Home / Opinion / The need for a Manav Suraksha Kanoon

Even a supremely minimalist state is required to get one thing right: to protect the lives of its citizens. That is the barest minimum expected of a state; if it can’t do that, it loses respect and legitimacy. States exist to protect human beings and society, so that human life is not a Hobbesian nightmare—short, nasty, brutish. Which is why it is so shocking that a few committed and horrified Indians have to campaign for a new law—Manav Suraksha Kanoon—Masuka, or a new law to protect people.

Reflect on the title of the proposed legislation for a moment—it is to be a law to protect people’s lives, not from natural disaster, nor from the outbreak of a disease, nor an external aggression, but from the war within, to protect people from marauding lumpen mobs who have become enforcers of a new morality, and are tearing apart the vulnerable among us.

Any government should feel outraged and humiliated when its citizens demand such a law. The state’s response has been equivocal and its representatives are sending the wrong signal. After Mohammad Akhlaq was murdered in Dadri, a minister attended the funeral of one of the alleged assailants who later died naturally, and the casket containing the alleged assailant’s body was draped with the tricolour. Rajasthan’s chief minister, Vasundhara Raje, waited three weeks before warning cow vigilantes after Pehlu Khan’s murder in Alwar. More recently, she euphemistically called the more recent death of Zafar Khan “demise". Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken against such incidents, but in less than categorical terms, and often after several days, unlike the alacrity with which he responds to terrorist attacks abroad.

To be sure, India can be a brutal place, and atrocities on women, Dalits, Muslims, Adivasis and others have occurred in the past as well. But that does not justify the present. To argue, as some do, that statistics show how mobs have always killed people, spectacularly misses the point. It does not matter if those criticizing the attacks today did not speak up in the past (many did, in fact). What’s new is that those committing organized mayhem now appear to believe that they are protected, that they have immunity, because of the state’s lukewarm response. Such is the new normal, while India bleeds, one stab at a time.

Furious Indians—and not only liberals—are calling these acts “lynching", and some have bristled at the choice of the word. It reminds them of the Ku Klux Klan, of the Khmer Rouge, of the Red Guards of Maoist China, of Nazi Youth, and other villains. Instead of quibbling over the word, let us agree that the murders must stop.

In his thought-provoking 1960 book, Crowds And Power, the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti explored the power of crowds and their tendency to hunt in packs. Crowds love density, he said, and need direction. And demagogues know how to rouse crowds. Lynching, he wrote, occurs when the law has ceased to exist: “The word is as shameless as the thing, for what actually happens is a negation of law. The victim is not thought worthy of it; he perishes like an animal… He differs in looks and behaviour from his murderers, and the cleavage these feel or imagine between themselves and him makes it easier for them to treat him like an animal... The brutalities they permit themselves may be explained by the fact that they cannot eat the man. They probably think themselves human because they do not actually sink their teeth in him." Watch those videos again: Is Canetti talking about these acts?

Closer home, in his Gujarati short story Tolu (Crowd), Ghanshyam Desai wrote: “These humans seem calm and quiet, but all of a sudden they would start screaming and running in a particular direction. They would run, charge, push, jostle." To restrain and stop them, strong, firm moral leadership has to rise to the occasion. If it doesn’t come from a leader, the people have to provide it.

Shehla Rashid, former vice-president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, or JNUSU, was visiting London recently. She told me: “I’ve never felt disturbed, afraid and insecure in this manner ever before. As a woman, I know how lethal this idea of ‘mob justice’ can be. A mob is always trying to establish its idea of a retrograde morality, something that, as a woman, I understand very well." Along with several concerned Indians, she has launched the campaign for Masuka. The group includes the former JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, Tehseen Poonawalla, who has filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a ban on cow vigilantes, actor Swara Bhaskar, lawyers Sanjay Hegde and Rebecca John, and social activists and Dalit campaigners Jignesh Mevani, Prakash Ambedkar and Anil Chamadia. They are seeking the support of the youth, and from all parties. They intend to draft a law, consult the public widely, and then call upon politicians to enact the law. Masuka is based on the notion of restorative justice, or reform through punishment, and not retributive justice, or revenge. It won’t call for the death penalty.

Any government which has to be petitioned to introduce a law like Masuka should be deeply and profoundly embarrassed. But the moral universe has turned on its head, and citizens are left to plead with the government to perform its primary obligation. Whether it happened earlier, what those governments did, and whether those angry today were angry then or not, are all issues of secondary importance. This must stop, now.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. Read Salil
Tripathi’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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