July 17, the Supreme Court asked Parliament to consider enacting a law to deal with vigilantism. A bench led by Chief Justice Dipak Misra condemned the spate of lynchings India has witnessed in recent years and reminded that “no citizen can take law into his hands nor become law unto himself”. A stringent law against vigilantism, the bench said, will instill “a sense of fear” among people “who involve themselves in such kinds of activities”.
Speaking in the Rajya Sabha the following day, Minister of State for Home Affairs Hansraj Ahir said state governments could deal with such offences under existing laws. His ministry has also issued advisories to all states and Union Territories, he added, to “maintain law and order and ensure any person who takes law into his or her own hand is punished promptly as per law”.
The central government, though, does not maintain data on lynchings. “The National Crime Records Bureau does not maintain data specifically on lynchings,” the minister said.
Senior lawyers are also of the opinion that existing laws are sufficient to tackle mob violence. Merely enacting a new law is unlikely to make much difference, they added.
Vrinda Grover, a senior lawyer who is lending legal support to the survivor of the Hapur lynching, said the current laws against murder and unlawful assembly are adequate enough “to investigate, prosecute and punish those who lynch”. “It is an unlawful assembly that attempts to murder,” she explained. “The law recognises common intention, common object, abetment, incitement of offence and intentionally provoking a riot.”
The problem is not the absence of the law but how the law is employed, she said. “Who will investigate the crime? How will we ensure punishment?” she added. “We are in the middle of an institutional crisis because there is institutional bias. The situation is very grim.”
Grover alleged there is an “anti-Muslim bias that manifests itself in the investigation”.
Her view is shared by senior advocate Colin Gonsalves. “Provisions in the criminal laws are very comprehensive and good,” he said. “They just need implementation.”
Gonsalves said he does not know of any country which has a separate law against lynchings and he does not see India making one either. The Supreme Court’s order, however, is “a very good first step in trying to intervene and catch the culprits”, he added.
Prashant Bhushan, lawyer and activist, said the deficiency is not so much in the law as in law enforcement. “The enforcement machinery is promoting violence,” he said. “Where there is willful inaction…it should be punished. The police should punish those who spread propaganda and fake news. The ring leader in this case should receive life imprisonment and the ones who forward the news should receive five years of jail.”
If at all a separate legal framework is brought in to deal with lynchings, Bhushan suggested, its implementation should be overseen by an independent body. “When the law enforcement machinery is under the government, there is a need to create independent bodies [for oversight],” he said. “So this can come under the National Human Rights Commission.”
In its order, the bench also proposed a slew of measures to curb mob violence. They include special courts to try such cases within six months and, as far as possible, hand down the maximum punishment allowed to the culprits; a compensatory scheme for the victims or their kin; stringent disciplinary action beyond what is prescribed in the service rules against officials who fail to deal with vigilantism properly.
Grover called it as a “strong order” and suggested that its key portions be translated in different India languages and read out to the public as “it reasserts the right to life and the rule of law”.