To fight mob lynching, police reforms a must
Inclusion of this offence in the three proposed codes is welcome. But the police and some states flouting top court norms have to clean up their act
Will the three bills recently introduced in Parliament by the home minister to replace the 19th century Indian Penal Code, Code of Criminal Procedure and the Indian Evidence Act, lead to an overhaul of the criminal justice system? Their success will be weighed on the benchmarks of a higher conviction rate, improved police investigation, speedy disposal of cases, and upholding of human rights. It is too early to say anything, but the beginning is promising.
First, it responds to people’s concerns. Sedition as an explicit offence has been dropped and mob lynching, a grave crime in the modern age, has been introduced. Trial in absentia was much required to convict mass murderers such as Dawood Ibrahim and Hafiz Saeed. Terrorism is also defined for the first time. The focus on technology will add teeth to a police investigation by making forensics an essential component in solving serious crimes. Mandatory information to the family of the arrested person by a designated officer is another step in the right direction. Second, the bill has been sent to a parliamentary select committee for wider consultations. The home minister assured the House that the new laws were meant for the people and not the Raj. It is, therefore, imperative to take the views of all stakeholders and practitioners. A wider consultation over a reasonable time frame will make it more effective.
Third, the bill will necessitate reforms in the other layers of the criminal justice system. As law enforcers, the police will have to upscale its output, rationalise its working and speed up processes. To file challans in time, diversion from inessential work, use of technology and a more sustained approach will be needed. The prosecution system will have to be overhauled. At present, it neither assists in investigation nor performs as per expectations in courts. The judiciary will also have to bring in new practices for speedy disposal of cases. And finally, the model prisons act will have to be adopted by the states after consultations with the Centre.
Some experts have expressed reservations about a new provision bringing sedition in through the backdoor. But the new offences are against the State, not the government. This is an important distinction. Those acting against State sovereignty and integrity are to be arraigned, which is the law across the world. It may still be foisted arbitrarily, but it is not the law but the law enforcer who has to guarantee against this.
This question of police reform — wherein policemen do not look up to political masters for lodging cases but are immune to the threats of transfer or worse — is even more important in the context of another important provision which defines mob lynching under Clause 101(2) of the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita (BNS) Bill.
There was a crying need for this in view of the rise in such incidents. Acknowledging the dangers of cow vigilante attacks on India’s polity, a three-member bench of the Supreme Court in 2018 stated that it is the onerous duty of the State to see that no individual or group take the law into their own hands. Comprehensive directions were issued for prevention, remedies, and punishment. Compensation for victims and accountability of officers also figured in the top court’s order. Again, it is on the law enforcers to implement it faithfully. If the police fail to act against such criminals, it will be a wasted law.
The first recorded incident of mob lynching in the subcontinent was during the Holi riots in 1714 in Gujarat, and the trend never completely disappeared. Yet, in independent India, cow vigilantism and mob lynching are reprehensible crimes that need to be stamped out. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) stopped collecting such data after 2017 on the grounds that it is inherently unreliable. Some states did not even send this data to NCRB. Hence, there is no official mob lynching count. But some unofficial figures are a grim portent.
According to a report by IndiaSpend, between 2010 and 2017, 86% of those killed in cow related attacks were Muslims. The report also highlighted that 52% of these attacks were fuelled by rumours. Mob lynching on speculation of witchery, thievery, or child abduction — such as the Palghar incident in 2020 — is also a cause of great anguish. To curb such incidents, police reform is the need of the hour. States have flouted apex court directives and passed police acts not in spirit with the guidelines. None of the acts bears any resemblance to the model police act drafted by Soli Sorabjee. Clearly, some politicians and bureaucrats do not want state police acts to conform to the model police act.
Such reform is necessary but will entail a substantial financial burden on the Centre and the states. Envisioning a digitised regime right from the filing of an e-FIR or e-challan till the judgement will exact considerable financial and maintenance costs. If forensics teams have to visit the spot of every crime with punishments of over seven years in jail — as envisioned in the new bills — all districts will have to be equipped with the requisite infrastructure, including laboratories.
The states, so far, have been miserly in allocating funds to the police, and tend to look up to the Centre for resources under the modernisation grant. If the new provisions in the bills get enacted, the police, prosecution and jails might find it difficult to catch up.
It is now in the lawmakers’ hands to ensure that various provisions of the bills are discussed with the stakeholders and people. The committee that framed these bills was composed solely of academics. To make the criminal procedure code respond to the needs of the common man, the role of the law enforcer is critical. Even the trash, in the form of seized leftover property in police stations, piles up because the police await the orders of the court for disposal. Many such archaic rules can be streamlined. The parliamentary committee will, therefore, do well to include a senior police officer, prosecutor, lawyer, investigator, prison official and a reputed civil society member. Lest all the good work is lost for the lack of a little more.
Yashovardhan Azad is chairman of DeepStrat, a former central information commissioner and a retired IPS officer who served as secretary, security, and special director, Intelligence Bureau. The views expressed are personal