Moral Policing: Curbing Vigilante Urges


For over four years now, India has witnessed many acts of people taking the law in their own hands and seeking to administer justice without the authority to do so, even involving themselves into Lynching. We are not talking about stray instances of people seeking to deliver justice according to their own notions of what ‘just’ laws ought to be doing.

We are talking of dangerous trends—of alarming incidents of vigilante groups sentencing people to death for cattle-related offences or on suspicion of their being kidnappers of children, and lynching them. This form ready justice delivered by a tiny section of the population empowering themselves to sentence others for crime or even imagined crime has one major flaw even if we decide to overlook the sheer illegality of such instance justice.

The vigilante arrangements have the prosecutor, the trial court and the dispenser of justice all rolled into a single entity. And they are totally extra-constitutional because they are not entities for delivering justice created by any constitutional authority. They have grown like weeds, and need to be uprooted with the same ruthlessness with which a keen gardner removes weeds from his garden.

It is indeed significant that vigilante groups in India should be concerned only with two facets of the delivery of justice by choosing to overlook the failures of our justice delivery system arising mainly from the law’s delay. This law’s delay, in turn, often stems from a serious shortage of personnel responsible for conducting trials and passing sentences.

Our vigilante organizations are concerned mainly with (a) the perceived offences of cattle slaughter and offences related to the consumption of beef; and (b) suspicions of child-lifting (at a time when the kidnapping of children to be sold elsewhere as lifelong slaves has become very common). These are crimes that the government of the day should have been very seriously concerned about. Unfortunately, this has not happened. And whenever any society fails to ensure the kind of legal protections that citizens are entitled to, vigilante groups invariably work to fill the voids created by the failure of the government to address vital issues. And this is what is happening in India in respect of (a) lynching that we see around us related to the protection of cattle and (b) lack of adequate efforts needed to prevent the sale of children. According to sources in the National Crime Records Bureau, between May 2014 and April 2018, 48 people had been lynched in 41 mob attacks in nine States.

It is possible that there were many more acts of lynching elsewhere because data from the remaining States were not available. Significantly, allegations of kidnapping children accounted for as many as 29 of these deaths. A report by the website IndiaSpend dated July 19 said that 98 per cent of all cow-related violence since 2010 had taken place after the Modi government came to power in May 2014. According to this report, 33 people were lynched in 86 attacks, 29 of them Muslims, mostly in BJP-ruled States.

There are indications that at long last the Narendra Modi government has woken up to the horrors of lynchings. Apart from the 48 lynchings in three years there has also been a Supreme Court directive issued last week, to form two high-level committees to suggest measures for dealing with lynchings. The committee of bureaucrats, chaired by Home Secretary Rajiv Gauba has been given four weeks to “formulate appropriate measures to address the situation”.

The other ministerial panel will consider the recommendations and send the final suggestions to the Prime Minister. No deadline has been set for the committee of bureaucrats. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s committee includes Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, Highway Minister Nitin Gadkari, Law Minister R.S. Prasad and Social Justice Minister Thaawar Chand Gehlot.

The nine States for which the bureau has lynching records are Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, Telengana, Maharashtra, Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka. Strangely enough, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, where several cow-related lynchings have taken place, are not on the list. Be that as it may, the very fact that the government has finally woken up to these lynchings may go a long way to prevent vigilante groups from taking the law in their own hands on an increasing number of issues.