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A large part of Indian society was stirred to protest with the heinous gang rape in Hyderabad, followed subsequently by the killing of the four accused by the Hyderabad police. While the official position remains that the accused were killed while attempting to escape, a number of factual inaccuracies have given rise to the widely held conclusion that the death of the accused was, in fact, an extra judicial killing.
The police have previously followed, with exactitude, the same standard operating procedure, and have proffered the very same explanation as to how they were attacked by the accused, forcing the officers to fire in self-defence in a number of previous cases; ranging from the killing of three men accused of an acid attack on women to the gunning down of a former Naxalite. The similarities don’t come to an end just yet, with the police officer heading the investigative teams in each case, a 1996 batch IPS officer by the name of VC Sajjanar.
Support for the actions of the police has emerged from various sections of society, with many calling for the castration of the accused, or at the very least, justifying the actions of the police in killing the accused.
Such actions are often seen as a measure to serve quick and effective justice against those accused of crimes, most often in crimes that lead to wide protestations or wide scale anger amongst members of society. This is especially true in cases of rape, with the heinous nature of the crime itself, repeated instances and ineffective preventive measures all contributing to widespread angst and frustration.
This article explores the genesis of such ‘encounter-killings’, the subsequent creation of a narrative of State and police immunity as well as the consequences of such a narrative.
A Chequered History of Extra Judicial Killings
‘Extra Judicial Killings’ have oft been utilised as an alternative to an effective judicial system by police forces in our country, with their genesis in the 1990s. India has a long history of suspicious police shooting of suspected criminals and terrorists and several police officers became famous for killing alleged criminals before trial, even featuring in Bollywood movies.The term became a part of common parlance as a consequence of the widespread ‘encounters’ used to execute members of the mafia in Mumbai. Even then, encounters evoked far-reaching support as they were seen as the only effective way to curb the rising violence in the city.
Tracing further back, the Bhagalpur blindings of 1979 constitute perhaps the first recorded version of police brutality being justified as a means of ‘serving justice’ with officials from the state Bihar being accused of pouring acid into the eyes of 31 accused under trial.
Cases of Extra Judicial Killings can be cited in abundance, be it from Hashimpura where 42 Muslim youths were rounded up and shot by the Provincial Armed Constabulary or be it in Kashmir where the book “Buried Evidence: Unknown, Unmarked, and Mass Graves in India administered Kashmir”, reports more than fifty people allegedly killed by the Indian Army, paramilitary forces and state police after being branded as “terrorists” who were later found out to be innocent civilians.
There are numerous questions we can ask ourselves of Extra Judicial Killings; are we, as a society, accepting of police or armed forces taking the law and justice in their own hand? If yes, in what circumstances, and to what extent? Beyond that, and perhaps most importantly, do they serve any purpose in eliminating crimes they purport to deter?
Consequences of Extra Judicial Killings
The principle argument against such excesses is that it allows the police to become judge, jury and executioner. Not only are these encounters a gross violation of human rights, such killings also presuppose the guilt of the accused while simultaneously undertaking an act which is by its very nature, irreversible. Such presupposition of guilt fails to incorporate any of the elements of a free and fair judicial system based on the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. The killing of accused, without an adequate determination of innocence or guilt, can only be termed as state-sanctioned murder.
This is furthered by the inescapable truth that the Indian police are often more concerned in pinning the blame on someone in order to assuage public anger rather than determining actual guilt, a pursuit more often than not, accompanied more often than not, by the blaming of a member from a vulnerable section of society. Take the example of the Ryan International murder wherein the Haryana Police said a bus conductor had confessed to murdering a Class 2 student in 2017. Upon the Central Bureau of Investigation took over the case, however, it found that the conductor had been framed and instead took into custody a Class 9 student, a juvenile, who reportedly said he murdered the young boy to postpone exams.
These encounters also involve the creation and furtherance of police impunity. Police impunity, in colloquial terms, is when forces in charge of maintenance of general law and order are lauded and appreciated for actions which would otherwise constitute crimes because their acts are believed to serve as a ‘deterrent’ and also constitute an eye for an eye. Police impunity allows the police forces moral and societal justification for their acts, in essence granting them a clean chit to act however they choose to.
The expansion of police powers by granting blanket impunity to police officers is a concept antithetical to the expansion of the ambit of democracy and comes at the cost of the ideas of liberty and freedom. Such an expansion often comes at the cost of the freedom of expression, involves gross violations of human rights and suppression of basic freedoms sought to be guaranteed to individuals in a democracy. This impunity increases with repeat incidences, with public adulations a driving force in granting the police a cover to act howsoever it wishes.
This therefore creates a perpetual cycle of police excesses, created and emboldened by a culture of hero worship of the police officers who’ve committed excesses against those regarded as dangers to society. The logical extension which then arises is that police excesses are seen as part and parcel of the police’s duty to protect the citizens against an unarmed threat to security and well-being.
The widening of the ambit of police powers by way of frequent Extra Judicial Killings tends to create a problematic precedent, justifying an ever-increasing amount of State sponsored brutality and murder, as has been the case in Kashmir where multiple executions have been justified under the garb of national security. These police excesses are often justified by the creation of a narrative of “us versus them” which pits police forces against dissenters, who are simultaneously deemed to be anti-national and anti-establishment.
Much like the student who all other children were warned to stay away from, the dissenters are then seen as bad influences on society, an anomaly to be removed, which in turn allows for the portrayal of the police as saviours, cleansing the nation of such stray elements. A prime example of this comes in the form of the police’s measures to control the Anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests spread across the nation.
The CAA, enacted in December 2019, led to widespread protests across the country, questioning the intent and constitutionality of the act. The police came down with a heavy hand in a number of cities across India, with an innumerable instances of violence reported. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, a total of 19 deaths were reported by a number of news outlets. The police also resorted to lathi charging peaceful gatherings of protestors, rampant use of tear gas and water canons, all in the name of maintaining ‘peace and order’. In a manner reminiscent of the colonial era, the police took recourse to a brutal crackdown on all forms of dissent, be it the manhandling of famed historian and biographer of Gandhi, Ramchandra Guha or countless other instances over the months which have since ensued.
Perhaps the most damning of arguments against Extra Judicial Killings is purely empirical with numerous studies showing that the age-old adage that violence begets violence applies directly to Extra Judicial Killings because, despite the very best efforts to describe it as a deterrent to the commission of crime in the future, there exists no empirical data to substantiate the claim that such killings correspond with a lower rate of crime. In fact, studies show a correlation of rise in violent crimes with harsher punishments and consequences prescribed to them.
The praising, or even acceptance, of such killings by police officers marks the precipice of slippery slope towards the erasing of civil liberties and the creation of a State with blatant disregard of its citizens’ rights, and must be avoided at all costs.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Siddhant Ahuja is a student of law at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow with a passion in the intersection between law and technology, dispute resolution, public policy and international relations
Jibran Khan is a 3rd year law school student at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow. He is interested in Constitution Law and Policy Research.
In Content Picture Credits: Newindianexpress