Manipur has taken the lead among Indian states in enacting a new law to curb the growing menace of mob violence in the country, with the passing of the Manipur Protection from Mob Violence Bill on December 22 last year.

The lynching of a 26-year-old management graduate, Muhammad Farooque Khan, in Tharoijam, Imphal West in mid-September last year for allegedly stealing a car compelled the state government to act against the clear and present danger of mob violence.

In fact, the Supreme Court could claim some credit for the move as it issued a directive on July 17 last year, saying the national government and states should be accountable and designate a senior police officer, not below the rank of superintendent, to prevent mob violence and lynchings in each district.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the northeastern state did not initially comply with the directive, but on October 4 it approved an ordinance that was promulgated by the Manipur governor on November 8.

However, a senior advocate who is also on the Bar Council of Manipur, who preferred to remain anonymous, said the law is defective because it is retroactive and not progressive.

“In most cases, a new law becomes effective from the day it is notified through a gazette notification. An ordinance cannot be converted into a Bill without inviting a public discussion, seeking the opinions of legal experts. It was drafted by the Advocate General of the state without even setting up a proper drafting committee. It happened too fast, too soon,” he said.

Chief Minister ‘took interest’

The law empowers the state government to jail people who create a hostile environment against victims or their family members. Indeed, the definition of mob violence is broad and includes boycotts on trade and businesses or making it difficult for someone to earn a living, as well as humiliation through exclusion from public services, or compelling someone to leave their home without express consent.

It empowers the government to designate a police officer not less than a superintendent in each district and to set up a special task force to obtain information about the people likely to commit such crimes.

The state government will also be able to impose a collective fine on residents in an area where people commit such a crime or help others to commit such crimes. The law also makes it an office if people fail to render assistance in apprehending offenders. And people who commit offenses under this law will not be eligible for bail.

Human rights activist Babloo Loitongbam said the death of Farooque at the hands of a violent mob affected the Chief Minister N Biren Singh and stirred his government to pass the landmark bill.

“The Chief Minister took a lot of interest in getting the Bill passed. Even though we are still very critical of the government’s decision to detain a journalist [Kishorechandra Wangkhem] under the National Security Act, his commitment in getting this Bill passed is worth appreciating. This is among the two significant achievements of his government, the other being to give a new lease of life to the moribund Manipur Human Rights Commission.”

Meanwhile, Khaidem Mani, acting chairperson of the Manipur Human Rights Commission, said if there were any loopholes in the new law, it would be open to amendment in a phased manner.

Police could face jail

A senior officer at the Manipur Police, who preferred to remain anonymous, said officials would have to abide by the law. “Even if there are penal provisions for police officers failing to prevent mob lynching in areas under their command, it’s the responsibility of the judiciary to decide the culpability of those officers after a thorough investigation,” he said.

Under the new law, police directly in charge of maintaining law and order in an area could face jail terms of up to three years for failing to prevent a lynching without reasonable cause.

However, Deputy Inspector General (headquarters), E Priyokumar Singh, said he was unfamiliar with the contents of the Bill as it was passed only recently and the Chief Secretary was yet to issue gazette notification about it.

Hemant Pandey, a superintendent in Kangpokpi district, said people rarely come forward to identify the main instigator after such incidents.

“Unless there is video evidence of the lynching, like the one we have in the Tharoijam case, it is difficult to find out the culprits as villagers don’t cooperate. In most cases, especially in the hill districts of Manipur where the terrain is far and wide, by the time police get to the crime scene, people would have dispersed,” he said.

Last July Saikhul police rescued two youths, reported to be mentally ill, after they were brutally thrashed by a mob on suspicion of being child abductors. “The incident occurred at night and by the time the Saikhul Police reached there, the mob had dispersed. Fortunately, we were able to rescue the two victims,” Pandey says.

‘Local vigilantes need to be curtailed’

Rakesh Meihoubam, head of the Manipur chapter of Human Rights Law Network, said: “Those who commit mob violence and lynching will be tried under the ordinance promulgated on November 8 for the time being until the new Bill is turned into an Act.

“The new law will also become effective from the day the ordinance was promulgated. However, the accused in the September lynching cannot be tried under this new law, as Article 20 of the Indian Constitution protects individuals against ex-post-facto legislation, which means no one can be convicted for actions committed before the enactment of a law.”

“The new law has laid out specific offenses for such crimes. Now, creating a hostile environment is defined in the new law as an offense, which is good because the [penal code] section dealing with this was weak… [and] the new law will strengthen the case for convictions of those accused of mob lynching,” Rakesh said.

Meanwhile, the family of Farooque Khan are not happy about the prosecution of offenders who killed their lad last September.

SM Jalal Sheikh, president of the All Manipur Muslim Organisation Coordinating Committee, said on behalf of the family: “We are not satisfied with how the prosecution of those who killed Farooque Khan is proceeding. Neither are we satisfied with the interim charge sheet being prepared. The prosecution is yet to cover all the accused who were involved in his lynching. Only six have been arrested while those who were the real masterminds remain at large.”

Meanwhile, a deputy superintendent in Imphal said it was too early to comment on the practicality of implementing the new law. He feared rank and file police may not cooperate with senior officers because “a certain hierarchical structure is hardwired into the minds of those serving in the police department”.

The officer, who spoke off-the-record, said there were still communal pockets in Imphal where the police had yet to penetrate or make its presence felt. Setting up intelligence units to gather information from these areas would require a lot of funds.

Others also suggested it would be tough to implement the law. Pushpa Gurumayum is a lawyer handling a case about a mob that expelled a family after dismantling their house and forbidding them to enter the area despite a court injunction in the family’s favor. She said police failed to protect the family, which made her think it would be difficult to implement the new law until the activities of local clubs and women’s vigilante groups, who wield significant extrajudicial power, are curbed.

“Despite living in the heart of the city, I have noticed volunteers of the local club and Meira Paibis [women vigilante groups unique to Manipur] of my locality detaining inebriated youths and drug users, sometimes thrashing them. Mob violence, in the context of Manipur, results from this culture,” she said.

Lawyer Victor Chongtham also felt the passing of the Bill was a hasty decision. “Manipur is relatively peaceful when it comes to mob-lynching. The Tharoijam incident was an aberration. The government is most likely to misuse this law while targeting those protesting against it in future. The need of the hour is police reforms. Without the presence of police officers totally invested in getting cases solved, the new law is like old wine in a new bottle,” he said, suggesting that police filed few charge sheets despited many First Incident Reports being lodged.

He said people should be cautious about the new law, as it may have the same impact as the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act of 2012, which led to many accused people absconding rather than facing trial because punishments were so severe.