In quick succession, two persons were lynched in two separate incidents in poll-bound Punjab, allegedly over attempted sacrilege acts. In the first incident, a person was lynched inside the Golden Temple at Amritsar on December 19. The next day, another man was killed by a mob at a gurdwara at Nijampur village in Kapurthala.
The political reactions that followed were centred on “beadbi” or blasphemy. But there is radio silence on the lynchings. Charanjit Singh Channi, the Punjab chief minister, was quick to conclude in the first case that some “bad elements could be behind the sacrilege attempt” ahead of ensuing assembly elections. While the police are yet to ascertain the identity of the two dead, one of them has been booked for murder in the first case, The Tribune reported on December 20. In the second case, the newspaper reported that preliminary police investigation has indicated the victim was killed over attempted theft.
It’s but natural to question the popular narrative in the view of stark details that emerged from the lynching of Lakhbir Singh earlier at the Singhu border. He was brutally murdered by a group of Nihangs on October 15, 2021. As several on-lookers video-recorded the incident on their cell phones, the victims’ maimed and mutilated body was tied to a metal barricade.
Lakhbir too was accused of a sacrilegious act.
Lakhbir’s father told the media that his slain son was suffering from intellectual disability. According to him, Lakhbir had been abandoned by his wife and would live with his sister, Raj Kaur. A lone voice in the wilderness, Raj has been insisting that her brother was unable to reach the Singhu border alone and must have been taken there as part of a conspiracy. The mainstream media has turned a Nelson’s eye towards the grief-stricken father-daughter.
The deafening silence of the saner voices against the surging wave of lynch culture marks the start of a new social trend in the country. The growing cult of vigilantism is being increasingly normalised and the lynch attacks glorified, both online as well as off-line. The digital hatred is turning to real violence on the ground. And law enforcement agencies stand accused of either colluding with the perpetrators or remaining mute spectators.
Jharkhand shows the way
Against this backdrop, the state government of Jharkhand — which has reported some of the most notable mob murders in recent years — has decided to bring an anti-lynching law. It aims to dissuade mob violence, financially compensate the victims’ families and punish the lynchers.
A group of local human rights organisations has prepared a list of 30 people who were either killed or injured by lynch mobs from 2016-2020. While 11 victims were Muslims, the remaining Adivasi Christians. They were targeted over allegations of cow slaughter, consumption and sale of beef and even cattle theft.
“These findings are based on the consolidated fact-finding reports and media reports. Adequate compensation, judicial and police action are pending in several cases. In many cases, the police were complicit in the violence or in the protection of the perpetrators,” said Siraj Dutta, a Ranchi-based social policy analyst who has been closely working with human rights workers in the state. “This list doesn’t include several other forms of lynching and mob violence.”
Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in its manifesto for the 2019 assembly polls had promised a strict law to prevent incidents of mob lynchings in the state. Since the state coalition government — which also includes the Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal — has 49 seats in the 81-member Jharkhand legislative assembly, the law is likely to be approved as soon as it is introduced.
In recent years, only West Bengal and Rajasthan have adopted such legislations to discourage lynchings, following the Supreme Court's landmark judgment on July 17, 2018. Sharply criticising the “sweeping phenomenon” of lynchings, Dipak Misra, the then Chief Justice of India, observed in the 45-page order, “Earnest action and concrete steps have to be taken to protect the citizens from the recurrent pattern of violence which cannot be allowed to become the new normal.”
The apex court urged Parliament to enact a new law to tackle mob lynchings as a separate crime. Noting that “the horrendous acts of mobocracy cannot be permitted to inundate the law of the land”, it also issued a set of directions to the states to frame and implement similar laws.
However, victims like Mariam Khatoon, the widow of Alimuddin Ansari, 40, who was lynched at Ramgarh on June 29, 2017, seem completely unaware of the state government’s initiative. After having lost their sole breadwinners, the aggrieved families seem to have been abandoned alone on the battlefield of life after all the tall promises publicly made by political leaders and government functionaries. Hope for justice aside, the immediate concerns of victims like Mariam remain food, education and employment for their children.
In July 2018, the Jharkhand High Court granted bail to eight men — who were sentenced to death by a fast-track local court in the Ramgarh lynching case. The Jharkhand High Court on June 26, 2020, had dismissed a plea by Harsh Mander, a former bureaucrat and activist who is a prominent face of the Karwan e Mohabbat (Caravan of Love) — a people’s campaign that fosters solidarity for the survivors of hate crimes with legal, social and livelihood help—which sought implementation of the Supreme Court’s directions.
While welcoming the legislation, local human rights workers said the Hemant Soren-led Jharkhand government must ensure strict implementation of the apex court’s directions. But a social problem can’t be resolved through legal measures only, they said.
The lynch culture
Ziya Us Salam, a noted literary and social commentator, said, “Ninety-seven per cent of the lynching cases have been reported since 2014. And 86 per cent of those killed in this violence are Muslims. In the rest of the cases, the victims are Dalits, Adivasis and others.”
Salam, who has authored the Lynch Files (2019) — a book that narrates stories of people who bore the brutal brunt of mob violence and explores the mind of the lynchers — said, “Jharkhand had become a hotspot for lynching incidents since two cattle traders – Mazloom Ansari (32) and Imtiaz Khan (11) — were lynched in 2016. Following the directions of the Supreme Court, I’m glad that the state government has taken cognizance and made lynching a penal offence. Other states afflicted with the mob violence must also follow in its footsteps.”
Salam said that lynchings were a form of mob violence but with a different character. “Earlier we would witness that people from both the communities used to suffer the loss of life and property during the riots. And the rioters would go into hiding soon after the incident. But here in the case of lynchings, individuals become victims of this one-way-targetted violence. The event is video recorded and clips are posted online to flaunt the ‘accomplishments’ in front of political masters.”
Discussing the prevailing political climate in the country, Salam said, “In the past, ministers would visit the riot-hit areas after the curfew and demonstrate neutrality or put up a pretense for inculcating a sense of security in the victims. But it’s no longer the case,” he regretted.
Aimed at providing “effective protection” of constitutional rights and prevention of mob violence, the Jharkhand (Prevention of Mob Violence and Mob Lynching) bill, 2021 promises to address all the issues concerning acts of violence, 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 ground.
“…where the act leads to the death of the victim, shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment for life and with fine which shall not be less than Rs 25 lakh, and the movable and immovable properties shall be attached… For people found guilty of conspiracy or abetment, the draft says that the punishment will be the same as ‘lynching’,” the bill states.
It has provisions for providing financial compensation to the victims. The proposed law also deals with the hostile environment against the victims and promises to protect witnesses and all those who provide assistance to the victims for their families.
The proposed act also penalises offensive material, printed or digital, made to incite a mob to violence or lynch a person. “Notwithstanding anything contained in any other law for the time being in force, whoever publishes, communicates or disseminates by any method, physical or electronic, any offensive material, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, and with fine which shall not be less than fifty thousand rupees and may extend up to one lakh rupees,” the draft reads.
In recent years, Jharkhand has witnessed people being lynched on the basis of fake news. For example, in May 2017, at least 19 people were arrested after seven persons were beaten to death in two separate incidents in the state’s Singhbhum district. Police said they were attacked over suspicion of being child-lifters following rumours making the rounds on social media for several days before the incident.
The law, as per the directions of the apex court, makes police officers the nodal officers and district magistrates duty-bound to prevent acts leading to lynchings, exercising powers without delay in a fair, impartial and non-discriminatory manner.
The proposed law also penalises the conspiracy, abetment, aids and attempts to lynch. For those obstructing the legal process, the draft bill proposes punishment of a maximum of three years imprisonment and a fine of up to three lakh rupees.
While underscoring the rights of victims and witnesses during the trial, the draft bill states, “The superintendent of police or the senior superintendent of police, as the case may be, or an officer designated by him shall inform the victim in writing about the progress of investigations into the offence, whether or not the offender has been arrested, charge-sheeted, granted bail, charged, convicted or sentenced, and if a person has been charged with the offence, then the name of the suspected offender within thirty days of the registration of First Information Report.”
Maintaining that the provisions of the proposed Act shall be in addition to, and not in derogation of, any other law for the time being in force, it has emphasised on the medical treatment of the victims, “All hospitals, public or private, whether run by the central government, the state government, local bodies or any other person, shall immediately provide the first-aid or medical treatment free of cost to the victims and shall immediately inform the police of such incident. The expenditure for treatment in any hospital shall be a charge to the compensation scheme.”
Notably, Tabrez Ansari was denied medical treatment by jail authorities despite multiple requests, the aggrieved family had told a fact-finding team of the Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha that had travelled to the Kadamidiha and Dhaktidih villages in Jharkhand, where he was brutally thrashed by a mob. On June 22, Tabrez was admitted to the Saraikela Sadar hospital, where he was pronounced dead the same day. Tabrez was married for a month-and-half. The couple was planning to settle in Pune, where he had been working as a welder for the past few years.
Grieving and alone
At Ramgarh, Mariam Khatoon recalls how she got the news about his death through a Whatsapp video on her son’s phone on June 9, 2017. The video, she says, showed her husband, Alimuddin Ansari, squatted on the ground at a busy Saturday market. While he held his blood-smeared head, he was entreating the attackers for mercy. In broad daylight, he was being attacked in a carnival-like atmosphere.
According to a report of a fact-finding team, Ansari was dragged out of his Maruti van by the mob for allegedly transporting beef.
“The government gave me 2-3 lakh rupees after the incident. A dwelling unit was constructed by the government for my family in 2018. Our family is also entitled to 35 kg rice as a monthly free ration. Other promises such as employment for my son and free electricity remain unfulfilled,” Mariam told Outlook, adding that she gets a monthly pension of Rs 1000 from the state government.
She has two sons and three daughters. After her husband’s murder, her eldest son, Shehzad, 22, died in January 2019. He had suffered a head injury in a road accident in October 2017 when he was returning home after attending a court hearing with his uncle, Jalil Ansari, who is a witness to the lynching of his father. Jalil’s wife, Julekha Khatoon, who was also accompanying them, had died soon after the accident.
“He would suffer from intense headache after the accident. He was complaining of severe headache on the day he died,” she said and continued, “My son, Shahbaz, 20, has recently undergone a major intestine surgery. I am struggling with my broken left foot. As I don’t have any source of income, my brother and some relatives help us financially. We don’t have any agricultural land or any other assets. Since my husband has been murdered, our problems have compounded manifold.”
“My eldest surviving son, Shahban,22, has studied Urdu. I want employment for him so that the younger children could complete their studies. Otherwise, they have no future,” she said, stressing on “insaaf-justice” for emotional closure.
On the Jharkhand state’s proposed anti-lynching law, Shadab Ansari, the lawyer who has been representing Mariam’s case in the court, said, “Without proper implementation, howsoever strict the law may be, it will prove ineffective ultimately. Otherwise, IPC has enough provisions for deterrence of such crimes. Since such cases involve politics, the law implementing agencies mostly get influenced.”
Maintaining that the state government in its proposed law hasn’t included some directions given by the Supreme Court, Shadab continued, “the government was supposed to set up a special compensation scheme for the lynching victims. This kind of scheme takes into consideration several factors such as loss of livelihood, life and limbs. But the government has linked it with the general compensation scheme that provides maximum ex-gratia amounting to Rs 2 lakh or so. As per the directions of the apex court, the interim compensation has to be awarded within 30 days. The proposed law doesn’t cover it.”
As per the court directions, the state governments have been asked to prepare a “lynching/mob violence victim compensation scheme” in light of the provisions of section 357A of CrPC. Under this scheme for computation of compensation, the judgement read, “the state governments shall give due regard to the nature of the bodily injury, psychological injury and loss of earnings including loss of opportunities of employment and education and expenses incurred on account of legal and medical expenses.”
Pointing to other lacunas in the draft bill, Shadab said, “It doesn’t make a mention of the fast-track courts. It is also silent on the accountability of the nodal officers overseeing the investigation process. The proposed law has weak provisions so far as the legal aid is concerned.”
Against persons who disseminate irresponsible and explosive messages and videos having content that is likely to incite mob violence and lynching of any kind, the apex court has directed registration of the FIR under Section 153 A of IPC (promoting disharmony, enmity or hatred between different groups on the grounds of religion, language or race) and/or other relevant provisions of law. “But the draft bill hasn’t taken it into account,” he added.
‘Sensitise the society’
Welcoming the proposed legislation, Arvind Avinash, general secretary of the state’s unit of People’s Union for Civil Liberty (PUCL) Ranchi and editor of a local newspaper Samkaleen Hastakshep, raised his concern, “Previously also, the strict laws which were brought in to fight against witch-hunting, dowry and rape…which stipulate stringent punishment for the perpetrators haven’t yielded positive results. It’s sad. Social awakening is important as far as issues concerning religious orthodoxy and other factors responsible for such incidents are concerned. Otherwise, the law may curtail crimes to some extent but I don’t expect any major change in the society.”
Admitting that the incidents of mob violence in the state are not new, Arvind said, “the incidents have certainly gone up. Previously, the mobs would target petty thieves and pickpockets. They would thrash him and leave him almost half dead. But now lynching and especially cow-related-lynchings are being carried out in a rather organised fashion, which is a new phenomenon.”
Arvind cited the examples of two Muslim cattle traders – Mazloom Ansari (32) and Imtiaz Khan (11) – who were beaten to death and then hanged from a tree in Jhabar forest of Latehar district in March 2016. Both of them were going to cattle fair to sell off four pairs of oxen in Chatra district when they were waylaid. Asserting that “such incidents are on the rise since past few years”, he went on to give another example of Ramesh Minj, an Adivasi Christian who died in prison on 19 August 2017, a day after he was lynched for allegedly possessing beef. He was reportedly targetted by people of his own village Barkol in Garhwa area. Allegedly, Ramesh succumbed to his injuries in police lockup at night for want of medical treatment. Subsequently, the 12 men who were arrested in this case were granted bail by the Jharkhand High Court after nine months. The family has received financial compensation of Rs 3 lakh recently, according to him.
“It is invariably the people from the marginal sections of the society who are becoming the victims of mob violence. With the implementation of new law, we do hope it will instil fear in the perpetrators and lead to a decrease in the number of such incidents,” he added. His organisation has been providing legal aid to the families of the victims.
Aakar Patel, noted author and former executive director of Amnesty International India, said: “Unfortunately, only Opposition states like Rajasthan and West Bengal have responded to the Tehseen Poonawalla judgment that made it incumbent on the states to enforce anti-lynching laws. Mob violence and lynchings continue, including the latest ones in Punjab. One way to sensitise society to this is to quickly pass laws such as Jharkhand’s (which takes the guidelines offered in the Poonawalla judgment, regarding State action and compensation).”