Two ministers in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government are in the eye of a storm for hobnobbing with a mob undeterred by the law. On his part, the Head of Government had affirmed last year in 2017 that “violence in the name of vigilantism is unaccepetable”. The opposition demanded Modi sack both minister of State with independent charge of micro, small and medium enterprises Giriraj Singh and minister of State for civil avitation Jayant Sinha for encouraging cow vigilantism.
This brings to the fore their reservations about the verdict of the fast track court in Jharkhand. While Singh met these persons in jail, Jayant, the son of former union finance minister Yashwant Singh, garlanded the convicts when they met him. The court had sentenced eight people, including a local BJP leader, to life imprisonment in a case of cow vigilantism.
These are efforts in encouraging polarisation with the next general elections less than a year away in 2019. On his part Jayant Sinha, the BJP MP from Hazaribagh, claimed he did nothing more than wish the persons on bail well. There is no doubt the minister displayed scant regard for the law and should have waited for the outcome of the pending appeal in the court.
As for Giriraj Singh, he has not distinguished himself as a minister. He is rarely heard on policy issues. He remains in the news for remarks going beyond the pale of politically acceptable behaviour. The Congress leadership believes the political discourse revolving around recurrent incidents of violence is a deliberate ploy to sustain communal tensions as the election fever appears to have already set in. Crucial assembly elections are scheduled later this year which includes Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
The country has been facing a highly disturbing trend of innocent people being flogged to death. Earlier this month, five people in Dhule district of Maharashtra were lynched to death. These heinous acts come in the wake of rumours of child lifting spread over WhatsApp. More than 30 people have been mercilessly flogged to death in different parts of the country in the last twelve months spread over several states from Assam, West Bengal, Tripura, Gujarat, Jharkhand to Karnataka.
Last week, the Supreme Court came down heavily against mob violence, whatever the motive, and directed the states to crack down. A three judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud observed “we do not want lynchings. We do not want mob violence. We want to protect victims. Whoever they are, they can’t take law into their hands. These cannot be accepted in the remotest sense,” the bench emphasised.
Be that as it may, the Centre has conveyed its deep disapproval to WhatsApp and called for “remedial measures” and “immediate action” to stem the flow of misinformation. The tragedy is that anyone can be mistaken as a child lifter by a mob waiting to kill as evidenced so far. It is time for concerted action by the Centre and states against such rumour mongers. Preventive policing is the key.
Then there is the peoples’ lack of trust in the police. Punitive action against WhatsApp groups that spreads such rumours should have a deterrent effect. There is need for political and institutional will to nail those who take law into their own hands. The contagion effect of spreading impunity is dicernible. There is fake news, hate messages and trolling on social media. It has become imperative to instil the fear of law in the lynch mobs. The police should not brush aside threats of violence over social media. It is time political parties played their part in restoring sanity on the social media. The July 1st lynchings in Maharashtra and Tripura were triggered by social media posts amid the fear in large parts of rural India of child lifters.
In Tripura, an announcer was killed for delivering a message from the government urging people not to believe in rumours of child lifters. He was accompanied by an official. In Maharashtra, the police party sent to the spot of the lynching was attacked by the villagers. In neither case the mob seemed deterred by the state police which should be of serious concern to politicians, administrators and the state government itself. The lynch mob appears to have acquired a sense of impunity. The State government and the political leadership, in particular, has to take necessary action expeditiously to regain control of the situation.
The government needs to send an unambiguous message that misuse of the media for disruptive and diabolical motives will lead to immediate and serious consequences. There is no doubt it is hard to police the social media. The political establishment needs to deal firmly with the prevailing sense of insecurity and fear resulting from electronic rumour mongering. The government must ensure zero tolerance to vigilante violence.
T B Ramachandram is a senior journalist and commentator.