The inadequacies in law that let ‘mob justice’ persist
Jharkhand has one of the worst records of mob lynching, which prompted the government to pass an anti-mob lynching law. But the law alone cannot prevent such incidents unless social conditions are also addressed.
Four days into 2022, 35-year-old Sanju Pradhan was lynched and burnt alive by villagers in Jharkhand’s Simdega district. He allegedly cut six sal trees, considered sacred by the locals. It was the second case of lynching that week; that the state had passed the Prevention of Mob Violence and Mob Lynching Bill, 2021, just days before appeared to have had little effect.
Jharkhand has one of the worst records of mob lynching — with 46 recorded cases in five years, a fact that prompted the government to pass an anti-mob lynching law. Similar laws have also been passed by Rajasthan and West Bengal. Yet, they have had a limited impact due to the poor drafting of provisions and a larger dichotomy in civil society regarding cases of lynching.
The Jharkhand law, for example, provides no provision for punishing officers who fail to prevent lynching (like in Simdega, where police officers were present, but chose not to act). Though the bill lays down the duties of the police and district magistrates, there are no penal provisions for dereliction of duty. While the bill was on the floor of the assembly, the government ignored Opposition suggestions to reconsider the definition of a mob, which is described as two or more people, or limit the unbridled powers given to the district magistrate to prevent incidents of apprehended lynching. The bill also ignored witch-burning, despite the deeper socioeconomic issues embedded in local practices, such as illiteracy, superstition, and lack of adequate health care. In a state where poor people, especially women, fall prey to superstition, the law alone cannot prevent such incidents unless social conditions are also addressed.
Other states with laws on lynching, such as Rajasthan and West Bengal have similar infirmities, with no penal provisions for officers. In contrast, the Manipur law makes it easy to prosecute guilty officers by removing the required prior sanction for taking action against public servants from the government. The law in Rajasthan and Manipur also fares better than Jharkhand as they provide rehabilitation to the victim — a relief because mob violence often leads to displacement of the kin of victims.
Can incidents of lynching and mob violence, often exacerbated by provocations rooted in faith and caste, be effectively controlled by the cold word of the law? A crucial piece of the puzzle is held by civil society, but unfortunately, its response to cases of lynching, at least in Jharkhand, has been patchy.
In the Simdega case, for example, some activists backed the villagers, arguing that the true villains were forest officials who were unable to protect the trees from the timber mafia. Similarly, in December 2021, when two brothers (Sanjay Oraon and Ajay Oraon) were beaten by a mob of villagers over allegations that their mother practised witchcraft, the incident sank, with neither politicians nor civil society raising the issue.
This wavering is detrimental to our pursuit of a fair criminal justice system. The mainstay of civil society is its principles. Yes, the villagers of Besrajera were frustrated with weak forest and police officials. Yes, the system is rigged against poor villagers, trying to eke out their subsistence from a rapidly disappearing forest. Yes, witch-hunting is a deep socioeconomic issue with no quick fix by the law. But this route of “mob justice” outside the fairness of the justice system must be denounced. Those principles are our only tool, our one weapon. They cannot be exercised selectively.
Shailesh Poddar is a Ranchi-based advocate
The views expressed are personal
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