Under pressure over 11 lynching incidents recorded in the last two weeks in West Bengal, the Mamata Banerjee-led state government has pointed out that an anti-lynching Bill passed by it in 2019 is still awaiting the Governor’s assent.

The West Bengal (Prevention of Lynching) Bill had been passed in August 2019 following a string of similar lynching cases. Mamata, who was the CM then too, had said the Bill aims to protect the constitutional rights of vulnerable people. “People are being lynched just on the basis of fake messages and rumors spread on WhatsApp groups,” she had said.

However, the Bill remained pending first with Jagdeep Dhankhar, who occupied the Raj Bhavan earlier and is now the Vice-President, and now with current Governor CV Ananda Bose.

What did the Bengal anti-lynching Bill propose?

The legislation said: “Any person involved in a conspiracy to lynch or who abets lynching shall also be punished in the same manner as if he had himself committed lynching.”

The Bill proposed a one-year jail term and a fine of Rs 50,000 for “publishing any offensive material” that could lead to violence. Anyone responsible for encouraging violence against an individual or a group of people could face a jail term up to three years, with a fine of up to Rs 1 lakh, while those held responsible for causing injury to a person could be punishable by life term, under the Bill. In case of death, the legislation said, the punishment could be death.

Festive offer

Why did the bill get stuck?

After it was passed and sent to the Raj Bhavan, then Governor Dhankhar sought some clarifications, writing to the state Home and Law Secretary. As per sources in the Raj Bhawan, the clarification pertained to the fact that the draft copy of the Bill did not have “death sentence” as the maximum punishment.

When the draft Bill was first circulated among MLAs, it provided for life imprisonment as the maximum punishment. When the legislation was finally passed via a voice note in the Assembly, the death sentence had been included as the maximum penalty.

In its reply, the Law Department said the draft Bill did not mention the “death penalty” because of a “printing mistake” caused by an “optical illusion”. Dhankhar refused to accept this as a valid reason.

Where does the Bill stand now?

After Dhankhar went on to become the Vice-President in August 2022, Ananda Bose took over as Governor. The Bill has now been pending with him along with 20 other legislation for clearance.

Following the lynching incidents, the TMC government, which has had protracted face-offs with both Dhankar and Bose, has raised the long-pending clearance for the Bill.

Mentioning the fact, Speaker Biman Banerjee said: “This Bill would have curbed the menace (of lynching). But even after five years, we are still waiting for the Governor to sign the Bill.”

What has the state govt done in the wake of recent incidents?

The TMC government has announced compensation for the relatives of the lynching victims; instructed district administrations to take necessary action to curb such incidents, including identifying characters who could be instigators; and called for public awareness through social media to check fake news and rumours.

Additionally, the local police have been asked to identify areas under their jurisdiction where such instances have been reported in the last five years.

On Tuesday, Alapan Bandopadhyay, the Chief Advisor to the CM, said, “No death can be compensated, but as a part of the state’s effort to support the families of the victims, the state government will offer the job of a special home guard to the next of kin of the victims. They will also be given Rs 2 lakh each.”

What has the opposition said?

The BJP has been saying the lynchings were a failure of the administration in West Bengal under the TMC.

BJP MP Samik Bhattacharya said: “An uncontrolled, fearless society has been created in West Bengal during the TMC regime. Why the Governor is not giving his assent to the Bill, that can only be said by the Governor himself. But in the TMC’s regime, no law can curb these incidents because of the failure of the whole administration.”