In ordering a judicial inquiry into the killing of the four suspects arrested for the rape and murder of a veterinarian near Hyderabad, the Supreme Court has paved the way for a probe that might command greater credibility than a routine police investigation. However, the necessity for such an inquiry has not been clearly established. The court notes a peculiar feature of the FIR registered by the Telangana police and taken up for investigation by a Special Investigation Team. The FIR contains IPC sections and Arms Act provisions that relate to the offences by the four accused in snatching weapons from the police and trying to kill them, while attempting to flee from custody. The court rightly questions how dead men could be investigated and prosecuted. Even though there is a claim that the SIT would investigate the cause of the deaths, it was possibly right on the court’s part to doubt whether the police were genuine about establishing whether there really was an ‘encounter’. Further, the order underscores that the suspects were in the legal custody of the police when the incident took place, implying that it was primarily a ‘custodial death’ and one that was yet to be established as an ‘encounter’ — the latter being a term that can be used only when the police or any other security force is unexpectedly faced with armed adversaries. To the extent that the court felt impelled to get to the bottom of the incident, its intervention is unexceptionable.
However, what is surprising is that the top court took up the matter when the Telangana High Court was seized of it. The High Court had done well to pass orders to preserve the bodies, and to video-graph the autopsy — the footage of which should be handed over to a district judge. There was nothing to suggest that the High Court would not have ensured an impartial police investigation, especially when it was going by the guidelines issued by the Supreme Court in 2014 in PUCL vs. State of Maharashtra . Yet, without any finding that the proceedings before the High Court were ineffective, the top court has ordered a probe by a three-member commission. It has also stayed the probe by the National Human Rights Commission, possibly because it wanted to avoid any parallel inquiry. If at all it felt the need for an independent probe, the Supreme Court could have monitored the police investigation or transferred it to another agency. Instead, it has chosen the Commission of Inquiry route, and given six months for the panel to come out with its findings. It would be unfortunate if this has the unintended consequence of the police waiting for the commission’s findings and going slow on the criminal investigation. After all, regular investigation based on the criminal procedure is always better than ad hoc enquiries that are mere fact-finding exercises.