Opinions split on Manipur’s new bill to curb mob violence

Armstrong Chanambam | Jan 15, 2019 | 8 min read


Opinions divided on Manipur’s new bill to curb mob violence

Armstrong Chanambam

Imphal: Passing the Manipur Protection from Mob Violence Bill on December 22 last year, Manipur took the lead among states in enacting a new law to curb the growing menace of mob violence.

Mob lynching of a 26-year-old management graduate, Muhammad Farooque Khan in Tharoijam, Imphal West on September 13 last year for alleged vehicle theft grabbed headlines, compelling the state government in the state to wake up to the clear and present danger of mob violence. In fact, the BJP government in state, which initially didn’t comply with the Supreme Court’s directive of July 17 2018, approved an ordinance on October 4 which was promulgated by Governor Najma Heptulla on November 8. Holding the Centre and the states accountable for mob violence and lynchings, the SC had asked states to designate a nodal police officer, not below the rank of SP, to prevent mob violence in each district.

A senior advocate who is also an office bearer of the Bar Council of Manipur seeking anonymity said the bill is defective in the sense that it’s 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 says.

'CM took interest'

The Bill empowers the state government to imprison those who create a hostile environment against victims or their family members or against any witnesses or those providing assistance to the victim or witness by boycotting their trade and businesses or making it difficult for them to earn a living, by public humiliation through exclusion from public services, compelling them to leave their houses or homes without their express consent.

It empowers the government to designate a police officer not less than the rank of a Superintendent of Police in each district and to constitute a special task force so as to procure intel about the people likely to commit such crimes. The state government will also be able to impose a collective fine on the inhabitants of an area for harbouring those who commit such crime or abetting them in such crimes or failing to render assistance in apprehending the offenders. Offences under this Act will be non-bailable.

Human rights activist Babloo Loitongbam says the death of Farooque in the hands of a violent mob affected the Chief Minister N Biren Singh, prompting his government to pass the landmark Bill. “We have learned that the CM 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, Manipur Human Rights Commission’s acting chairperson Khaidem Mani says if there are any loopholes in the new law, it would be open to amendment in a phased manner.

Welcoming the new law passed by the government, a high ranking police officer of the Manipur Police who prefers to remain anonymous says it is the responsibility of the executive to abide by the law promulgated by the legislature. “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,” the police official said.

Under this new law, police officers directly in charge of maintaining law and order in an area are liable to serve jail terms which may extend to three years for failing to prevent lynching without reasonable cause.

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

Hemant Pandey, SP of Kangpokpi district, says 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 reach the crime scene, people would have dispersed,” he says.

Saikhul Police in July last year had rescued two youths, reported to be mentally ill, after they were brutally thrashed by a mob on suspicion of being childlifters. “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'

“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 of 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 cannot be convicted for actions committed before the enactment of a law,” says Rakesh Meihoubam, executive director of the Manipur chapter of Human Rights Law Network.

“The new law has laid out a specific offence for such crimes. Now, creating a hostile environment is defined in the new law as an offence, which is good because the IPC section dealing with this was weak. In addition to the existing laws, the new law will strengthen the case for convictions of those accused of mob lynching,” Rakesh adds.

All Manipur Muslim Organisation Coordinating Committee president S M Jalal Sheikh, speaking on behalf of Khan's family, says, "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. The case is still shrouded in mystery as the police are yet to cover all those involved in its investigation."

A deputy SP currently assisting an SP, the designated nodal officer to curb mob violence and lynching in one of the twin districts of Imphal, says it is too early to comment on the practicality of implementing the law on the ground in toto. Seeking anonymity, he says a DSP is supposed to assist the designated nodal officer in curbing mob violence but the rank and files of several police stations wouldn’t cooperate with a DSP-level officer. “A certain hierarchical structure is hardwired into the minds of those serving in the police department,” the DSP says.

The police officer says there still are some communally sensitive pockets in Imphal where the police is yet to penetrate or make its presence felt. Setting up intel units to gather information from these areas would require lot of funds, the police officer adds.

Pushpa Gurumayum, a lawyer currently handling a case where a mob had expelled a family after dismantling their house, forbidding them to enter the area despite a court’s injunction order in the family’s favour and the police failing to protect them in spite of court’s order, says it will be difficult to implement the new law until the activities of local clubs and women vigilante groups who wield an overarching extrajudicial power are not curtailed.

“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 says, while terming as ‘lame’ the government’s decision to subject the inhabitants of an area to pay a collective fine in the aftermath of a mob-violence related incident.

Lawyers like Victor Chongtham consider the passing of the Bill as 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,” says Chongtham, asking as to how many charge sheets the Manipur police department has been able to file so far despite lodging innumerable FIRs.

He says the new Bill calls for caution as it may face the same fate as POCSO, which has led to a growing number of accused choosing to abscond, rather than face trial as the punishment is quite severe. Under the Bill, anyone convicted for causing the death of a victim may serve a lifetime of rigorous imprisonment.

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