The supreme court had the occasion to speak on vigilantism in the case of ‘Tahseen Poonawalla v. Union of India (2018), when a writ petition was preferred before the court against the mob lynching on the suspicion of cow slaughtering.

While elaborating the duty of the state to protect law, the court also laid down guidelines to curb the mob violence that occurs on the suspicion of cow slaughtering. Below written words are from the said judgment.

“The States have the onerous duty to see that no individual or any core group take law into their own hands. Every citizen has the right to intimate the police about the infraction of law. As stated earlier, an accused booked for an offence is entitled to fair and speedy trial under the constitutional and statutory scheme and, thereafter, he may be convicted or acquitted as per the adjudication by the judiciary on the basis of the evidence brought on record and the application of legal principles.

No investigation, trial and punishment on the street

There cannot be an investigation, trial and punishment of any nature on the streets. The process of adjudication takes place within the hallowed precincts of the courts of justice and not on the streets. No one has the right to become the guardian of law claiming that he has to protect the law by any means. It is the duty of the States, as has been stated in Nandini Sundar and others v. State of Chhattisgarh[1], to strive, incessantly and consistently, to promote fraternity amongst all citizens so that the dignity of every citizen is protected, nourished and promoted. That apart, it is the responsibility of the States to prevent untoward incidents and to prevent crime.

States have principle obligation to see the vigilantism

In Mohd. Haroon and others v. Union of India and another[2], it has been clearly held that it is the responsibility of the State Administration in association with the intelligence agencies of both the State and the Centre to prevent recurrence of communal violence in any part of the State. If any officer responsible for maintaining law and order is found negligent, he/she should be brought within the ambit of law.

In this context, reference to the authority in Archbishop Raphael Cheenath S.V.D. v. State of Orissa and another[3] would be useful. In the said case, while dealing with the issue of communal violence, the Court observed that the State Government shall do well to enquire into and find the causes for such communal unrest and strengthen the fabric of the society. It further stated that strengthening of police infrastructure in the district would undoubtedly help in curbing any recurrence of such communal violence. Emphasis was also laid on simultaneous peace-building measures.

There can be no shadow of doubt that the authorities which are conferred with the responsibility to maintain law and order in the States have the principal obligation to see that vigilantism, be it cow vigilantism or any other vigilantism of any perception, does not take place. When any core group with some kind of idea take the law into their own hands, it ushers in anarchy, chaos, disorder and, eventually, there is an emergence of a violent society. Vigilantism cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be given room to take shape, for it is absolutely a perverse notion.”

Rights of the citizens cannot be destroyed in an unlawful manner

law provides a procedure for arrest and equally for investigation and the consequential trial. That is what has been interpreted by this Court while dealing with Article 21 of the Constitution. Thus, the rights of the citizens cannot be destroyed in an unlawful manner. As the investigating agency has to show fidelity to the statutory safeguards, similarly, every citizen is required to express loyalty to law and the legal procedure. No one, and we repeat no one, is entitled to take the law into his own hands and annihilate anything that the majesty of law protects.

When the vigilantes involve themselves in lynching or any kind of brutality, they, in fact, put the requisite accountability of a citizen to law on the ventilator. That cannot be countenanced. Such core groups cannot be allowed to act as they please. They cannot be permitted to indulge in freezing the peace of life on the basis of their contrived notions. They are no one to punish a person by ascribing any justification. The stand and stance put forth in the interlocutory applications filed by the impleaded parties intend to convey certain contraventions of the provisions of statutory law but the prescription of punishment does not empower any one to authorize himself to behave as the protector of law and impose punishment as per his choice and fancy. That is the role and duty of the law enforcing agencies known to law. No one else can be permitted to expropriate that role.

It has to be clearly understood that self-styled vigilantes have no role in that sphere. Their only right is to inform the crime, if any, to the law enforcing agency. It is the duty of the law enforcement agencies and the prosecutors to bring the accused persons before the law adjudicating authorities who, with their innate training and sense of justice, peruse the materials brought on record, follow the provisions of law and pass the judgment.

In the scheme of things, the external forces cannot assume the role of protectors and once they pave the said path, they associate themselves with criminality and bring themselves in the category of criminals. It is imperative for them to remember that they are subservient to the law and cannot be guided by notions or emotions or sentiments or, for that matter, faith.

Khap panchayat

In this context, we may reproduce a passage from Shakti Vahini v. Union of India, 2018 (5) SCALE 51 which, though pronounced in a different context, has certain significance: –

The ‘Khap Panchayats’ or such assembly should not take the law into their hands and further cannot assume the character of the law implementing agency, for that authority has not been conferred upon them under any law. Law has to be allowed to sustain by the law enforcement agencies. For example, when a crime under Indian Penal Code is committed, an assembly of people cannot impose the punishment. They have no authority. They are entitled to lodge an FIR or inform the police. They may also facilitate so that the Accused is dealt with in accordance with law.

But, by putting forth a stand that they are spreading awareness, they really can neither affect others’ fundamental rights nor cover up their own illegal acts. It is simply not permissible. In fact, it has to be condemned as an act abhorrent to law and, therefore, it has to stop. Their activities are to be stopped in entirety. There is no other alternative. What is illegal cannot commend recognition or acceptance.”


Tahseen Poonawalla v. Union of India, (2018)

[1] (2011) 7 SCC 547

[2] (2014) 5 SCC 252

[3] (2016) 9 SCC 682