Crime & Punishment Society

Facts vs. frenzy in the ‘encounter’ killings in the Disha gang-rape and murder case

Chilling: Students celebrating the encounter killing of the accused in the Disha rape and murder case in Vijayawada   | Photo Credit: V. Raju

“We are examining a very important matter. A serious matter of fact-finding that has a great impact on society. People are concerned. Some may express it, some may not,” Justice Rekha Sundar Baldota, a former judge of Bombay High Court, said during the Justice V.S. Sirpurkar Commission’s hearing. The Commission was mandated to find the facts of the circumstances that led to the Telangana police shooting down the four men arrested in connection with the gang-rape and murder of ‘Disha’, a 26 year-old veterinarian, in Hyderabad in 2019.

Before the commencement of its hearing, the Commission also issued a press release, saying that witnesses had to be examined in person “considering the gravity of the issue under inquiry and the sensitive nature of the evidence”. The third member of the Commission is former CBI Director, D.R. Karthikeyan.

The fact-finding exercise would not have been as incisive as it is turning out to be if not for the Supreme Court, which instituted this Commission on December 12, 2019 — six days after the police ‘encounter’; and had it not been for the Commission taking its mandate seriously, having collected and gone through voluminous records — 1,333 affidavits from the general public; 103 affidavits from police officers, witnesses, doctors and other government officials; records of the SIT investigation, call data records; and ballistic reports — and its team of lawyers thoroughly examining the material.

Glaring lapses

The Commission has completed three rounds of physical hearings. While the Commission itself is focused on finding the truth through a detailed scrutiny of the facts on record, it appears from the hearings so far that the institutions that are supposed to ensure the rule of law, such as the police establishment or the administration, may not be as keen on making it easy for the Commission to arrive at the truth.

People shower flower petals and raise slogans in favour of police at the encounter site

People shower flower petals and raise slogans in favour of police at the encounter site   | Photo Credit: Nagara Gopal

The cross-examination of personnel from State agencies — bureaucrats, police personnel such as the Investigating Officer or others in charge — has not yielded answers to questions on the extensive gaps in record-keeping. The hearings so far have revealed multiple statements with significant differences in facts — vehicle movement records that have different entries of routes in different handwritings for the same trip made on the day of the ‘encounter’; seizure reports that do not record objects seized but show the objects sent for forensics; absence of records of the specifics of personal belongings of Disha that were recovered and no effort to establish whether the objects “recovered” indeed belong to Disha; the absence of fingerprints of the accused on the weapons they grabbed from their police escorts that led to their being shot dead; and, most significantly, despite the high saturation of CCTV cameras in Hyderabad, neither the “safe house” the accused were lodged in nor the other locations they were taken to, including police stations, appear to have any CCTV footage available.

This reflects a systemic confidence that no one will put any of these records to serious scrutiny, however serious the lapses. These are lapses on the part of paid public servants, not of illiterate victims or ordinary folk, ignorant of law. Is the training provided to the police so inadequate that a senior police officer fails to recognise the procedural norms set by law for investigation and record-keeping?

It is unclear whether the lapses are a genuine oversight, resulting from a lack of knowledge, or if they are a deliberate manipulation to fudge facts and vitiate the investigation.

The foundation for this attitude was perhaps already laid by the heat of public outrage that erupted soon after Disha’s gang-rape and murder came to light.

When word got around that the police had picked up the accused in less than 24 hours,television, print and online media began saturation coverage, stoking public outrage, and putting wind in the sail of demands for summary “justice”. There were reports of people gathering in front of the police station where the accused were housed, demanding ominously that the police hand them over. #HangRapists began to trend. At that moment, the pressure was off the police to undertake any serious investigation into the crime.

Some recalled the past history of the then Commissioner of Police, V.C. Sajjanar, under whose watch the four accused men were shot dead within a week of their arrest. Sajjanar, who in 2008 had served in Warangal, allegedly shot dead three young men suspected of throwing acid on two young women, in almost identical circumstances, with the accused then too alleged to have snatched the weapons of the police escort.

Telecast hearings

Soon after the ‘encounter’ in the Disha case, media reports quoted with satisfaction a citizen saying, “During our protest, we had asked the police to either hand over the guilty to us or kill them in an encounter. They have done the encounter.” Sajjanar was showered with flower petals and police personnel were fed sweets on the streets of Hyderabad. After the festivities, it appeared as if crimes against women would not happen any more. With the four accused shot dead without any legal process, it was as if these localities would now be safe even though they still don’t have well-lit streets or safe public transport systems or working CCTV cameras that can actually yield useful footage for crime detection.

Although it is a public hearing, the access to the hearings of some 164 people the Commission has listed is restricted. But this could have been a golden opportunity to educate the public on what really transpires in such cases, the roles the various actors play in these situations in shaping the outcomes, and the popular perceptions about victims and villains.

Like the hearings of George Floyd recently in the U.S., these hearings should have been telecast. Such public education is essential to understand the need for the rule of law and for the public scrutiny of claims — an essential element of truth-seeking and justice.

Fact-finding becomes that much more difficult when people in responsible positions, like the Union Minister of State for Home, G. Kishan Reddy, ask people soon after the crime to socially boycott the families of the accused and appeal to lawyers not to represent the dead men. The accused in any case have the right to a legal process, even more if they are killed in custody, but the public frenzy created around the case not only put the lives of the families of the dead at serious risk, it made it impossible for them to put their own case across.

After nearly two years, we still do not know if the accused men were the real perpetrators of the crime. Were there others involved? Or are the real perpetrators still out there among the crowds, baying for blood along with the outraged public? Is the investigation into Disha’s rape and murder rendered superfluous after the killings? Should cases close after such ‘encounters’? Is that the template for crime investigation that we want? Is a strong assertion from the police and its amplification over mass media enough to prove someone’s guilt?

But for the setting up of this Commission, which is subjecting everything to incisive scrutiny, we would have to live with knowing how insensitive the law and order machinery has become. Given the primitive instincts of mobs, which are exploited to drive public narratives during such sensitive cases, perhaps fact-finding Commissions such as these are necessary to rekindle our faith in the rule of law.

The writer is a retired professor of journalism, Osmania University.


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Printable version | Oct 19, 2021 5:23:13 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/facts-vs-frenzy-in-the-encounter-killings-in-the-disha-gang-rape-and-murder-case/article36643933.ece

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