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Death by collective whim

Representative image

D. N. Bezboruah

When we think of the inevitable end to life, we are thinking of death. And when the human mind has reason to ponder about death (which is a not-so-infrequent happening), people cannot help wondering at the countless ways in which death can come. Of these, the kind of death that is perhaps easier to accept than others is death that comes inescapably at the end of a long life. But there are other kinds of death that come about through murder, through innumerable and unpredictable kinds of accidents or as a result of death sentences in countries that have not only retained capital punishment but also hanging. And because human beings are articulate, sensitive and imaginative, the grief over the death of near and dear ones is shared by those who are close to us even though they may not be part of the deceased person’s family.

There is a terrible sense of injustice when death snatches away someone very young at the prime of that person’s life. When it is death due to serious illness or an accident, there is no one who can be held responsible. People console themselves and others by invoking fate. But when a person is sentenced to death for a major crime like murder, voices of protest—however feeble—are sometimes heard for not sentencing the culprit to life imprisonment instead of death. There are many countries in the world that have done away with capital punishment. The vital decision rests with vastly experienced policy-makers and jurists who understand the constraints and compulsions of different human societies better than lay individuals. Of the several factors taken into consideration, one has to be the crime rate of the country concerned and whether the crime rate has shown signs of increasing or declining. A country that has a high crime rate generally prefers to retain more stringent penal provisions and to continue with capital punishment if it is already provided for in the laws of the land.

This takes us on to the issue of death that is the outcome of a death sentence delivered as a court verdict. Here we have a situation where a person accused of a crime like murder has been tried in a court of law and sentenced to death. A magistrate or a judge has delivered the death sentence; but the accused has the freedom to appeal before a higher court. The higher court of appeal could reverse the sentence or uphold it. Ultimately, if a death sentence is upheld in a court of appeal, we have to accept it as the verdict of a judge appointed by the appropriate judicial authorities of the prevailing administrative system. It is the sentence of an authority empowered to deliver judgement in such matters. But with every passing day we are witness to situations where people who have no authority to sit on judgement over any dispute appropriating such powers irregularly and illegally and sentencing people to death. And since one or two individuals who feel like sitting on judgement on the actions of others cannot sentence them to death or even deliver other punishment, the tendency is to seek safety in numbers to do great wrongs. One or two persons capable of influencing and inciting mob action do precisely that. They get together a few hundred people, spread false accusations about the persons they want to punish, and get the mob to carry out their wishes. And the wishes may well include the death of persons who have made them angry for some reason or the other. Here indeed is an instance of passing a totally illegal death sentence on the basis of collective whim. And when someone is lynched by a mob, sometimes it becomes extremely difficult for the guardians of the law to identify the real killers or those who orchestrated the killing. Quite often, the real culprits escape punishment merely because in a mob killing it is often impossible to identify the actual perpetrators of the crime. No one is willing to talk, because even those who were merely part of the mob are afraid of being arrested as accomplices.

This is what seems to have happened in Karbi Anglong last week. There was the murder of two innocent youths of Guwahati by collective whim very cleverly orchestrated by an evil person and his few associates and backed up by a mob they had incited with lies. Nilotpal Das and Abhijit Nath had taken a trip to Karbi-Anglong by car and were in Panjuri village near the Kathilangso waterfall. Apparently, a youth of the locality, Alphajoz Timung, had some altercation with Nilotpal and Abhijit and made an attempt to brand the two youths from Guwahati as child-lifters. Expecting further trouble, the duo left the scene at once, only to be stopped by a mob that had been fed the blatant lie by Alphajoz that the two youths from Guwahati were fleeing with a child. Alphajoz had lost no time in telephoning a large number of villagers with the story of Nilotpal and Abhijit driving away with a child from the village. Provoked by Alphajoz, the mob started pelting stones at the car, stopped the vehicle, dragged the two occupants out and just beat them to death. No one stopped even to ask them whether they were indeed abducting a child. No one seems to have bothered to tell the mob to wait until the vehicle was searched for the child alleged to have been abducted.
But that is precisely how things happen when a mob has been aroused and angered sufficiently to ensure death by collective whim. One does not expect any rational thinking, any consideration of the rights or even the lives of others and—far more importantly—the antecedents of the individual who has informed the people of the village about the visitors. This is of tremendous significance in the present case, considering that Alphajoz is a history-sheeter in killing cases. Apart from other cases, in 2014, Alphajoz was accused in the killing of one Mithu Das. Given his criminal background, Alphajoz seems to have done rather well for himself. Far from being behind bars (lack of adequate and irrefutable evidence is the most common reason for hardened criminals being able to move about so freely in our country), Alphajoz Timung has been out in the open and in a position to take more human lives. Most hardened criminals are far better informed about the finer points of criminal laws that make arrests more difficult and ensure that they remain out of jail more often than being behind bars. In any case, the Assam Police seems to have acquitted itself rather well in this case considering that more than 30 persons have been arrested in connection with the brutal and senseless killings of Nilotpal Das and Abhijit Nath. And the arrests have been made quite expeditiously.
The unfortunate mob murder of the two youths in Karbi-Anglong has underscored a few aspects of dealing with crime that call for serious attention. The first on the list is the very familiar ‘law’s delay’ that has encouraged crime and criminals in India greatly in recent years. This is something that I have often written about and will continue to write about for as long as I live because of what the law’s delay has been doing to the promotion of crime in India. No one in the country seems to be the least perturbed about what the law’s delay is doing to the maintenance of law and order or about how it is encouraging criminals. For most criminals, crime is a means of livelihood, and the law’s delay gives the criminals much more time outside prison than inside it. It also assures the criminal of long postponements of punishments and greater freedom for criminal activity. Several countries have demonstrated how the trials and sentencing of criminals can be speeded up drastically. This is the first requirement in respect of revamping the justice delivery system. Next on the list is the attitude of the administration to the handling of crime committed by a mob. There is an unmistakeable indication that the custodians of the law are inclined to be somewhat more lenient to crimes committed by a mob than to the same crimes committed by an individual. This attitude has to be dealt with very firmly. The administration must demonstrate that it cannot be duped by the mere strength of numbers. A crime committed by a mob deserves the same punitive measures as a crime committed by an individual. If anything, the very inclination to get together a mob to commit certain crimes in the expectation that the kingpins cannot be easily identified and punished, is reason enough to be far more harsh on crimes committed by groups.