“Fake encounters,” said Justices Markandey Katju and C.K. Prasad in a ringing Supreme Court judgment last August, “are nothing but cold-blooded, brutal murders by persons who are supposed to uphold the law”. They went on to prescribe the death penalty for those involved — a punishment which policemen ought to keep in mind whenever their superiors seek to involve them in an act of extra-judicial killing. Such instances, as the cases piling up in the Supreme Court demonstrate, are far from infrequent. As a way of dealing with the perceived pressure of public opinion following terror strikes or violent crimes, police forces across India sometimes resort to the custodial murder of prime suspects, often with a nudge and a wink from the top. Thanks to the judiciary's intervention, policemen who take the law into their own hands can no longer be assured of impunity. This is not to say genuine encounters never happen. They do, and the police, like ordinary citizens, enjoy the right of self-defence. What must be demonstrated each time deadly force is used, however, is the necessity of the police response in the face of violence by their victims.

The police in Chennai deserve praise for quickly identifying the suspects thought to be behind two recent bank robberies in the city. But the manner in which the five men died in an encounter in the early hours of Thursday raises a host of questions about the nature of the operation. Little about the official account, from the time of the operation to the details of the killing, neatly adds up. While the Police Commissioner claimed the force got a tip-off around midnight and that his men knocked at the door of the suspects at about 1 a.m., area residents said they were asked to remain indoors by the police as early as 10 p.m. on Wednesday. Other contradictions include the absence of aural and visual effects normally associated with several minutes of “indiscriminate” firing: neighbours heard only a few individual shots and just two bullet holes were visible to reporters who got a peek at the crime scene. None of this necessarily means the encounter was fake. Only an independent judicial probe can help establish what really happened. Such a probe must be conducted in a speedy, transparent and professional manner so that public apprehensions can be allayed. If the official story checks out, the city will heave a sigh of relief. But if there is any evidence that the five suspects were in custody at the time they were killed, all those involved must be charged with murder. If the law does not deter criminal acts by those in authority, we are in deep trouble as a society.

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