Lynchings Highlight a Systemic Crisis. A Bureaucratic Solution Won't Fix It

Missing from the government's plan to counter mob violence is any actual consultation that can make a difference.

To tackle mob lynchings, the government has set up two ‘high-level committees’. The first committee, under the Union home secretary and comprising four other secretaries, will ‘deliberate on the matter and make recommendations’. This committee will in four weeks submit its recommendations to a group of ministers headed by the Union home minister, Rajnath Singh. This group of ministers will then submit its recommendations to the prime minister.

This exercise, wherein a high-level committee of civil servants will report to a higher-level committee of ministers, which will in turn report to the highest level, that is the prime minister, is the Union government’s official response to the crisis of lawlessness that is taking over this country. Missing from this entire undertaking is any actual consultation that can lead to solutions. Also lacking is an awareness of the fact that what the spate of mob lynchings reveals is a fundamental crisis of politics facing the republic.

The Union home minister went on the record last week to state that lynching is an issue to be dealt with by the states. The press release announcing the ‘high-level committee’ takes pains to point out that policing and public order are state subjects under the constitution. It also points out that the Central government has till date issued at least three advisories to the states to take action against mob lynching. The latest one seems to be a response to the recent Supreme Court judgment pronouncing that mob lynching is unacceptable and that the onus is on the state and Central government to prevent it from happening. These initiatives seem to be aimed more at avoiding possible contempt proceedings before the Supreme Court rather than achieving the stated goal, that is to stop rampant mob violence.

While the Supreme Court has stated that the Central government should consider bringing in a new law regarding lynching and mob-violence, the Bharatiya Janata Party, as per some media reports, seems to be of the opinion that no such law is required as the existing laws are enough to take care of the problem.

In reality, the current laws are enough to take care of mob lynching. The need for a special law has arisen precisely because political patronage has resulted in little action being taken against the ‘activists’ indulging in cow-related violence. Otherwise, the laws as they stand make every person who has participated in a lynching liable for the offence of murder. Immediate arrest is provided for in the law and bail is not ordinarily given to murder accused. Yet, people are not arrested, bail is granted readily and, as in Pehlu Khan’s case, people named by him in his dying declaration have been let off by the investigating agency itself. Can a high-level committee detoxify the police establishment from a certain ideological bias?

Therefore, this situation has not been birthed by a flaw in our laws, it mirrors a political crisis further exacerbated by a systemic crisis characterising governance in India. It is a political crisis because lynching in the name of cow protection is an avowedly criminal/political project aimed at terrorising the Muslims. At another level, it is a larger systemic crisis because lynching based on rumours of abduction of children shows the desperation of people, who tend to belong to the poorer and more disadvantaged communities, to protect their own – showing a fundamental lack of faith in the police as well as no hope of redressal if the worst comes to pass.

When the problem is both political and systemic, the solution cannot be bureaucratic. Five civil servants running important government departments clearly cannot come up with the required solutions as a part-time committee. As vague as the terms of reference are, there is little hope that the recommendations of this committee will be meaningful in any way. A political response can only be formulated by political leaders, more so by those in government. Fundamental systemic changes are of course going to be much more complex. However, this two-month-long succession of part-time committees is not going to bring that about.

Perhaps one of the most effective responses to this crisis in both its iterations, that is the cow-related lynchings and those related to fears about abduction, would be police reform. The reforms as ordered by the Supreme Court are still lacking in implementation or are being implemented half-heartedly. A police force that is subject to political whims, is understaffed, overworked and poorly trained can neither police the country effectively nor engender the kind of confidence in people that is required. The act of lynching, by its very nature, expresses a rejection of the state, its policies and instrumentalities. What separates the act of lynching from simple murder is the conviction of the killers that they are the punishers and the victim is the deserving recipient of their justice. In the case of killings related to cow protection, the rejection of the state is exacerbated by a sense of immunity and hostility to the very rule of law.

The lynch mob believes that it is doing what needs to be done and is convinced that it will not be punished for its transgressions. Both these beliefs incorporate a presupposition – namely, that the government is ineffective and incapable. This belief is the real crisis that this new culture of lynching presents. Cow protection-related violence will decrease once its patrons become less powerful. Empirical data from IndiaSpend reveals that 98% of all cow related lynchings since 2010 have occurred in the last four years, under this regime, and 86% of the victims have been Muslims. So this is primarily a political problem. The government and its law and order machinery need to become alive to this challenge.

Sarim Naved is a practicing lawyer in Delhi.