Demolition is an absurd punishment for rioting, writes S Murlidharan

Rioting should be punished separately and violation of land and construction laws should be punished separately both after fair trials, period. There cannot be a trade-off albeit unstated between the two. Illegal construction or encroachment is an offense that has nothing to do with riotous behaviour.

S MurlidharanUpdated: Wednesday, June 15, 2022, 10:12 AM IST
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Demolition is an absurd punishment for rioting | Photo: Twitter/IndiaToday

The UP Chief Minister may be a no-nonsense man endowed with an iron fist to put law-breakers in their place. But, a constitutional authority should not be carried away by his own notions of instant, peremptory, and summary justice that while massaging his ego and appealing to his followers does immense and almost irreversible harm to an individual’s right to property and fair trial.

In his first term in the office as UP CM, he justified and rationalised ‘encounter’ killings as being necessary to put the fear of God into thugs and anti-social elements who looked askance at the law and laughed up their sleeves especially at the glacial pace at which it grinds to justice. His two brands of instant justice---encounter killing and letting bulldozers run amok---have had many adherents from among his fellow chief ministers in the BJP. But then megalomania even with noble intent can be dangerous.

It is true that the punishment under section 147 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) of upto two years imprisonment or fine or both is often just a rap on the knuckles of riot leaders and their deadly and far-reaching sins. If the Narendra Modi government feels there is a crying need to end this farce and indulgence of a crime that can be potentially murderous, it must bring an ordinance with the same alacrity and urgency as the law against rape was brought in 2013 in the wake of the horrific Nirbhaya rape case that shocked judicial conscience and revolted the sensibilities of the citizenry.

Let fast-track courts be pressed in to try rioters and their cohorts including conspirators orchestrating the riots from behind the scenes. Let riot masterminds, organisers, and suppliers of the new-fangled weapon, the small stones (patthar) that can snowball into a deadly weapon, when collectively and simultaneously hurled as if on a cue, be punished with death. That would meet the ends of justice especially when public servants including police are assaulted and deadly weapons like petrol bombs are hurled at them and on public properties. And let their pawns be punished with a more deterrent punishment than a two-year incarceration plus fine. But, all after a fair trial one of the ingredients of which is Audi alteram partem (hear the other side).

Coming back to letting loose bulldozers on immovable properties of rioters or orchestrators or organisers of rioting, smacks of vigilante justice. It is of a piece with Panchayati justice meted out to a rape victim---your tormentor shall marry you, amen! Indeed, it is worse because it allows the administration to assume the role of judge and prosecution in one swift and swooping move that goes off at a tangent (panchayats at least do not go off at a tangent when they order the marriage of victim and her tormentor) to change the goal post---far from punishing a rioter for his riotous behavior, he and his family have been punished for ex post facto discovery of illegal construction.

BJP functionaries are seen on TV news channels speaking with a forked tongue without batting an eyelid and with a straight face---if rioters somehow turn out to be violators of land and municipal laws on construction as well, that is purely coincidental. Touché! Rioting should be punished separately and violation of land and construction laws should be punished separately, both after fair trials, period. There cannot be a trade-off albeit unstated between the two. Illegal construction or encroachment is an offense that has nothing to do with riotous behaviour. To conflate the two makes Panchayati justice looks benign.

When a bulldozer is allowed to run amok, it causes a lot of extensive and irreversible collateral damage as well. The alleged rioter or orchestrator of riots may be cohabitating with his family consisting of aged and sick parents as well as young school-going children. While there can be a sense of perverse and sadistic exhilaration among the hoi polloi at a mastermind being denied shelter, shouldn’t their hearts at the same time go out to the innocent members of the family?

Surely, the Indian law doesn’t punish one for being a blood relative of a rioter unless he has played ball. But even for playing ball, the punishment should be within the framework of the law on riots and not stray into property laws. To be sure, police often resort to highhandedness like picking up the son so the father alleged to have perpetrated a crime comes scurrying to the police station.

But, an administration should not terrorise people with the grim and dire warning ---hey if you indulge in rioting your property would be razed to the ground. And when such a threat is implemented, it projects the government as a whimsical tyrant with no concern for the rule of law and justice.

Right-minded persons also question the targeting of a select set of people on the hate list of the ruling dispensation. They also wonder where the sense of official outrage is when the rich and the well-heeled violate municipal and land laws with impunity and squat on illegal lands or expand beyond what they legitimately own.

(The author is a freelance columnist for various publications and writes on economics, business, legal, and taxation issues. He tweets as @smurlidharan)

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