Hyderabad encounter killings: How Supreme Court panel punctures hole in police theory

Hyderabad encounter killings: How Supreme Court panel punctures hole in police theory

Supreme Court of India. ANI

It has been said that all laws are an attempt to domesticate the natural ferocity of the species. These words could not hold truer than for the criminal justice process, which was made with the express intent to reign in the emotive factor in justice dispensation. However, what happens when procedures established by law are trampled upon by public authorities to serve supposed ‘social interests’? One needs only peruse the recent report of the Supreme Court-appointed VS Sirpurkar Inquiry Commission on the Hyderabad encounter killings to appreciate the salience of this assertion.

Background of the Incident under inquiry

For the uninitiated, the incident relates to the gang-rape and murder of a veterinarian doctor in November 2019 at Gachibowli, Hyderabad. Widely reported by the media, the incident was met with massive public outcry across the country. After apprehension by the police, the four accused were transferred from judicial custody into police custody for interrogation in December 2019. Thereafter, on 6 December 2019, media reports confirmed that the suspects were killed by the police while scoping the crime scene for evidence gathering. The police narrative alleged that the accused were killed in the crossfire after they attempted to escape by snatching pistols from the police, and opening fire at the police party.

It is in this backdrop that the three-member judicial commission expressed doubts about the self-contradicting, ‘short and cryptic’ police version of events and concluded that ‘the accused were deliberately fired upon (by the police) with an intent to cause their death’. The commission found all 10 police officials liable for murder in furtherance of a common object as well as evidence tampering. Another worrying finding of the inquiry was that three of the four deceased suspects were minors. Such findings highlight two separate but interconnected concerns regarding the extant condition of criminal justice administration in the country. First, is the concern surrounding the proliferation of extrajudicial killings and its portentous implications for the state of law and order in India. The second concern pertains to the deliberate violation of specific statutory and constitutional rights of juveniles on account of such extrajudicial executions.

From democracy to mobocracy

The Hyderabad incident is reminiscent of the encounter killing of gangster Vikas Dubey last year. Therein, a similar narrative — the police convoy meeting an accident on the outskirts of Kanpur, the accused allegedly attempting to escape from police custody while brandishing a weapon, and finally being gunned down in an exchange of fire – was forwarded. Several encounter killings have similar plotlines of the victim having been killed from retaliatory fire. Put simply, ‘encounter killings’ in South Asia is the moniker given to the spontaneous, unplanned, extrajudicial killing of alleged criminals by the police without the sanction of any judicial proceeding or due legal process. Recently, the National Human Rights Commission data revealed that from 2017 to 2021, India registered as many as 655 cases relating to death in police encounters, with Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Assam topping the list in order. This portends a grim outlook for the future of policing in India.

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Encounter killings draw their social legitimacy from the willingness of a large part of the Indian populace to turn a blind eye, if not actively support, such extra-legal executions in lieu of obtaining instant justice. However, the satisfaction of the public’s bloodlust often comes at the cost of the relegation of core constitutional values and statutory rights afforded to an individual in a constitutional democracy such as the right to a free and fair trial, presumption of innocence and deprivation of life and liberty only via procedure established by law. The very fact that such deaths are not preceded by proper legal proceedings brings up, prima facie, questions of arbitrariness. The same may be likened to public executions at the old town square on the king’s behest.

Again, in cases where juveniles are involved upholding procedural justice and safeguards at each stage of the juvenile justice proceedings becomes all the more crucial to maintain normative fidelity with the principles ‘best interest of the child’, ‘safety’ and ‘diversion’ as enshrined in the Juvenile Justice Act 2015. Besides, by no means does delay in justice delivery justify the State law and order machinery taking the law into its own hands. By circumventing the judiciary, police encounters betray a lack of faith in the Indian judiciary to secure speedy justice and lend to the disillusionment of the public with the criminal justice system as a whole.

Way forward

The Hyderabad commission inquiry presents a significant opportunity to strictly implement the procedure for investigation into fake encounter deaths in adherence to the detailed guidelines in PUCL v State of Maharashtra (2014) and the revised guidelines of the National Human Rights Commission (2010). If procedures and rules are the handmaid of justice, then indeed there is immense inherent value in upholding the passionless-ness, fairness and rule of law by following proper procedure. This can only be done when de facto licences to kill through fake encounters is seen by Indian society as an illegitimate means for securing expedient justice.

The writer is with the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. Views expressed are personal

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