Justice in any civilised society is not just about retribution, but also about deterrence, and in less serious crimes, rehabilitation of the offenders. The heinous rape and murder of a veterinarian in Hyderabad in late November shook the collective conscience of India and resulted in an outcry for justice for the victim and outrage over the persisting lack of safety for women in public spaces. Such societal pressure for justice invariably weighs upon legal institutions, as the police are required to find the culprits with alacrity and the judiciary to complete the legal process without undue delay. But these institutions must uphold the rule of law and procedure even in such circumstances. The killing of the four accused of the rape and murder of the veterinary doctor by the Cyberabad police raises disturbing questions. The police claim that two of the accused snatched their weapons and fired at them when the four had been taken to the crime scene to reconstruct the sequence of events late after midnight, and that they killed them in self-defence. The claim stretches credulity. The National Human Rights Commission has deputed a fact-finding team to Hyderabad to probe the incident. The guidelines set by the Supreme Court to deal with such events, including the need for an independent investigation, must be strictly observed to get to the bottom of this sordid episode.
The jubilation seen on social media platforms and on the streets over the killings by the police stems from the public anger and anguish over the burgeoning crimes against women. There is a perception that the legal institutions are ill-equipped to deal with such crimes and to bring the perpetrators to justice. Yet, while much more needs to done in terms of registration and charge-sheeting of sexual crimes by police and addressing the pendency in court of such cases, there has been greater awareness and improvement in both the policing and judicial process following the horrific bus gang-rape in December 2012 in New Delhi. The Telangana government had, in this case as well, issued orders for setting up a fast-track court to try the four accused and if the successful prosecution in the Delhi case had been applied as a precedent, this should have brought closure to the case in a time-bound manner. Existing laws on sexual crimes and punishment need better application, but a recourse to brutal retribution as suggested unwisely by many is no solution. On the contrary, the political sanction of “encounter killings” to deliver swift retribution would only be a disincentive for the police to follow due process and may even deter them from pursuing the course of justice. Far from ensuring justice to the victims, bending the law in such cases would only undermine people’s faith in the criminal justice system .