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The fact that a man can be lynched by a mob is shocking. Mohammed Akhlaq was dragged out of his house in an Uttar Pradesh village because the mob suspected he had eaten beef. He died soon after. His son was also beaten badly. Some may convincingly argue that such episodes are still thankfully rare in India, but we need to go beyond such dry statistical realities because the incident is stark enough to take very seriously. And to convert it into a political opportunity is to trivialize its importance.

The lynching is the latest illustration of one of the prescient warnings made by some of our founding fathers during the constitutional debates—the risk from creating a liberal republic before creating a liberal public culture. The constitutional debates have many instances of leaders warning that the liberal constitution was being brought into an illiberal society. Here is Rajendra Prasad in his closing speech in the constituent assembly: “We have prepared a democratic constitution. But successful working of democratic institutions requires…willingness to respect the viewpoints of others, capacity for compromise and accommodation. Many things which cannot be written in a constitution are done by conventions. Let me hope that we shall show these capacities and develop these conventions."

It is equally shocking that the first response of the police was to send the meat from the Akhlaq household to a laboratory for testing when it should actually have gone after those who participated in the killing. A modern nation state should have the sole monopoly over violence. And it should deal severely with all autonomous episodes of violence by one group of citizens against another group of citizens with zero tolerance, be it communal riots, attacks on writers, any form of political violence or the random violence unleashed by mobs seeking to protect what they believe are traditional values.

Civil libertarians who selectively protest against the use of force to deal with extremist political groups such as the Naxalites should also realize that a strong state apparatus is needed to protect a liberal democracy against threats of all types, be it attacks on the constitutional republic or on its citizens. The Prime Minister has spoken about how the constitution is the only holy book for him. What happened in Uttar Pradesh is a problem for the state government to solve. But it is high time that Narendra Modi reiterates the simple fact that freedom of the individual overrides social prejudices in a liberal republic.

Modi has implicitly recognized the problem of social norms being at odds with the aspirations of modern India. In his first speech to the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort on 15 August 2014, he raised several issues that dealt with social failures. One statement of his that caught public attention was his call to parents to help in the battle against gender violence by asking their sons the same tough questions that they ask their daughters. He had then added that the law would take its own course, but that citizens must also shoulder some responsibilities. A similar strand of thinking can be gleaned from his call for a Swachh Bharat, where government action has to be flanked with changes in social behaviour.

The battle for social reform will always be a long one. But the attack on the Akhlaq household needs to be dealt with immediately. The state government is officially in charge of law and order, even in the badlands of Uttar Pradesh. The Modi government should add to the pressure on it to act quickly. It is quite irrelevant whether beef was indeed being consumed, or whether anybody’s sentiments were being hurt, or whether the act went against some notion of tradition. The plain fact is that it is the duty of the government to protect the individual rights guaranteed by the great constitution we have.

What the mob feels really does not matter.

Should state apparatus be strengthened to protect individual rights? Tells us at views@livemint.com

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