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India’s Court Wants Law to Punish Those Taking Part in Lynchings

FILE - The Supreme Court of India in New Delhi, Aug. 22, 2017.

Saying that “horrendous acts of mobocracy” cannot be allowed to become the new normal, India’s Supreme Court has asked the government to consider enacting a new law to punish mobs taking part in lynchings.

India has been grappling with rising incidents of deadly vigilantism.

Hindu cow protection groups have targeted low caste Hindus and Muslims suspected of killing cows or eating beef, and more recently, strangers have been killed by mobs incensed by fake messages and videos about child abductors on the popular messaging platform WhatsApp.

FILE - This photo taken on March 22, 2018 shows apps for WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and other social networks on a smartphone in Chennai.
FILE - This photo taken on March 22, 2018 shows apps for WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and other social networks on a smartphone in Chennai.

Saying that all such cases have to be “curbed with an iron hand," the bench headed by India’s Chief Justice Dipak Misra said, "No citizen can take law into his hands or become a law unto himself."

The court recommended that parliament deal with lynching as a "special and separate offense and provide adequate punishment," saying this would “instill a sense of fear for law amongst the people.”

The judges also suggested setting up special or fast-track courts to hear cases of lynching and mob violence.

The judgment was delivered after petitioners asked the court to ensure state governments take action against fringe Hindu nationalist groups that had allegedly attacked Muslims in several states. Activists say such incidents have risen since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came to power. Last month, two Muslims were lynched by an angry mob in eastern Jharkhand state on suspicion of cattle theft.

A petitioner and social activist, Tehseen Poonawala, hoped a new law would become a reality. “Such a law is really needed in the country,” he told reporters.

Taking note of recent lynchings sparked by rumors on WhatsApp, the court also asked governments to take steps to curb dissemination of irresponsible and explosive messages, videos and other material on social media platforms.

The latest target of mob vigilantism sparked by false messages on WhatsApp was a 32-year-old software engineer in the southern Karnataka state. He and three other men were handing out chocolates to schoolgirls on a roadside when alarmed locals confronted them.

Although they quickly drove away in their vehicle, a mob of about 2,000 surrounded and attacked them some distance away. The engineer died while the three others sustained serious injuries. He was the latest among 20 people who have died in the past three months after being mistaken for child abductors.

Police in several states that have witnessed such attacks have stepped up efforts to spread awareness about rumors on WhatsApp. Last week the messaging platform issued full page advertisements on how to spot fake news and has said it will translate these advertisements in regional languages.