Encounter Killings: As serious as crime?

Encounter Killings: As serious as crime?

Encounter killing of four persons suspected of gang rape & murder of a veterinary doctor in Hyderabad has received mixed reaction from the public for different reasons and triggered a debate. While no sane person can justify the brutal crime or sympathise with the criminals, the manner of handling the suspects is a reflection on our law enforcing system and should go by law. Police encounter has temporarily shifted public and media attention from the brutal crime to encounter killing.

On behalf of the State, it was said that the suspects snatched a loaded revolver from the police personnel and fired at them and also attacked the police party with stones and iron rods in which policemen were injured. Police action on December 6 was defended as self-defence.
Police encounter in this case is as significant and serious a matter as the crime itself. The Telangana Government has promptly accepted the version of the police and is ready to prosecute the suspects accordingly. It refused to prosecute police personnel involved in the encounter on the ground that there is no case against them. It had also appointed a SIT headed by a commissioner and had ordered a magisterial enquiry.
The Supreme Court has set up a three-member inquiry commission headed by a retired judge to find out the truth behind the alleged encounter killings by the State police. It slammed naming of the dead four suspects in an FIR by the police as a bid to scuttle a fair probe and raised questions over the credibility of the stand taken by the State. The Commission is asked to submit its findings within six months.
Several crimes were actually committed in this incident ultimately causing the death of a woman. Public anger was roused to such an extent that there were ugly celebrations over the encounter that took place early morning, when the suspects were taken by the police to the crime scene for confirmation of the crime. Some even suggested public hanging of the suspects and display of the execution through social media. They believe in the deterrent effect of punishments.
While expressing our anger over this crime and the failure of law enforcing authorities to protect women, we cannot violate law. Crude expression of anger should not make us blind to the need to get at the bottom of this crime. Deterrence is not the only object of punishment.
Police encounter death first raises a question over the necessity for it, as it closes a crucial source for getting the truth behind the crime. However, the police alone knows the circumstances fully to judge the necessity for attacking the accused. Each encounter case has to be probed thoroughly by an impartial agency. Hasty action to close the case may only raise a doubt that behind the victims of encounter, there may be other influential people.
As a contrast to the Hyderabad incident, a rape victim in Unnao in Uttar Pradesh fell into the hands of her rapists again after two years and was burnt alive. Naturally, it further aggravates public anger against rapists and demand for their hanging in public.
Rape is growing as a very ordinary crime in India as an incident by itself and also as a weapon to settle disputes and enmities. Our country is certainly not as bad as many western nations whatever may be said in political hate speeches to defame the government in power. But, without drastic law, strict enforcement and stringent punishment, the crime will grow aided and abetted by modern gadgets.
Insufficient police and judicial personnel is one of the main causes for increase in crimes. India Justice Report 2019 released by Tata Trusts shows that there are 22 per cent vacancies in the Police Department, 20 to 40 per cent in judiciary, and over 20 per cent of court cases pending in courts for more than 5 years in 10 States. Coverage of population under each police station varies enormously – 33,000 in Odisha and 240,000 in Gujarat urban areas and 30,000 in Telangana and 233,000 in West Bengal rural areas. This inadequacy in police and judicial strength is said to be an important cause of people getting impatient with official law and justice machinery. They gloat over instant justice without trial.
Delivering his valedictory address at the DGP/IGPs conference in Pune a few days ago, the Prime Minister laid stress on making the police more citizen-friendly. He suggested preparing a comprehensive list of best practices of different police forces.
Encounter killing is a term said to be used mostly in South Asia, especially in India and Pakistan since late 20th century to describe alleged “extra-judicial killings by the police or armed forces”, supposedly in self-defence against suspected gangsters or terrorists. The term “police encounter” was often used during Punjab insurgency between 1984 and 95 for action against suspected militants of separatist movement.
Mumbai police used this to attack underworld criminals and the practice spread to other places. Between 2002 and 2008, there were 440 cases of police encounters in the country – over half of them (231) in UP. Between 2009 and 2013, the number went up with 555 cases – UP again registering the highest number of 138.
Pakistan is notorious for fake encounters particularly in Karachi. Human Rights Watch reported 2,108 police encounter killings in Pakistan in 2015. In the US, the number of deaths due to police action, at times raise controversies and public protests. In Britain, police officers are given certain powers to enable them to execute their duties. “Policing by consent” is the practice in Britain which in the eyes of the public legitimises policing that follows principles of transparency of powers, integrity in exercising them, and accountability in performance.
National Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court have taken serious view of encounter deaths in India and have given certain directives on proper procedures to be followed. NHRC Chairman in 1997, with reference to increasing cases of police encounters, stated that under our law, police have not been conferred any right to take away the life of any other person. Encounter death, in his opinion, is an offence of “culpable homicide whether amounting to murder or not unless it is proved that such killing was not an offence under the law”.
Justice Lodha of the Supreme Court, in a judgement in 2014, pointed to the right to life and liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution which cannot be violated except according to the procedure established by law.
The Supreme Court also provided 16-point guidelines to be followed as law for investigating cases of police encounters while acknowledging the difficulties of the police in dealing with hardcore criminals. FIR should be registered and forwarded to the court, an independent investigation of the encounter should be conducted by CID or a police team of another police station, and a magisterial enquiry must be undertaken.
Encounter killings affect the image of the police and therefore, police must take all precautions to prevent need for using force against the suspects. The job of the police is complicated. For, protecting the suspects, which is necessary for resolving the crime, is also their responsibility.


The writer is Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi


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Encounter Killings: As serious as crime?