Is India A Lawless Land Of Lynch Mobs?

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In a country with the world's largest written Constitution, the rule of law remains a mere principle.

In 2014, a 20-year-old student from Arunachal Pradesh walked into the Rajasthan Paneer sweet shop in Delhi, to ask for directions. A comment was made about his streaked hair. A scuffle ensued. The boy, Nido Taniam, was badly injured by the time the police arrived.

They took him to the police station. He revealed that he was the son of a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in Arunachal Pradesh. The cops were unfazed – and sent him back to the shop to apologise and pay the owners Rs. 8000. No First Information Report (FIR) was filed. No medical report was made on Nido’s condition.

That night, Nido died in his sleep.

His death triggered protests across the country. After some initial feet-dragging, the police stepped in and arrested the perpetrators. Two were convicted, and released on probation with a Rs. 10,000 ($154) fine the next year. It’s a small price to pay for murder.

Nido’s death spurred a debate about endemic racism in the country, but not about the role of the police. Why was protocol not followed by those we trust to enforce the law? Nido’s case is not the only example.

In Mizoram, 2011, N. Ajay Meeitei, the son of the current Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh, shot 18-year-old Irom Roger in a fit of road rage. Irom died in hospital, but the family had to struggle to get justice for him. After the investigation was shifted to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the charges levelled were only for illegally possessing a gun. Six years later, a local court awarded him a five-year sentence for ‘culpable homicide not amounting to murder’. In that period, Irom’s family faced death threats – as did anyone who dared to represent them in court.

June 22, 2017. A 17-year-old boy named Junaid was stabbed to death and his brothers severely wounded, while travelling on a train to Mathura. When Junaid refused to give up his seat, the men snatched the skullcap and abused Junaid and his brothers on communal lines – as beef-eating ‘anti-nationals’ by the small mob. They tried to leave, but it was a crowded train. There were hundreds of witnesses, but nobody who could protect them.

Junaid lost his life, from what was only supposed to be a trip for some Eid shopping. Among those who were later arrested was a fifty-year-old Delhi government employee. Muslims are increasingly at risk in today’s India, for choices outside of their control. The men from Junaid’s village now feel there’s only one thing they can do to feel safer – look less Muslim.

Junaid’s murder also spurned a debate, this one about communalism and the rise of lynch mobs. The #NotInMyName protests have seen thousands take to the streets across India. The issue is religious intolerance. But, as Vidya Krishnan tweeted: “Can’t believe people have to protest lynchings. In 2017.”

It raises a spectre that has followed Indians since the dawn of independence. Be it the mobs of Partition, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the Bombay riots of 1993, the 2002 carnage of Gujarat or the rape and murder of Nirbhaya in 2012, why is the absence of Rule of Law taken for granted in India?

#NotInMyName has been criticized. But, the government and its civil servants should have established the rule of law and protected Nido, Junaid and Nirbhaya.

The horror story that befell Meena Khalko is a wake-up call that India’s law enforcement agencies can also be the worst perpetrators of abuse.

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In 2011, Meena Khalko, a 15-year-old girl was shot and killed by the police in Chhattisgarh. The justification was that she was a Maoist insurgent, killed in an ‘encounter’. But a judicial panel in 2015 proved otherwise. According to the locals, there was no encounter; only three shots were fired. The post-mortem report displayed a shattered rib, bullet wounds and the presence of semen in her vagina. The police raped and killed a 15-year-old minor girl.

Her family have spent whatever ‘compensation’ money they received from the state to fight their case in court. Of the 25 policemen allegedly involved, only one policeman has been arrested so far. In this case justice was delayed and denied. Was Meena’s life worth less to the state because she lived in the rural outskirts between Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh?

It does not help that outraging over murder is heavily politicised. Society is divided on who to care about. On the one hand, you have one section raising their voices when a Dalit is killed, and another when a policeman or RSS worker is murdered. Mohammad Ayub, a senior policeman who was lynched while on duty in Kashmir, is a case in point.

Between Mohammad and Junaid, we can see a tale of two killings. The latter’s death was a rallying point against the Hindutva nationalist sentiment; the former against the ‘anti-India’ sentiment of Kashmir’s discontents.

The truth is that nobody is safe in India. In many instances, the rule of law is found lacking. Some, such as Dalit women and tribal groups are arguably more unsafe than others. But the blunt reality is that the issue of common safety has been politicised. In Kerala, up to 31 BJP and RSS workers have been killed by members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – and as many of the latter have been killed by the former. In India’s most literate state, Kerala, at least 100 people have been murdered because of their political orientation in the last decade.

India has the longest written constitution in the world. Yet, the near absence of the rule of law puts everyone in India is at risk. The breakdown of law and order during a riot (as seen in both 1984 and in 2002) is everybody’s concern. So is mob lynching. The police and the state are constitutionally bound to protect you and your rights. Their failure to do so presents a real danger of making India a lawless land.

Across India, there are barely 140 policemen per hundred thousand citizens – an abysmally low number. The problem gets compounded when policemen come under the firm control of their political bosses.

A study conducted by the Poverty Action Lab in Rajasthan found that fewer than 11 percent of the public there had ever interacted with the police. In the case of women, the number is only five percent. The latter is particularly concerning when you take into account the poor track record of handling rape cases.

As a democracy, India’s institutions are accountable to its people. When armed policemen kill a citizen without furthering evidence or an FIR, they are acting in your name. When they refuse to file an FIR for a rape-accused, they act in your name. Citizens may distance themselves time to time from the incident-outrage cycle. But the state has a permanent duty to protect its citizens, without bias.

Barring the presence of law and order, nobody is safe from the mob. It’s only a question of which one you offend first.

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