Monday, April 22, 2024

Crime As Punishment

The confiscation of assets and bulldozing properties of those involved in crime is a common tactic in UP and MP. But will such harsh and swift punishment reduce the crime rate?

By Vikram Kilpady

Union Home Minister Amit Shah recently pushed for the confiscation of assets of those involved in drug trade, as part of a harsher punishment to ensure a drug-free India. The public shaming, along with the confiscation of assets, will strike hard at people involved in the trade and deter them from selling drugs, Shah said.

Speaking by video at a conference on drug smuggling and national security, Shah also saw police units destroy 1.4 lakh kg drugs worth some Rs 2,300 crore in the international market. He added some Rs 12,000 crore worth of drugs were destroyed in the past year. The drugs destroyed included ganja, heroin and mephedrone. The locations of the seizures were in the districts of Kutch, Surat Rural, Vadodara Rural, Vadodara City, Mehsana, Surendranagar, Bhavnagar, Panchmahal, Godhra and the ATS unit’s seizures. News reports of the event took care to not mention the fact that the drugs were all seized in Gujarat.

Drugs are indeed a bane for most law enforcement agencies across the world. The youth of Punjab has been in the grip of one such fatal addiction, and the Amarinder Singh government which promised to fix it, fell apart over inaction on that particular front. The state ensured a landslide victory for the Aam Aadmi Party in the elections of 2022. The blight of drug abuse now seems to be spreading to Gujarat, which has several ports, making drug ingress rather easy, and some are privately owned. Besides, in a prohibition state like Gujarat, hooch is the only option and given the demerits of ingesting moonshine, drugs seem to be the route taken by youth in Gujarat too.

When the government told Parliament last year that it was revisiting laws to make them more stringent, the focus was expected to be on the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Indian Penal Code. But after the Law Commission’s recent report, all talk has been around the desire to retain IPC Section 124A (sedition).

With opinion sharply divided over the continued use of sedition, most Indians will welcome a tough stance on drug peddlers. Indeed, given the citizenry’s obvious apathy to the attachment of properties of various political figures under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), outrage has been rather cursory. The hue and cry over the denial of proper process and due diligence is raised only by partisan media channels or in the courts. The citizens have been ok with the seize-and-attach principle, even if it denies people their homes and their livelihood.

The power to attach property built with the proceeds of crime is included in the laws, but as an extreme measure, and is seldom utilised. It is thus entirely legal. Section 68F of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act allows for seizure if the property is liable to be transferred or concealed and can prolong the proceedings. 

The Section reads: “1) Where any officer conducting an inquiry or investigation under Section 68E has reason to believe that any property in relation to which such inquiry or investigation is being conducted is an illegally acquired property and such property is likely to be concealed, transferred or dealt with in any manner which will result in frustrating any proceeding relating to forfeiture of such property under this Chapter, he may make an order for seizing such property and where it is not practicable to seize such property, he may make an order that such property shall not be transferred or otherwise dealt with, except with the prior permission of the officer making such order, or of the competent authority and a copy of such order shall be served on the person concerned: Provided that the competent authority shall be duly informed of any order made under this sub-section and a copy of such an order shall be sent to the competent authority within forty-eight hours of its being made.”

Similarly, the PMLA also allows for seizure of property if it emanates from the proceeds of a crime. But the seldom utilised provisions of law have become weapons of first choice over the last decade. Muscular application of enforcement agencies has seen due process being left in the margins. 

Take, for instance, the lightning justice of the bulldozer, by which the law and order system has no protection for an accused whose alleged guilt is yet to be proven and who is presumed guilty by the marauding panzerkorps in yellow. Justice is seen to be done, even if it is deeply flawed.

The Supreme Court is hearing several cases related to bulldozing of homes of people accused of rioting and communal crimes in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri. The Jahangirpuri demolitions came after stone pelting at a shobha yatra on Hanuman Jayanti in April 2022. The North Delhi Municipal Corporation initiated demolition orders without due notice since their targets were categorised as encroachments. Then Chief Justice NV Ramana had stayed the demolitions in Jahangirpuri and ordered status quo, but by then some demolition had taken place and in the melee, the juice shop of a Hindu man was demolished. He has also moved court now.

The status quo order was extended by a bench of Justice Nageswara Rao until further orders. Similarly, in Prayagraj, the house of a Muslim man, the father of student activist Afreen Fatima, was razed after he is said to have led protests against a former BJP spokesperson’s remarks against Prophet Muhammad. Along similar lines are situations pertaining to people who protested against the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Uttar Pradesh in particular. Protest against the State is seen as a crime to be met with swift justice.

Also last year, the presence of bulldozers at a rally in the US to mark India’s Independence Day drew curious onlookers. The town of Addition in New Jersey marked the day with a bulldozer carrying the picture of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and the slogan Bulldozer Baba atop it. Slogans were raised in favour of Yogi Adityanath by Indians assembled on that balmy August afternoon. 

The identification of the bulldozer with the Uttar Pradesh CM has been enabled by his no-nonsense image in evicting encroachers, read people of a certain community, much to the joy of those supporting him. Soon after the BJP raced ahead on counting day of the Uttar Pradesh assembly election 2022, the BJP office in Lucknow was swamped by people carrying toy bulldozers to rejoice in the victory of the re-elected CM.

Not to be outdone, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan has taken to the bulldozer like a new convert to score more brownie points. One of the prominent victims is a former BJP leader who was captured on video urinating on a tribal. The house of the leader has been demolished, or at least a part of it was brought down by bulldozers.

Similarly, the houses of two men accused of raping a teen girl were razed in Maihar town of Satna district. Officials looked up land records and found that one house was built on government non-agricultural land while the other was built illegally; both were felled by bulldozers.

Referring to the demolition of the house of the man who urinated on a tribal, Senior Advocate Dushyant Dave arguing in the Supreme Court, made a fervent plea asking the court of Justice BR Gavai and Justice JB Pardiwala to settle the question of law in this instance. Dave argued that the man deserved to be punished for despicably urinating on a fellow man, but demolishing his house had affected his family. He drew the attention of the Court to the plight of the family, and said the Court had itself said the right to life also enjoins the right to shelter.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta also supported Dave’s view and said that the property of someone cannot be demolished just because its owner-occupant is involved in a criminal offence. Mehta, however, did mention that demolitions need to be for and in line with respective municipal law, meaning demolition of encroachments on municipal property need not be exempted. The amity between Dave and Mehta was rather shortlived when Dave said the demolitions were targeting a large number of Muslims, which Mehta opposed and said the majority of those affected were Hindus.

Bulldozer justice has become a strong law and order claim made by the governments in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, but whether it would reduce crimes like rape, murder and other serious crimes remains to be seen.

As far as the harsher punishment to strengthen the war on drugs goes, the global war on it, set about by the Ronald Reagan administration in a bid to tackle inner city crime, has died a slow and agonising death. The post-1980s flourishing of the cocaine trade and the later opioid crisis brought newer foes into the limelight. The situation has changed so much that countries are moving towards decriminalising marijuana or ganja usage and focusing on overdose prevention. Scotland has been a first mover in this regard and has asked the UK government to support its efforts on that front.

Tougher laws don’t necessarily reduce crime. If they did, murder and rape would not continue to find space among headlines. Selling drugs is punishable by the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Vietnam and some 15 other countries. This has not brought drug smuggling down in these countries, but has only pushed the trade underground and made it far more lucrative. Those who exercise their free will, even if to buy drugs and get high, can escape the penalty as long as there is a fall guy. 

Democracy’s biggest fall guy is the voter in whose name extra-judicial strongarm, nay bulldozer, tactics will be used to raze the lives of those even rumoured to be associated with a crime.


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