The Supreme Court asked Parliament to come up with an anti-lynching law to tackle cow vigilantism and lynch mobs even as it laid down preventive, remedial, and punitive measures against the backdrop of a spate of such incidents across the country.
The measures laid down by the court also include steps to tackle hate speeches, provocative statements and fake news, usually the precursor to attacks by lynch mobs.
There have been more than 20 lynchings since May.
“Horrendous acts of mobocracy” can’t be allowed, a bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud said. The bench added that “extrajudicial” acts such as “cow vigilantism” should be nipped in the bud.
The bench was hearing a bunch of petitions that sought action against attacks by self-styled cow vigilantes, but its observation is also relevant — and perhaps in light of — a spate of mob lynchings targeting people believed to be child snatchers, usually on the basis of false information passed on through messaging platforms such as WhatsApp. The attacks in recent weeks prompted the government to write to Facebook Inc, the owner of WhatsApp. It also prompted the company to take out full-page ads on fake messages and news and to introduce a button to show a message had been forwarded.
Over the weekend, a 32-year old Google employee was attacked and killed in Karnataka’s Bidar on the belief that he was a child snatcher.
“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 State cannot turn a deaf ear to the growing rumblings of its people,” the bench said.
Specifically, it has asked the police to register cases under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code (dealing with hate speech) against those involved in such attacks and lynchings. It has also directed day-to-day hearings, fast-track courts, and stringent punishment for vigilantes. States have also been asked to take tough action against police officers who do not do enough to prevent such attacks or do not act against the criminals. Most importantly, it has asked for a separate law.
The government’s position, expressed in court by additional solicitor general Tushar Mehta, was that existing laws were adequate to deal with such attacks. The court thought otherwise.
“A special law in this field would instil a sense of fear for law amongst people who involve themselves in such kinds of activities,” the bench said.
The court has given four weeks to the central government and states to implement its order and has asked them to file compliance reports.
“Rising intolerance and growing polarisation expressed through spate of incidents of mob violence cannot be permitted to become the normal way of life or the normal state of law and order in the country,” said the court, describing the lynching incidents as a “sweeping phenomenon”.
Unity in diversity is the strength of our nation and the most potent weapon in India’s armoury which binds different and varied kinds of people in the solemn thread of humanity, the court said, adding “we must shun schismatic tendencies”.
Randeep Surjewala, the chief spokesperson of the Congress, claimed that the government has given a ‘license to kill’ with impunity by abetting mob frenzy. “The SC has aborted this license,” he said.
The BJP did not comment on the order.
The courts directed the states to formulate a compensation scheme for victims of mob lynching within a month. Compensation will be determined on the basis of the injury sustained or loss caused either to the victims or their families. Medical expenses will also be accounted for.
The court’s order was welcomed by a senior lawyer. “Civilisation and mob lynching cannot exist together. Mob lynching is an anachronism in the civilized society. This kind of rumour mongering and mob lynching should be stopped. So it is a very welcome step by the apex court,” senior Supreme Court advocate Amarendra Sharan said.
But not everyone was convinced the measures mentioned to tackle fake news and rumours would work. “By extending the power to nodal officers to control dissemination of ‘offensive material’, the court is effectively using vague and ambiguous standards, which it frowned upon in it’s ruling in Shreya Singhal (striking down 66A of IT Act on vagueness and overbreadth),” said Ananth Padmanabhan, fellow at Centre for Policy Research.