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Legal Deterrence

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The self-congratulatory manner in which the Nihangs arrested for killing a Dalit man at the Singhu border have admitted to the crime indicates they consider themselves heroes of the community. Under what narrative do they think that barbaric punishment of the Taliban kind is justified for a ‘crime’ like disrespect of ‘holy’ scripture? Indian custom and law permits Sikhs to bear arms – a privilege that others do not enjoy. This is traditionally so because they are expected to defend the weak and vulnerable, not to serve their own purposes. This privilege and the respect that goes with it are betrayed every time the sword is misused to commit a crime.

The right to be offended exists as much as that to freedom of expression in the Indian Constitution. All deemed transgressions should have laws to deal with them, with proportionate penalties imposed by the courts. There is also the right to appeal if one feels aggrieved by the verdict. In an age when the death sentence has been done away with in 106 countries and handed out only ‘in the rarest of rare cases’ in India, it is unconscionable that mobs should dare to take the law in their hands in this regard.

It is important, therefore, that the state in India should enforce the rule of law with the greatest strictness when confronted with such challenges. Law enforcement should not be influenced by the identity of the victim or the perpetrator. This can be ensured, first, by making suitable laws and, second, by making it known, beforehand, what the consequences would be. The cases of ‘mob lynching’ for cow slaughter and smuggling have come down ever since clear and strict legislation has been brought against the crime. It has become more convenient, now, for the aggrieved to approach the police than take the law into their own hands. This should be the case in all matters that could inflame passions, particularly the ‘crime’ of blasphemy. The law should also be directed against clerics and suchlike who announce punishments as they feel like. The law should not wait for their words to have consequences – action should be possible against such instigation and ‘religious belief or convention’ should not be a defence. The clearer the law is on this, the easier it would be to implement. Of course, even the best system would not ensure hundred percent safety; but the certainty of appropriate punishment would certainly serve as the best deterrent.