The lynching of three men in Palghar district, Maharashtra, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis is a shocking case of police failure. More than a hundred people suspected to be involved in the incident have been arrested and the police personnel who evidently failed to prevent the crime from being committed have been suspended. Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has ordered a high-level probe and assured that the culprits will be brought to justice. He needs to urgently deliver on his promise.
The incident that took place last Thursday night, a video of which went viral subsequently, was allegedly triggered by suspicion that the men, including two sadhus and the driver of the car in which they were travelling from Mumbai to Surat to attend a funeral, were thieves. The villagers, belonging to a tribal community, had formed vigilante groups, apparently following rumours that organ-harvesting gangs, child-lifters and thieves were roaming in the area. By all accounts, the forest guards, who initially apprehended the travellers, and the small police team that later arrived in the village, failed to intervene or prevent the mob from taking the law into its own hands. The incident represents a terrible failure of the law and order machinery. The government must take exemplary action against the police brass responsible for this shameful abdication and surrender to mob justice.
Especially in times of heightened fear and anxiety such as these, amid a lockdown necessitated by the fight against the coronavirus, it is incumbent on the law and order machinery to be alert and vigilant and to counter rumour and prevent suspicion from gaining ground through sustained outreach to the people. In times such as these, the administration needs to visibly and firmly send out the message that the rule of law will prevail — not the mob. Any failure to do so can prove to be costly — as has been seen earlier, in other contexts and settings, in the lynchings in UP, Jharkhand or Rajasthan, for instance, over suspected illegal cattle trade. Action must be taken quickly and firmly against those in the police force who failed to take action against the culprits, or were complicit in the crime committed at Palghar, lest the people’s trust in, and respect for, the authority of the state is eroded. There must be no delay, much is at stake.