Lynching is not new to India and it continues as a practice, feeding off the lacunae that exist in the current law and order framework. Women are lynched by groups of people who believe they are witches, widows and childless mothers are lynched by family members, people belonging to the marginalised sections of society are lynched by privileged classes, ethnic groups from certain areas of mainland India are lynched, policemen are lynched, dairy farmers are lynched. Attacks may be motivated by a desire to settle personal scores, but perpetrators prefer to organise a mob to execute the assault. The mob, after all, creates a collective shield for the actual perpetrator, and due to the involvement of multiple hands, no single reason can be attributed.
Who lynches and who is lynched?
In a recent debate on national television, one of the panellists mentioned "selective outrage" and questioned the very idea of MASUKA—Manav Suraksha Kanoon, an all-inclusive law, applicable to anyone in India. Unfortunately, there is little data with the government agencies in the public space to validate or refute the argument on selective cognizance in a statistically significant way. Currently, lynching is being reported in cases of theft, witchcraft, child abduction and cow protection. As 2017 is on its way to become the bloodiest year related to cow violence (32 of 63 attacks since 2011, were reported in 2017), it would be an obvious transgression if we do not address violence related to lynching urgently.
Society as well as the incumbent government need to appreciate that lynching is very different from a murder or an attack on life.
Society, as well as the incumbent government, need to appreciate that lynching is very different from a murder or an attack on life. There is a certain euphoria generated by lynching, which has the potential to translate into a riot-like situation. Cases of lynching are theatrical, generate public involvement, and further embolden the audience. While prominent instances of lynching do bear religious and communal hues, a larger data set does not vindicate the trend.
- The alleged involvement of government servants in the brutal murder of an activist called Zafar at Pratapgarh, Rajasthan, is a national embarrassment. He was apparently trying to prevent municipal officials from photographing women defecating in the open.
- A policeman was lynched in Jammu and Kashmir.
- In Delhi, an autorickshaw driver named Ravindra was brutally lynched to death when he stopped a group of people from urinating in public. Ravindra was a fan of Narendra Modi's Swachh Bharat campaign.
Challenges in collecting data on lynching
In a welcome announcement, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) announced its plan to collect data specific to incidents of lynching across the nation. Considering data is the cornerstone to policy formulation, it is heartening to see the NCRB take a progressive decision. However, in the current framework, this will be an arduous process.
The biggest challenge that the NCRB will face is that there is no definition of lynching provided under any law in India. "Rioting" is the closest but it is nowhere near close enough. The question that arises is that in the absence of any concrete definition of lynching how will the NCRB collect the data?
In the absence of any specific provision for lynching, the task of creating a national database for such incidents is formidable if not impossible.
At present, the NCRB collects data from different state and district crime records bureaus and compiles them to create a national database. The said data is categorised on the basis of the provisions of the Indian Penal Code under which the FIR has been registered. But in the absence of any specific provision for lynching, the task of creating a national database for such incidents is formidable if not impossible. Let us take the case of the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi. The FIR contained charges under Sections 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting with deadly weapon), 149 (unlawful assembly), 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder), 458 (house-breaking), and 504 (intentional insult with intent to breach of the peace) of the Indian Penal Code. So, in such case, the NCRB data will reflect this incident under the heading of rioting or unlawful assembly and not lynching.
The other problem that the NCRB would face is under- reporting of crime data by various states.
The way forward
The first step that needs to be taken is passing a special legislation against lynching. Some social activists have come forward and have drafted a model law known as MASUKA. This law among other provisions specifically defines lynching. Once this law is passed, and lynching is given its due space in the framework, it will be easier for the NCRB to collect data based upon the provisions of the said law.
Secondly, there needs to be a concerted effort to ensure that a lynching incident which did not result in the death of the victim is still charged under lynching, and not under ancillary headings like rioting or a minor scuffle. Even after MASUKA is embraced by the land, NCRB will be faced with challenges where lynching incidents are booked under witchcraft, cow protection, minor scuffle etc. NCRB will need to graduate from its current role of being a record-keeping agency, to being a repository of processed information.
We hope the NCRB will be able to successfully enable a scientific approach to recording data on lynching, as opposed to the current approach of selectiveness and convenience.
Thirdly, the NCRB will need to work with data available in the public space and that provided by the state and district crime records bureaus. As perpetrators resort to lynching as a way to conceal their identity in the garb of a mob, NCRB will need to ensure all crime reporting is replete. Of late, videos and photographs have aided incident reporting. When Rajkumar, a 25-year-old boy was lynched in Churu, Rajasthan, it was the grisly video that triggered the local police to reach out to his family. NCRB will need to ensure that all incidents that surface in the public space are adequately tested and treated by the respective local authorities.
There is no room for debate that data on lynching incidents needs to be recorded and tracked. The NCRB initiative is a progressive step in the direction, directly endorsing a major demand of MASUKA. With well-intentioned support from the state and the central machinery, we hope the NCRB will be able to successfully enable a scientific approach to recording data on lynching, as opposed to the current approach of selectiveness and convenience.