The Supreme Court today directed the Union Government to take preventive, punitive and remedial measures to tackle the rising problem of mob lynching. To this effect, the Court issued directions under the same three heads. However, the pertinent question here is whether the lynch mobs can actually be deterred? The limitation to the Court's scope in the petitions on which it passed its Judgment, is that the petitions dealt with only the cow vigilante lynchings; the most recent 'child-lifter' rumours that inspired the lynchings, were not covered. This limitation becomes apparent when the directions the Court issued are considered.
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In its Judgement, the Court aptly observed, “A fabricated identity with bigoted approach sans acceptance of plurality and diversity results in provocative sentiments and display of reactionary retributive attitude transforming itself into dehumanisation of human beings. Such an atmosphere is one in which rational debate, logical discussion and sound administration of law eludes thereby manifesting clear danger to various freedoms including freedom of speech and expression.”
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Further, elucidating its observations, the Court stated: “Intolerance arising out of a dogmatic mindset sows the seeds of upheaval and has a chilling effect on freedom of thought and expression. Hence, tolerance has to be fostered and practised and not allowed to be diluted in any manner.” While, at the same time observing that “[o]ne must constantly remind oneself that an attitude of morbid intolerance is absolutely intolerable and agonizingly painful”. It is clear that the Court was solely concerned with communally charged lynchings.
Under the heading of ‘preventive measures’, the court directed the state governments to designate a police officer not below the rank of a Superintendent of Police (SP) as a Nodal Police Officer (NPO) in each district. The NPO will have to constitute a special task force to collect intelligence reports on persons likely to participate in lynchings as well as persons who spread hate-speech, provocative statements and fake news. The state governments will have to identify regions where mob lynchings have occurred over the past five years within three weeks from today.
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The Secretary of the Home Department of each state will then have to communicate to the concerned NPOs to ensure that the local police of the identified regions are also informed. The NPOs, once a month, will have to hold meetings with local intelligence units to identify any tendencies towards vigilantism and the dissemination of hate-speech. Once a quarter, the NPOs will have to meet with the Director General of Police (DGP) or the Home Secretary for a review. Any matters concerning inter-district coordination will be brought up at the meeting. The Court stated that every police officer has the responsibility to disperse a mob which is likely to engage in lynching. The DGP will also have to issue a circular to the Superintendents of Police, regarding the patrolling of areas where lynchings have occurred in the past.
The Union and the state governments must broadcast the message that lynching and violence of any kind will invite serious consequences. The two levels of government must also take steps to curb and stop inflammatory messages that may lead the mob to violence of any kind. The police will have to promptly register a First Information Report (FIR) under the relevant provisions of law against persons who disseminate such messages. The Union Government would also have to issue directions or advisories to the state governments reflecting the gravity and seriousness of the situation, and the measures that have to be undertaken.
The Court directed the local police to file an FIR without undue delay in an event where a lynching has taken place. The Station House Officer (SHO) will then have to inform the NPO of the FIR. The NPO should have to ensure that no further harassment is meted out to the family members of the victims. The NPO will thereafter personally monitor the investigation, and ensure that the chargesheet is filed on time. The state governments must also prepare a lynching or mob violence scheme to compensate the victims within one month. Fast track courts will also have to be set up in each district. The courts will conduct proceedings on a daily basis, and complete the hearings within six months from the date of taking cognisance. The Court also directed the state governments and the NPOs to ensure that the prosecuting agency does not compromise the trial. The trial courts have also been directed to award the maximum sentence prescribed for the offences. The trial court must also protect the identity and addresses of the witnesses. The family of the victims have the right to be informed and heard in the event that the accused have applied for bail, discharge, release or parole. The family also has the right to file written submissions on conviction, acquittal or sentencing. The victims or the next of kin have the right to receive free legal aid if they wish to engage an advocate.
The failure of a police officer or any officer in the district administration, who has failed to comply with the preventive or remedial directions, will be considered an act of deliberate negligence and the appropriate departmental action should be concluded within six months.
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One shortcoming here is whether charges will stick if a false message has been propagated without the intention to cause a lynching incident. In some instances, the person disseminating the message may wish only to prank (troll) people, such as an obituary to a popular film star. However, the effect Rajkumar's abduction by Veerappan had on Bangalore would place such a falsehood in dangerous territory. Another shortcoming is whether false information falls within the purview of communally charged information. The mob lynching resulting from a non-communally charged falsehood will result in charges filed against the mob, however, what provisions can stick to the persons spreading the falsehood? On another note, where can one draw a line in terms of identifying malicious falsehood?
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