A recent report submitted by the commission of inquiry headed by a former Supreme Court of India judge, Justice V.S. Sirpurkar, indicting the police in Hyderabad for the fake encounter, in 2019, on the outskirts of Hyderabad near Shamshabad, should serve as an eye-opener to senior police officials who by-pass the law and due processes and eliminate suspects with impunity. Decidedly, a fake encounter, the law should now take its own course; a first information report should be filed against the police officials concerned for the murder of the four youth suspected to have gang-raped a veterinary doctor and then murdered her and burnt her body on the night of November 27.
That D.R. Karthikeyan, a very senior Indian Police Service officer (also Special Director in the Central Bureau of Investigation who investigated the Rajiv Gandhi murder case), was associated with the commission of inquiry lends credence to the fact that after a thorough investigation, the killing of the youths was deemed to be nothing but a pre-meditated cold-blooded murder. The alleged culprits deserved severe punishment after observing all legal procedures. But definitely not execution by policemen who later boasted about their so-called heroic act — shooting down unarmed men in the early hours of December 6, 2019.
The public outcry to apprehend the men after the crime may have pushed the police to act fast. Indubitably, they did a great job by arresting the criminals in a very short time. But, thereafter, things became murky when the police preferred to take the law into their own hands and eliminate the four youth.
Even as the details of the encounter were reported in the media, it became amply clear that it was indeed a fake encounter. The version by the police, that the four youth attempted to escape after throwing mud in the eyes of the policemen and attempting to snatch their weapons, was silly and nothing but a cover up; it was a murderous act. That unarmed youth, who should have been in handcuffs, attempted to overpower a large number if policemen sounds too ludicrous to believe.
A signal from the top
In November 2017, the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, had publicly stated that criminals would be jailed or killed in encounters. The message that went to the law-enforcing agencies, though in a subtle manner, was that they had been given a free hand to deal with criminals; no questions asked. By the end of his first term as the Chief Minister, 151 criminals had been killed and over 3,300 maimed by gunshot injuries, mostly in the legs, in over 8,500 encounters; 13 policemen are reported to have been killed and 1,157 injured.
Following the lead of Uttar Pradesh, the Chief Minister of Assam too gave clear directions to the Assam police personnel that criminals who attempted to escape should be shot. The message was loud and clear. It was for the police to prove that a criminal was shot dead while trying to escape. Between May 10, 2021 and January 28, 2022, as many as 28 suspects were killed and 73 injured by the police, a majority of them from the minority community and most others from ethnic communities.
Following three murders within 24 hours in three districts of Bihar in March last year, three legislators of the State (from the Bharatiya Janata Party) suggested that the Uttar Pradesh model of encounter killings by the police be adopted in Bihar too, in order to bring down the crime rate. In the same manner, the recent ‘bulldozer policy’ of Uttar Pradesh has also been adopted in Madhya Pradesh and Delhi, giving established legal procedures a go-by.
Extra-judicial killings go against the very spirit of rule of law. What is mind boggling is the fact that the very same veterans of the Indian Police Service who confabulate on fake encounters and custodial deaths on various television channels, condemning police actions, are also the ones who while serving in the police setup acquiesced to public outcry or political diktats and went with the tide. There are exceptions, of course.
Encounter killings | Role of police under scanner in several cases
When commissions are set up to inquire into fake encounters, it is usually low-ranking officers, from constables to inspectors, who have to face the brunt. Senior police officers who may have given their consent to eliminate the criminals are allowed to go scot free and are rarely indicted. If personnel from the ranks are incarcerated for fake encounters, so should senior officers; it is their responsibility to ensure that the rule of law is strictly followed in their jurisdiction.
Complaints of fake encounters need to be attended to on top priority and the judiciary activated immediately after a complaint is received. For obvious reasons, the police will not readily register a complaint of a fake encounter lest comrades in khaki land in trouble.
On magisterial inquiries
Magisterial inquiries conducted by local magistrates turn out to be farce as they have to work in consonance with the police of the district; they would be inclined to go with the police version and give them a clean chit. A solution would be to nominate magistrates from other States who would be impartial and fair in their inquiries. Commissions of inquiry should comprise police officers from other States who enjoy a reputation of moral rectitude and fair play. But for the intervention of the Supreme Court of India that had constituted the inquiry commission to look into the Hyderabad case, the 10 policemen accused of carrying out the murder of four youths would have escaped censure and may have been looking for more such opportunities to wear and demonstrate the “encounter specialist” tag placed on them.
It would not be a surprise if those indicted in fake encounters have been awarded police gallantry medals. These medals or citations should be withdrawn as fake encounters do not in any way give an opportunity to display an act of courage. Killing unarmed and helpless suspects who may not decidedly be criminals is an act of cowardice.
If States begin to adopt extra-judicial strategies to bring down the crime rate, the day may not be far off when the country would be ruled by criminals in uniform, with the judiciary watching mutely as the protective cover of rule of law is torn to pieces.
Back in August 2011, a Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices Markandey Katju and C.K. Prasad (while hearing a fake encounter case of an alleged gangster by the Rajasthan police in October 2006) had said: “Fake encounter killings by cops are nothing but cold-blooded brutal murder which should be treated as the rarest of rare offence and police personnel responsible for it should be awarded death sentence. They should be hanged.” The sooner it is done after trial through fast track courts, the better it would be for the nation, as it will serve as a signal and deterrent to other policemen.
M.P. Nathanael is a former Inspector General of Police, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF)