The Government of India maintains no specific data with respect to “lynching”, the nation was told by the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Hansraj Ahir on the floor of the Rajya Sabha.
This was greeted with some incredulity and much derision.
The best response perhaps came from Bobby Ghosh, former Editor-in-Chief of Hindustan Times, who had set up an excellent “hate-tracker” on the newspaper (and saw it taken down after he left).
The Quint also maintains a record of lynchings since 2015.
But as good as these private initiatives are, the fact that the government does not have the data, speaks of two problems – a comparatively smaller one, and a relatively bigger one.
No Legal Definition of Lynching
The comparatively smaller one has to do with the fact that there is no legal definition of what a “lynching” is. It is of course, punishable as a murder under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, if not as a culpable homicide not amounting to a murder at the very least.
But the legal definition of the offence as it stands, does not take into account the particular nature of the offence.
A “lynching” by definition, is not just any group of people who suddenly gather and disperse, resulting in the death of a person.
They gather for the purpose of committing violence – and the purpose of the violence is specific – it is a means of social control.
However, the question asked of the minister, confused matters, by treating all killings by a mob as a “lynching” – which they are not. There are some key differences which must be noted between the killings which take place on the basis of “child lifter” rumours, and those which are more properly “lynchings”.
The victims of the former kinds of killings have tended to be from a wide range of social classes – urban, rural, privileged, poor, whereas the latter are largely poor Muslims and Dalits (not even well-off Muslims and Dalits).
Whereas the former killings have had little or no support of policemen (even police have been attacked by mobs), the latter has seen tacit and active support of the police machinery quite often – suggesting the involvement of dominant local groups.
The closest Indian law gets to understanding the nature of the latter type of offences is through the framework of the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, and the Scheduled Caste and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. These laws attempt to criminalise offences committed along caste and ethnic lines.
Even then, they still fall short of a comprehensive definition of hate crime, which would include lynching on the basis of identity, in order to exert social control.
Even if the definition of lynching under Indian law were well-settled, there’s a subsidiary problem in the way in which data related to crimes in India is maintained.
Data related to crimes are collected by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) on the basis of First Information Reports (FIRs) filed by the police in each case. This means that the validity of the data depends on the willingness of the police to register an FIR, and accurately listing the offences (not always a given, considering the phenomenon of “burking” or in cases of lynching, where they are complicit, to water down the severity of the offences).
An Absence of Data on Lynching
Furthermore, even if the police were to faithfully register an FIR under the appropriate offence, the current data collection practices mean that the NCRB may not even register the offences as this article points out.
Only the “principal offence” is counted, and subsidiary offences may not even be counted.
So, a lynching may just get counted as a murder along with other murders, and not as a separate category of offences.
The absence of data on lynching offences therefore, highlights the very real data problem when it comes to law and order in India – we just don’t have enough, and what little we do, is often incomplete and contradictory. It leads to frustrating dead-ends in debates about underlying causes for law and order problems, and often leads to half-baked solutions that don’t change anything on the ground.
But quality of data and legal definitions are one problem, and the relatively smaller problem that are revealed by the minister’s statement. There’s a bigger problem, the one we really need to be worried to be about.
No Effort to Gather Data on Lynching
When the Union government throws up its hands and says that it just has no data on a raging issue of public debate, it tells you that either the government does not care, or is perfectly fine with what is going on (which is actually the same thing). Of course, law and order, and police are state subjects, but one wonders why – in three years – the Union government did not think it fit to start collecting data on lynchings in India.
The Union Government has set up a panel to make recommendations to tackle lynchings and mob violence, but one wonders what recommendations will be made as long as Union Ministers continue to publicly associate with those accused and convicted of lynchings with no consequences.
If the Government can’t be bothered to gather data, or come up with a coherent definition of what constitutes lynchings, what will they diagnose as the problem, and what will they remedy? Will they, as is usual in India, treat the symptoms as the disease and ban or regulate WhatsApp? Or worse, demand a nation-wide ban on beef and cattle-slaughter?
This, here, is the bigger problem – that the Union Government has fiddled, while India has burnt.
And now, as the fires threaten to get out of control, it has been revealed that there are no plans to douse it – after having fanned it for petty, partisan ends.
When the Union Government says that it has no data about lynching in India, it is not only talking about the dysfunctional state of data collection on law and order issues in India, but also about its own complicity.
(Alok Prasanna Kumar is an advocate based in Bengaluru. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)