Published : July 20, 2019 07:00 IST

A protest against lynchings, at the historical Iqbal Maidan after the Friday namaz in Bhopal on June 28. Photo: A.M. Faruqui

Madhya Pradesh proposes changes to the law against cow slaughter in an attempt to stop lynching, but sections of the State’s ruling Congress feel that its provisions are too soft.

Madhya Pradesh is on its way to becoming the first State in India to introduce a law against lynching. The Cabinet, led by Chief Minister Kamal Nath, has proposed an amendment to the existing law against cow slaughter to deal with the recent spike in lynchings. The amendment, if ratified by the State’s Assembly, will equip the existing law with provisions to combat and contain mob violence. These include a jail term of six months to three years, according to sources in the Madhya Pradesh government. The legislation is likely to be tabled in the ongoing monsoon session of the Assembly, which started on July 8.

There have been 128 cases of mob violence since 2011, leaving 47 dead and 305 severely injured. According to the findings of IndiaSpend, a non-profit organisation that analyses the country’s policy decisions, 97 per cent of the violence over bovine issues took place after the National Democratic Alliance led by Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014; 32 of 63 cases took place in States ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In 2019, there have been five lynchings so far. The lynchings, which more often than not target religious and caste minorities, appear all the more grave amid the government’s evident lack of intent to end the perpetrators’ sense of impunity. The opposition, too, has not shown the political will to resist the trend or to talk about it with the seriousness it deserves. BJP lawmakers have repeatedly issued statements virtually endorsing the emerging culture of cow vigilantism, with little or no condemnation of the Hindu right wing’s demonising of minorities and the way false allegations of cow smuggling and slaughter are used to trigger an organised backlash.

In June 2018, four suspects were arrested in Godda district of Jharkhand after the lynching of two Muslim men. The BJP MP from Godda, Nishikant Dubey, vowed to provide legal aid to the suspects. “To people who can’t fight their case, the government provides legal aid. And since I am their MP, I, in my capacity, will take care of every single expense that they will incur in fighting their case from the lower court to the Supreme Court,” he was quoted by a news channel as saying. The following month, Union Minister Jayant Sinha met and garlanded eight men who had been convicted by a trial court in the lynching of a Muslim man, Alimuddin Ansari, in Ramgarh, Jharkhand, and were released on bail by the High Court.

National Security Act invoked

The Congress has been more preoccupied with its own electoral prospects than with resisting this dangerous trend. Its opposition to Hindu right-wing forces has been muted. Ahead of the general election, it signalled that it was second to none when it came to enforcing the ban on cow slaughter. In February, the Madhya Pradesh government decided to invoke the National Security Act against three men accused of killing a cow at Khandwa.

In July 2018, the Supreme Court issued a strong condemnation of the rise in vigilantism in India. A bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra described such incidents as “horrendous acts of mobocracy” and directed Parliament to enact a new law with provisions for deterrent punishment for offenders. In September 2018, the court sought reports from several States indicating whether they had complied with its verdict. The apex court also instructed the Centre to run an awareness campaign on television, radio and electronic and print media against lynching and cow vigilantism and subsequently questioned the government on the progress made on that front.

But the violence continued unabated. On June 18, three weeks after Modi returned to power with an even more resounding mandate than the one in 2014, a 24-year-old man, Tabrez Ansari, was tied to a pole and thrashed with sticks by a mob in Jharkhand’s Seraikela Kharsawan district. He later died of his injuries. Reports of Muslim men being forced to chant Jai Shri Ram and being beaten up for their refusal to do so have littered newspaper pages and the social media in the past few months.

This is the context of the proposed amendment in Madhya Pradesh. However, sources told Frontline that there were murmurs within the State Congress over the “mildness of the provision”. The punishment of six months to three years for participating in mob hate crimes was not enough to deter the vigilantes, said a source in the State Congress. Besides, there was no effort to fast-track trials in such cases. The proposed amendment was not enough to reassure the State’s minorities and would only backfire on the Congress, the source said.

Kamal Nath was reportedly questioned on the utility of the latest exercise in a recent meeting with some party legislators. “Several legislators told the Chief Minister that they were disappointed with the proposed amendment, which, in their mind, would do little to contain mob violence. They told him that only a stringent law with provisions of life imprisonment could abate the rising graph of such crimes across the country. Arif Masood, MLA from Bhopal Madhya constituency, was vocal about it. The Chief Minister listened to everyone patiently but did not make any comment,” said a source in the State government.

Demands in Parliament

The demand for a law against lynching came up in the Rajya Sabha in July 2018. Lok Sabha MPs demanded that such killings be probed by a Supreme Court judge. Mallikarjun Kharge, the then leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, pointed out that lynchings had assumed ominous dimensions. Rajnath Singh, who was Home Minister then, said in response to opposition questions that the government had set up a high-level panel headed by Union Home Secretary Rajiv Gauba to formulate appropriate measures to deal with lynchings.

A year has passed but not much has happened.

Manipur is the only State so far to come up with some path-breaking initiatives. It has passed a law against lynching that covers many forms of hate crimes: “any act or series of acts of violence or aiding, abetting such act/acts thereof, whether spontaneous or planned, by a mob on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, language, dietary practices, sexual orientation, political affiliation, ethnicity or any other related grounds”. This law also penalises dereliction of duty by public officials who fail to protect vulnerable sections. It lays down that if “any police officer directly in charge of maintaining law and order in an area, omits to exercise lawful authority vested in them under the law, without reasonable cause, and thereby fails to prevent lynching shall be guilty of dereliction of duty” and will be liable “to punishment of imprisonment of one year, which may extend to three years, and with fine that may extend to fifty thousand rupees”.

Jharkhand, which has attracted notoriety with a spate of lynchings, is yet to come out with a separate law to deal with the crime. When this reporter asked Ajay Kumar, media adviser to Chief Minister Raghubar Das, whether any law against lynching was being considered, he directed the question to Home Secretary Sukhdev Singh. He himself would only say that an amendment had been made to an existing law to cover mob violence. Sukhdev Singh was unavailable for comment.

Maharashtra, where five persons were lynched in Dhule district in July 2018, has cleared the decks for compensating families of lynching victims to the tune of Rs.2,00,000 to Rs.3,00,000 and even Rs.10,00,000 in some cases.

On July 2, there was a massive congregation of members of minority communities at the martyrs’ memorial in Malegoan. In response to a call given by Jamiat Ulema, a non-governmental organisation, around one lakh Muslims accompanied by a large number of people from different social and religious backgrounds gathered at the historic site. This was essentially the first rally to draw attention to the need for a separate law to curb lynchings and ensure meticulous prosecution leading to conviction.

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