Instances are not wanting of criminals being caught red-handed by the public who thrash them before the police arrive on the scene. Similarly, if criminals are apprehended by the police, the public expect the latter to thrash them publicly to send a strong message to other criminals. The police fulfil the demand on some occasions either for name or fame which satisfies the public hunger for instant justice since the judicial process takes its own time.
Quite often, instant police action finds public approval, especially when it involves criminals. The police action of gunning down a few dacoits in Chennai a few months ago attracted public adulation. About 80 per cent of the readers approved the police action, saying the criminals did not deserve to be in society considering the serious crimes they committed.
In some instances, policemen are hailed as heroes when notorious criminals are gunned down in an encounter and the worth of policemen increases in the eyes of their peers and the public when they initiate such action. In Rajkot, a few weeks ago, a police party was assaulted by the general public since it refused to beat up the criminals in front of them.
Unfortunately, the lawkeeper cannot be the lawbreaker and his actions in public or in the confines of the police station are as illegal as the actions of the criminals themselves. Instant justice as sought by the public is no deterrent against crime, nor can it be justified. Policemen have to realise that their actions are culpable and they are likely to face criminal trial. Many policemen are languishing in jail for their unlawful action which went beyond their realm of duties. No member of the public would come forward to defend their actions. They have to fend for themselves.
When a crime takes place, three arms of the criminal justice system come into play: one, the police or the law enforcers who investigate the case; second, the prosecution which presents the case in court; and the third, the judiciary which examines the evidence on record and passes a sentence or otherwise. Unfortunately, the criminal justice system fails to deliver justice in time, with the result that the case drags on for years and when the sentence is pronounced, the impact of the same is never felt.
Though there is a limitation on the police under the Criminal Procedure Code to chargesheet a case within a stipulated time (as otherwise the accused will have a right to bail) no such enforceable time limit exists for the other arms of the criminal justice system. Invariably, a chargesheeted case takes years to come up in court, by which time most memories and passions would have died down and most criminals go scot-free due to the inability of the police and the prosecution to sustain the pace of the prosecution.
When justice takes a long time to deliver, punishment as retributive justice fails to have its impact which is why there is a demand for instant justice or for justice outside the realm of law.
Over three million cases are pending in 21 High Courts, and an astounding 26.3 million cases are pending in subordinate courts across the country. Of the pending cases in the High Courts, 704,214 were criminal (RTI India.org).
The conviction rate of IPC crimes is averaging around 28% all-India, from as low as 21.9 % for dacoity to 36.7% for murders (NCRB Crime in India 2010).
This low conviction rate is a natural consequence of delayed justice where the prosecution is not able to sustain the pace and the cases take a long time to be heard.
A perceived lack of justice and the lack of faith in the system to enforce timely justice lead more people to approve such police actions. Instant adulation by the general public encourages some policemen to continue to indulge in such acts with impunity.
The police also find the legal process taking too long even after the filing of the chargesheet. The very criminals they arrested and booked are released, not always for lack of evidence. The recent case of Odisha policemen protesting the release of Maoists in exchange for some hostages is a glaring example. Policemen also let out their frustration in such situations.
As civilisation progresses, such acts of the law enforcers and public approval of such acts only lead one to believe that we are retrograde in our sensibilities. Instant rustic justice is not the answer to crime, but quick judicial disposal is. However, with such heavy pendency of cases in courts all over the country, getting timely justice is a far cry. Can we continue to approve such acts of instant justice by the police?
Justice delivery is never in the hands of the police even though there is an overwhelming public approval of such action. By taking the law into their own hands, the police are undermining the very basis for which the judiciary exists. But as long as the criminal justice system fails to deliver in time, such instances will continue to grab the headlines.
(The writer is a senior retired police officer and now doing security consultancy. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org)