On 06 December 2019 a vast majority of the people in India was in a mood of jubilation when they heard about the police encounter in Hyderabad. India woke up to the news of four rape accused men being shot dead by a team of the Hyderabad Police. To many, this killing of gang rape and murder accused, the police action was "justice delivered”. People were seen shouting slogans in praise of the Hyderabad Police. Flowers were showered on police personnel. People were seen celebrating the police action in other parts of the country, including Delhi and Mumbai with firecrackers and sweets. The victim’s family and also Nirbhaya’s mother expressed joy over this encounter.
The incident took place around 6.30 am when the accused, lorry workers aged between 20 and 24, were taken to the scene of the crime near Hyderabad for a reconstruction of events as part of the investigation. "The accused men snatched weapons from police and fired on police and tried to escape. The police fired in retaliation in which the four accused died," a senior police official told PTI. The Cyberabad Police said its personnel resorted to "retaliatory" firing after two of the accused opened fire at them by snatching their weapons besides attacking the latter with stones and sticks, resulting in injuries to two policemen.
Many people viewed this encounter as speedy justice. Some politicians too have justified the police action. Samajwadi Party MP Jaya Bachchan, who had recently advocated lynching of rapists in Parliament, said the killing of the four men was long due. "Better late than never," she said. Mayawati, the former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh said the police action is "commendable" and that justice has been done. She went on to say, "Had police taken a similar tough action in the case of Nirbhaya gang-rape, justice could have been delivered early." This incident may seem like justice and indeed, the applause coming in from many quarters of society – including political leaders – makes it seem as if the actions have the backing of both authorities and the people at large.
Yet this incident also raised concerns over the extrajudicial executions. M any were also deeply unsettled by the news and indeed, these developments leave us with more questions than answers when it comes to crimes against women and the actions of the police. It is worth spelling out here why the encounter – an Indian phrase that usually refers to an extrajudicial killing – raises alarm rather than satisfaction about justice having been done. Various questions have been raised on this encounter event.
How do we know they were the culprits? - This is the obvious, straightforward question to ask even if you believe that justice should be swift and that the state should execute the accused. How do we know the police have picked up the right people? It is not as if they were caught in the act itself. That being the case, we now have to believe that the police have arrested the actual perpetrators and not just four people whom they can pin the crime on.
How do we trust the police’s story? - Technically speaking, no execution had taken place and no pronouncement of guilt by the police either. On paper, the claim is that the accused somehow managed to break free of the police, obtained possession of some guns and attempted to shoot, only to get killed in the process. Why do we not believe this claim of self-defence? The accused had been in custody for a week, one in which there was tremendous scrutiny on the police’s actions. They were not on the run. Were the police so incompetent that when they were being taken to the scene of the crime – at 3:30 am – the accused men managed to get away easily and get their hands on police weapons?
VC Sajjanar, was the Superintendent of Police of Warangal in 2008, when the exact same situation played out – a high profile case of an acid attack on a woman led to the accused being killed by the police after being taken to the scene of the crime and somehow managing to get their hands on a gun. The Deccan Chronicle on November 30 even reported on the buzz that the police was considering something extrajudicial in order to assuage public anger and the damage it was doing to their image and that of the Telangana government. Was the police planning something more than mere arrest to calm down tempers and be the “heroes” once again in the public eye? Moreover, even if the police story is right, does it not display extreme incompetence? How could the police let four men who were in their custody in a high-profile case break free and get their hands on weapons?
There have been various voices raised against the police encounter. Several Rights Activists expressed their outrage and said the police cannot act like a mob lynch under any circumstance. “The encounter was an attempt by authorities to distract people from the government's failures to safeguard women's rights” the Activists said calling for an exhaustive inquiry. According to Kavita Krishnan, Secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association, the killing of the four men was not justice but a "ploy" to shut down demands for accountability from the police, judiciary, governments, and justice and dignity for women. She described the incident as the admittance of utter incompetence and failure of criminality on the part of the entire political and police system. "It was an attempt to divert attention from the issue. A high level inquiry in the matter is needed," said Annie Raja, General Secretary of the National Federation of Indian Woman (NFIW).
Lawyer and rights activist Vrinda Grover termed the incident "absolutely unacceptable". Senior Advocate Jaideep Gupta, always known for upholding the nuances of Constitution law, told Live Law, "If it was in self defence, it was perfectly justified. If it was an extrajudicial killing, then it was murder most foul, because the persons killed were in the police custody.” Senior Advocate Rebecca John said, “There is anguish that the judicial system has failed. That is true to a great extent. But you need to invest in and strengthen the system to prevent systemic failure.”
A cartoon went viral in the social media after the police encounter in Hyderabad. In the Police Academy the candidates are instructed: “If the rape-accused are poor and from marginalised community, kill them. If the rape-accused are rich and from upper caste, then, give them bail so that they can kill the victim.” The recent classic examples are killing the accused in Hyderabad and the burning of the victim by the rapist on bail in UP. The Indian Police should feel ashamed of this “crooked and dangerous strategy”. The politicians also need to examine themselves as to why they are “misusing the police force for their selfish gains”. As the Justice Verma Committee report in the aftermath of the 2012 gang-rape-murder in Delhi pointed out, the actual solution to India’s high level of crimes against women involves much more careful work covering everything from education to police reforms to awareness of domestic violence and even electoral reform . Are they ready for the reform?
(Published on 06th January 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 01)