The British colonisers were known to impart instant justice to leaders of various uprisings against their oppression. The capture and killing of Alluri Seetarama Raju, the hero of the Rampa Rebellion, in 1924 was one such instance. British forces arrested Raju, who had organized the tribals of the Eastern Ghats against the Madras Forest Act 1882, and shot him.
Police encounters did not stop after independence. Charges of fake encounters have coloured police action against dacoits in the 1950s, the battles against terrorism in Punjab, insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast, and Maoism. Some days ago, a Supreme Court-appointed committee recommended the prosecution of 10 police officers under IPC 302 for staging a false encounter near Hyderabad on December 6, 2019.
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According to the Union Ministry of Home, there have been 655 instances of police encounter deaths between January 1, 2017, and January 31, 2022. Chhattisgarh reported 191 incidents, the highest in the country, followed by Uttar Pradesh with 117. Thirteen other states reported encounter killings suggesting that the malady is prevalent across the country.
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In the Hyderabad incident, Disha was gang-raped and brutally murdered by four persons on November 27, 2019. There was widespread media coverage of the incident and public outrage, which spurred the police to act fast. They announced the arrest of the four accused a day later and on December 6 morning, an alleged encounter took place in which all four accused were killed. The city responded positively to the incident and the policemen were felicitated. Political parties also praised the rendering of “swift justice”. Some feeble voices of dissent were drowned in the revelry.
Incidents of instant justice represent the dark underbelly of our criminal justice system. They should jolt the conscience of our judges, lawyers, politicians, bureaucrats and policemen. For years, mafia overlords used to escape the clutches of law and, when apprehended, slip past the justice system with no one willing to depose against them. Some even became legislators and used their vaunted status to ringfence against prosecution. Political parties patronised them. They, in turn, delivered instant justice on their turf. When public anger rose or state institutions were hurt, encounters followed. Vikas Dubey, a gangster from UP, ran his fief in contempt of law but the moment he attacked the police his end came.
Can staged encounters be justified in any circumstances? No. Then what explains such acts? After every sensational crime, the media blitz and public anger against the system put inordinate pressure on the police. Shrill calls for speedy arrest lead to hasty and often reckless responses. Only patient and cool-headed officers can maintain their composure in the face of a sustained campaign against police inaction. If the arrest is delayed for genuine reasons, say for collecting evidence, it may even lead to a serious law and order situation. In such situations, the macho, tough types, known as the encounter specialists or the “big guns”, step in. The public loves them, politicians patronise them, and criminals are petrified of them. Their ride in the hierarchy is smooth, having gained proximity to the powers that be.
Is the public inured to hard justice? Yes. Because justice delayed is justice denied. People’s faith in the judicial system is broken. The common perception is that the decisions never seem to decide. A report by the Public Health Foundation of India states that between 2001 and 2018, rape-related crimes rose by 70 per cent. But only 10 per cent of the cases completed trial by 2018, with acquittals in 73 per cent of such cases.
Despite the speedy arrest and a special court in the December 16, 2012 gang rape and murder case, it took six years for a judgment to be delivered. Forty-six million cases clog our courts; 30 million are criminal cases in the district court alone. According to Justice (retired) Madan Lokur, the situation is hopeless and beyond repair. How many times have plea bargaining or the Probation of Offenders Act been used to reduce pendency? The SC committee in the Disha case has hauled up the executive and judicial magistrates too for attending to their tasks in a perfunctory manner. Undertrials rot in jails when a majority of them can easily be out on bail having already served the sentence for their crimes, without being half convicted. If this does not dehumanise society, what does?
Several useful recommendations have been made by the SC committee in the Disha case. These include, inter alia, video recording of all investigative processes, use of body-worn cameras and dash cameras, mandatory footage collection of CCTV during investigations, and audio-video recording of statements of witnesses. Implementing these in all cases may not be practical as it would entail huge costs and man-hours. Even CCTV cameras have not been installed in all police stations. But certainly, a start can be made with heinous cases. Perhaps, the most critical need for every police station is access to a forensics team to take charge of the crime scene and collect foreign evidence scientifically. Digital evidence leaves a firm imprint and solid evidence.
The Disha case is another wake-up call. Instant justice and public acclaim give a temporary high but scar the image of the police and the State. As a critical pillar of the criminal justice system with the widest public interface, it is incumbent upon the police chiefs to stay on course. They should firmly caution their men that their job is to bring the accused to justice not to dispense justice.
(The writer served as Special Director, Intelligence Bureau, Secretary Security, Government of India, and Central Information Commissioner. He is presently Chairman, Deepstrat, a New Delhi-based Think Tank and Strategic Consultancy.)