The practice of encounter killings continues in India and according to available data of the government, a total of 655 such killings have taken place across the country in the past five years. The term encounter killing has been used in India since the late 20th century to describe alleged extrajudicial killings by the police or armed forces almost invariably claimed to be in self-defence when they kill suspected gangsters or terrorists with bullets.
According to the Union Home Ministry, in the period between January 2017 and 31 January, 2022, there have been a total of 655 such incidents. Chhattisgarh reported the highest number of such cases with 191 cases during this period. It is important to note here that the State sees many gunfights between security forces and the Maoists, though this has come down recently.
The recent killing of gangster turned politician Atiq Ahmed and his brother by three other criminals has brought to light how lawlessness and violence has permeated our society. Though this cannot strictly be called an encounter killing and also there can be no way of defending him, his killing at a time when he is escorted by policemen leaves much to be desired. An impotent State watched on silently as assassins shot him dead.
At same time, Atiq’s son Asad, wanted in lawyer Umesh Pal’s murder case was gunned down by UP police in an encounter in Jhansi two days earlier. His co-accused Ghulam was also shot dead and both had a reward of ₹ 5 lakh on their heads.
Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has ordered a high-level probe into the Atiq shooting incident. He has also formed a three-member judicial commission to investigate the incident. Large gatherings have been banned in all districts of UP. The Opposition has accused the State government of a total collapse of law and order in the State.
Coming to police encounters, these have often made the news and there are some cases that have grabbed the attention of the public for long. Way back in July 2020, Uttar Pradesh gangster Vikas Dubey was shot dead in an alleged encounter. Dubey, who was the main accused in the killing of eight policemen in Kanpur, was gunned down by the authorities when he was being brought back from Ujjain to Kanpur and the vehicle he was in, toppled. According to the police, Dubey had attempted to flee after he had fired at the police.
Also in December 2019, the Telangana police shot dead four men accused of gang-raping and burning to death a veterinarian doctor in Hyderabad. The police had said they had to open fire in self-defence as the four men tried to escape and began pelting stones. Earlier, eight people associated with the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) allegedly escaped from the Bhopal Central Jail and were subsequently shot dead by the state police in October 2016
One may mention here that courts have, on a number of occasions, compared such encounters to state-sponsored terrorism. The question critics of encounters must answer is how can any state claim to have a monopoly on violence for which it is accountable when mafia dons and warlords run states within a state?
The police officer has the right to injure or kill the criminal for the sole purpose of self-defence or maintaining peace and order. However, nothing must be done with any mala fide or dishonest motive or to settle personal benefit. And if the use of force cannot be justified and death falls outside the scope as per National Human Rights Commission Guidelines 2010, then it shall be a crime and the police officer shall be guilty of culpable homicide under Section 299 IPC and disciplinary proceedings may be initiated by the concerned police department.
With the above-mentioned provisions in our criminal justice system, there still have been many killings without the sanction of any judicial proceeding. An RTI inquiry revealed that the National Human Rights Commission of India registered a total of around 1800 fake encounter cases between the years 2000 and 2017. The state of Uttar Pradesh accounted for the highest number of fake encounter cases, almost 45.55 percent of the total cases registered and at least 122 alleged criminals were killed in more than 6000 encounters between March 2017 to June 2020 in the state.
The NHRC laid down guidelines as early as 1997 that an FIR shall be registered in case of encounter; conduct an immediate investigation on receiving information; grant compensation to the dependant of the deceased; and refer the case to another fair investigation agency in case of the policemen belongto the same police station. However, in 2010, these guidelines were amended by including a magisterial enquiry under Section 176 CrPC in case of death within three months and mandatory reporting of all encounter deaths to the Commission.
Jurists are of the opinion that encounter killings violate the fundamental rights of criminals as every person has a right to life and liberty. which can only be deprived following the procedure established by law under Article 21 of the Constitution. This right extends to all persons without exception including a fair investigation and trial even if a person is accused of a heinous crime thereby safeguarding the equality before law under Article 14.
It goes without saying that the rule of law has to be enforced and the police has to be given a free hand in this regard without political interference. The state has the capacity to enforce the rule of law but political interference stands in the way. Poorer states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand are well-known for lawlessness and vandalism but there are others like West Bengal which is not much different. The present system existing all over the country presents a sorry state of affairs as violence, jealousy and hatred is rampant in society. While we talk of transformation, such societal change is indeed depressing and an added burden to economic problems faced by the majority.
The other aspect of the problem is the role of police and the need for training and reforms. Killings either in encounters or in front of police forces have to be stopped in a civilised society. Either efficiency is lacking among the law enforcement agencies or these killings are due to other extraneous considerations, which again speak very low about their morale. It is indeed distressing to note that violence has spread in the country to such an extent that such killings are still prevalent. Is the police force more partisan or corrupt than before? The question begs and answer.—INFA