The incidence of four persons being killed in an alleged encounter near Hyderabad by police while escorting them to the scene of crime and the visuals that were shown on television the whole day did create strong reaction across a wide spectrum of the public. In that deserted landscape, where four buses were parked in the middle of the road and three forking lanes, all cordoned off by a heavy posse of police, and at the edge over a bridge throngs of people showering flowers on the police as the bodies lay, seemed just out a movie of not long ago. The villain of the movie became a cult hero and his dialogues were played at weddings in the rural areas and were even analysed and deconstructed by sociologists at Harvard.
The crime they committed was heinous, they had pretended to help a young woman veterinary doctor stranded on the lone road and assaulted and killed her in the most inhuman fashion. The public, understandably, was outraged and would have lynched them had the police not intervened.
Commenting on that incident, the newly appointed Chief Justice of India Sharad Arvind Bobde, while addressing a function at the Jodhpur High Court, said justice must not be instant and it loses its character when it becomes revenge. He said recent events have sparked off the old debate with renewed vigour and the criminal justice system should consider this. It also reflected the concerns activists have raised over the police action and the ‘horrifying’ violation of due process.
At the same time, Justice Bobde said the recent events across the country sparked off an old debate with new vigour, and there was no doubt that the criminal justice system must reconsider its position and attitude over the time it took to dispose off a case. ‘But I don’t think justice can ever be or ought to be instant, and justice must never ever take the form of revenge. I believe justice loses its character of justice if it becomes revenge.’
The Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad suggested to the Chief Justice and other senior judges to ensure that there was a mechanism to monitor quick disposal of rape cases, saying the women of the country were crying for justice .‘I would urge the CJI and other senior judges that there must be a mechanism to monitor the disposal of these cases so that India’s stature as a proud country governed by rule of law must be restored at the earliest,’ he said. There were 704 fast-track courts for such offences and others, he said and stressed the government’s commitment to justice delivery in such cases.
The police said that the four accused had snatched the weapons of two personnel, fired at the team that took them to the scene for the re-enactment of their alleged crime. The rape and murder itself had triggered outrage, sparking demands of swift punishment to rapists and the news of the encounter led to celebrations in some quarters as well as concern in others.
Understandably, several such crimes against women and children have come to the fore over the past week fuelling this public anger. The Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jaganmohan Reddy lauded his Telangana counterpart and his police and said he planned to bring a bill to enact a law that will ensure speedy trial and stringent punishment in cases of atrocities against women. ‘As the father of two daughters, the incident left me deeply agonised. What sort of punishment would give a parent relief? We should think about it.’
The death of a woman from Unnao, who was raped by five men and then set on fire, and who was rushed to Delhi but could not be rescued, happened around this time and that had only added to the outrage such incidents have aroused. The Unnao instance was among the spate of such incidents and according to police data this was the 51st such crime registered in the 11 months in that district alone.
These two incidents reflect the situation prevailing in most parts of the country and should cause serious concern for the law enforcing agencies and the public in general. According to government figures 33, 658 cases of rape have been reported in the country during 2017, or an average of 21 incidents a day. Contrast this with the judicial system that moves exceptionally slowly. The length of time that court cases take often leads to a failure of prosecution.
This sort of failure of the judicial system is what probably leads to police brutality, or ‘encounters’ a euphemism for extrajudicial killings. In Telangana alone, where the Hyderabad killing took place, there have been seven such ‘encounters’ in the past decade.
According to the Bihar director-general of police Gupteshwar Pandey people cannot garland and worship criminals and at the same time complain about the rise in crime. ‘You support criminals in the name of caste, religion or party, you make a hero, worship and welcome them and then talk about checking crime, or the spate in rapes. The responsibility for checking the crime does not rest just with the police; everyone will have to wake up and rise to fight the culture of crime.’
He was probably referring to a former Union minister garlanding eight persons convicted of lynching a 40-year-old man in Jharkhand and also the Prime Minister sharing a the stage in Daltonganj, Jharkhand, recently with a murder accused. A person facing trial for murdering a schoolteacher, has been given a BJP ticket in the ongoing Assembly elections, he pointed out.
‘Here 15, 16, 18-year-olds are consuming liquor, ingesting smack, heroin, indulging in various types of intoxicants,’ Pandey continued. ‘Stopping crimes is not just the task of the police. While the police are the specific agency responsible for controlling crime, it cannot be stopped till people wake up and create an atmosphere that does not favour criminals.‘Who can claim that no crime will happen in the future? This is like a game of cat and mouse. Crime happens. The duty of the police is to try to stop it, and if they don’t succeed, then to detect it.’
Unnao, just 40 km from Lucknow, was in the news when a BJP legislator, Kuldip Sengar, was accused of raping a woman on the pretext of getting employment when she was a minor. This summer the woman’s two aunts were killed and she was critically injured along with her lawyer when a truck rammed their car.
The Vice President Venkaiah Naidu felt new legislations alone would not bring down such incidents and he cited the 2012 Delhi incident that shook up public conscience and led to the city being described as the ‘rape capital’. 'I am not against bringing any new law or bill, we brought a bill after Nirbhaya, but what happened? Was the problem solved?’
Speaking at a function in Pune, Naidu said that ‘what is required is not a bill rather a political will and administrative skill to kill the evils of society and change the mind set. We should go back to the roots of our culture.’ He also attacked Rahul Gandhi, without naming him, for his remark that India has become the rape capital of the world. Rahul Gandhi had made the remark in Sultan Battery in his new constituency Wyanad regarding a rape that had taken place there. ‘Foreign nations are asking why India is unable to look after its sisters and daughters.’
Hours after the Hyderabad encounter, President Ram Nath Kovind said rapists convicted under POCSO Act should not be allowed to file mercy petitions if they were sentenced to death and soon enough the Union Home Ministry recommended staying the mercy petition of one of the four convicted to death in the Nirbhaya case The Lok Sabha could not even manage to hold a discussion on the encounter for the MPs to raise questions, with BJP’s Meenakshi Lekhi saying that the police have not been given the weapons as a showpiece.’
Contrast this with the other encounter by the same police officer ten years earlier in Warangal where the perpetrators of an acid attack on a woman in 2008 were killed but the survivor of the attack lamented, ‘I think there is no justice in that kind of action. Justice will be done when my face comes back to normal and I get to lead a normal life. That will be called justice. Though they are killed, I am still facing the aftermath of that incident.’
Police officials have a different view. The police chief at the time of the Delhi incident said he had a ‘tough time’ during that December. ‘We were getting messages, asking us to throw the accused in front of hungry lions. Someone said lynch them, but we stuck to our guns and there was no question of doing anything illegal.’
Recalls a civil rights activist of another such incident, ‘On June 28, 2012, Rahul was among the victims of what the Central Reserve Police Force and the local police dubbed as a major victory in their decade-long fight against Maoists when 17 hardened guerrillas were killed in a daring night raid and the Union Home Minister Chidambaram praised the security forces for their courage .But soon came photographs of the corpses splayed out and none of them looked like battle-hardened fighters. Rahul was part of that gruesome picture, a boy clad in blue school shorts and beside him was a girl in a white blouse and floral print skirt. Her mother said she was 12 years old. Chidambaram said he was ‘deeply sorry’ if any children had been killed in the encounter but only an official probe would ascertain the truth.
Instant retribution,delayed justice and an excited media that doesn't pause to analyse and whip up crowd frenzy all make or a heady concoction. In the process the victim is the one who gets left behind.
The facts and views expressed in the article are those of the writer.