On Tuesday, the media reported that the Jharkhand police has dropped charges of murder in the lynching of 22-year-old Tabrez Ansari, who was attacked by a mob that accused him of theft in Saraikela-Kharsawan in June. As he was tied to a pole and beaten, Ansari was forced by the mob to chant “Jai Shri Ram”.

The case demonstrates a deliberate mishandling by the police at every stage. Just after the attack, rather than detaining members of the the mob that assaulted Ansari, the police filed a case of theft against the victim and sent him to judicial custody. Four days later, the police took him to the hospital, where he was declared dead.

Initially, doctors who performed the autopsy told the media that the death was in all probability caused by “brain haemorrhage triggered by a head injury”. However, the medical board reserved the report for a while. On Tuesday, media reports said that the final post-mortem report had attributed his death to cardiac arrest not related to the injuries from the attack.

The police had initially filed a case of murder under Indian Penal Code Section 302 against several accused. But it used the final autopsy report to drop the murder sections in the chargesheet and have converted the case into one of culpable homicide not amounting to murder under Section 304.

The police explained that is that there was no intent on part of the mob to kill Ansari, a requirement for establishing charges under Section 302. In addition, the fact that the autopsy report failed to establish a link between the attack and the death weakened the murder case, they said.

On the face of it, this seems like a genuine attempt by the police to ensure better prosecution by filing charges under the relevant sections of law. But the sequence of events – the police instituting a case against Ansari instead of the mob and the medical board reserving the post-mortem report – have led some to ask whether this is a deliberate attempt to derail the prosecution, given its communal hue.

There are some curious elements in the police claims. One of the mitigating circumstances for people accused of murder is whether they were provoked to commit violence. For the authorities to convert a mob-lynching case into one under Section 304 is to tacitly accept the claim that the mob was provoked by the victim.

Besides, since the police have claimed that the mob lacked intent to kill Anshari and that the injuries they caused him did not lead to this death, even a case under Section 304 would take a lot of effort to prosecute. This new police position also reduces the punishment members of the mob would receive if they are convicted. For murder, there is possibility they could face the death sentence or get life imprisonment. But part two of Section 304, which is what will probably apply to the case with the change in the police position, reduces the maximum punishment for convicts to 10 years in prison.

With this change, the police has gnored the blatant communal circumstances of the attack, when Ansari was forced to chant religious-political slogans.

In the past, the Supreme Court had given state governments a set of guidelines in dealing with such incidents, including providing a speedy trial. But when the police itself engages in cover-ups, such guidelines lose their meaning.

States like Manipur have already enacted a strict anti-lynching law that forestalls attempts to accuse the victims of provocation. It has also put in place sections that make it essential for officials to prosecute cases properly, failing which punitive action could be taken against them. The Ansari case underscores the need for a strong anti-lynching law across the country.