Column: The Perils of ‘Instant Justice’

By Sandeep Sahu

Such jubilation on the streets is seen only when Team India wins a major world cricket tournament like the World Cup. Sweets were exchanged, crackers burst and “Hyderabad police Zindabaad’ slogans rent the air across the country. In Hyderabad, scenes of people showering flowers on city police personnel were reminiscent of lawyers showering rose petals on Mumtaz Qadri, a security man in Pakistan who killed liberal Pakistani politician Salman Taseer, all along the way as he was being taken to a court in 2011. And why not? Hyderabad police, after all, had done something that the ‘nation’ wanted by meting out instant justice and shooting down all four accused in the horrific gang rape and murder case of a young veterinarian in the city – just nine days after the incident. India had found a real-life ‘Singham’ in VC Sajjanar, the Hyderabad police commissioner who has hard-earned the sobriquet ‘encounter specialist’ for his trigger-happy ways since the time he was SP in Warangal. Like his screen counterpart, this ‘tough cop’ believes in delivering instant justice, the law of the land and established police procedure be damned! Does it really matter whether the ‘encounter’ was genuine or not? The big takeaway was ‘justice’ had been delivered just the way the people wanted. In one fell swoop, all the ‘sins’ of Hyderabad police – making the father of the victim run from one police station to another to register his complaint on the night of the incident on the grounds of territorial jurisdiction, notwithstanding sections 154 and 166 A of the CrPC that make it mandatory for the police to register a complaint no matter where it is lodged – were forgiven. The message had been sent out loud and clear to all rapists in the country: “Exercise control over your libido or you will be eliminated the way the Hyderabad rapists were.” All potential rapists are now shitting in their pants with fear of being ‘encountered’ and the nation can now sleep peacefully. From now on, India will be a rape-free country!

“I am with Hyderabad Police” trended on social media, that new barometer of the public mood, all day. Anyone who questioned the police version was condemned by the people. This writer too had his share of condemnation for playing spoilsport when the nation was in a celebratory mood. Many of those who aimed barbs are perfectly normal, sensible people who otherwise hail other posts by the author. Going with the public mood, our political class, including our honourable members of Parliament sworn to the Constitution, too hailed the police action. Those who held a different view hedged their bets fearing public opprobrium.

There is one hitch though. What if the police have shot down the wrong people in a desperate effort to assuage the nationwide outrage over the blood-curdling incident, realising that the moment was ripe for such an action in view of the countrywide outrage? How do we know for sure that the four gunned down early on Friday morning, barely hours after police got custody of the accused, were indeed the four who raped and killed the victim and then burnt her body? Well, the police have cited CCTV footage and the confessions of the accused, haven’t they? But does the footage show them raping, killing and burning? No, they only show them in the vicinity of the place where the incident is said to have taken place. As for the confession, will it be the first time the police have ‘extracted’ a confession from an accused in their custody wrongly charged with a crime? To put things in perspective, even Ajmal Kasab, the dreaded terrorist who the entire nation saw on the CCTV footage shooting down innocent people at the CST station, was convicted and executed not on the basis of the CCTV footage or his confession, but on the basis of eyewitness accounts and corroborative evidence. Grainy CCTV pictures can never substitute hard evidence in a criminal case.

Before I am accused of ‘siding with the rapists’, let me clarify that even I believe they were the actual culprits. But that does not give the police the right to kill someone. What are the courts there for in that case? If we give the police the unfettered right to play judge, jury and executioner, we should dismantle all courts, including the Supreme Court, shouldn’t we? There are far too many holes in the police story to establish beyond all reasonable doubt that it was a genuine encounter. Why did the police take the accused to the crime spot for the reconstruction of the crime and collection of supplementary evidence at that unearthly hour? If it was necessary to do it because of the possibility of a mob creating a law and order situation, why was adequate precaution not taken? Why were they not handcuffed? If the unarmed accused snatched away the rifles of the policemen, all 10 of whom were armed, shouldn’t they be pilloried for their gross inefficiency rather than feted with flowers? If the police were forced to shoot, why didn’t they aim below the hip as required? If, as Sajjnar has claimed, the accused fired on the police party, how come none of them received any bullet injury? One can go on and on. But all these questions suggest that there were enough grounds to suspect that it was a staged encounter carried out under the same formula that the real-life ‘Singham’, VC Sajannar, had first tried out when he supervised the killing of three youths arrested for throwing acid on two girls in 2008.

The anger and the celebratory air, of course, is understandable. After all, the rapists have had a free run in the country for far too long, testing the patience of the nation and driving them to exasperation. But I am afraid we are barking up the wrong tree. We are venting out our anger which should have been logically directed at our political class and the judiciary for their numerous acts of commission and omission that have led us to the sorry pass. Significantly, the Union Home ministry recommended the rejection of the mercy petition of Vinay Sharma, one of the convicts in the equally horrific Nirbhaya case in Delhi, on the day the Hyderabad encounter took place. What was it doing all this while? Why did it not reject it as soon as it was received? Why were enough fast track courts not set up to ensure speedy trial of rape cases? President Ramnath Kovind has done well to make a case for rapists convicted under the POCSO Act being denied the right to mercy (again on the day of the encounter). But why can’t it be extended to all convicted rapists once the Supreme Court has upheld a death sentence?

As for the judiciary, it is not as if it doesn’t take up cases out of turn on an urgent basis. The recent hearing of the petition filed by the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress combine against the Maharashtra Governor’s decision to swear in Devendra Fadnavis as the Chief Minister is a case in point. Why can’t rape cases be treated with the same urgency, not just by the apex court but also by the lower judiciary?

If we really want justice for rape victims, we should demonstrate the same anger that we display after every chilling rape case like Nirabhaya, Kathua, Unnao and now the vet in Hyderabad to force the politicians to treat rape as an issue of national importance. Let us not be so blinded by anger and outrage that we lose our sense of right and wrong. If we back and hail trigger-happy police dispensing instant justice, who we criticize day in day out, we will end up as a banana state and a rogue republic.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)