The wave of delirium passing through India's body politic over the custodial deaths on Friday of four men accused last week of gangraping, murdering and charring the body of a young woman veterinarian in Hyderabad should worry us all. After a week of nationwide fury and massive outrage over the heinous crime when even lawmakers in Parliament called for public lynching of the perpetrators, it is a moment of poignancy and reflection to see the entire country celebrating extrajudicial killing of the four suspects.
We are told that the accused, who were nabbed shortly after the commitment of the crime, have been killed in an "encounter" with the police while trying to snatch weapons and run away. There are more holes in Telangana cops' "encounter" theory than even a sieve.
It is possible that the beleaguered cops, who have been under fire for procedural lapses and dereliction of duty in a case that has enraged the nation, pulled off the stunt to turn public opinion in its favour. The media had written about such a possibility before the "encounter" took place. It is also a strange coincidence that VC Sajjanar, the Cyberabad police commissioner overseeing the case, was at the helm of a similar incident in Warangal in 2008 when three accused in an acid attack case on women were killed by the cops in an "encounter".
The National Human Rights Commission has announced that it will conduct a "spot inquiry" in the extrajudicial killings but right now the cops, who until Thursday, were at the receiving end of public fury, have become overnight heroes in the eyes of not just the public but even politicians and celebrities from all walks of life.
Amid this jubilation, it is worth remembering that when cops resort to custodial killings bypassing the due process of law, it indicates a complete breakdown of the criminal justice system. The extrajudicial killings in Hyderabad, that look and smell verily like fake encounters, are an example of state meting out vigilante justice through cops who acted as the cat's paw.
It raises some very disturbing possibilities. If the state is allowed to sanction mob justice bypassing the due process, then tomorrow it may turn against the innocent and upend the principle of presumptive innocence. The due process of law is meant not only to punish the guilty but also to protect the innocent. The retributive bloodlust undermines the focal point of punitive justice, takes away the sole safeguard and makes the innocent vulnerable to state's machinations.
Besides, the core argument at the heart of the development " that the accused criminals who had brutally raped, murdered and then burnt the corpse of the unfortunate victim deserved their fate " suffers from an inherent flaw in logic. How may we be sure that the cops had nabbed the criminals who actually committed the crime? Many innocents are routinely picked up and later released during trial. On the one hand we have no faith in the system, on the other hand we are convinced that the police, who are at the heart of the apparently rotten system, picked up the right men and punished them. This is a dangerous assumption.
Moreover, we must also consider the fact that one act of extrajudicial killing has absolved the Telangana police of their many acts of negligence that had contributed to the crime. There is also no guarantee that extrajudicial killing will deter acts of sexual violence. All that the questionable act did was to legitimize breaking of law and undermine constitutional safeguards.
We must be careful here. While taking a moral position on custodial killings, we should equally note the collective collapse of citizen's faith in India's criminal justice system and due process of law. What prompted such jubilation among public on the perpetrators getting killed without trial?
To call it 'bloodlust' is to undermine the popular sentiment that arises from a deep frustration over a situation where delay in justice routinely leads to denial of justice. Criminals mostly go unpunished if they have power and influence and even if they are caught, the moth-eaten system fails to deliver justice. In cases of sexual violence against women, a rape survivor needs the resolve of an activist, navigating the hostility of the system.
A 2017 Human Rights Watch report on India's rape victims, titled Everyone Blames Me, notes that "women and girls who survive rape and other sexual violence often suffer humiliation at police stations and hospitals. Police are frequently unwilling to register their complaints, victims and witnesses receive little protection, and medical professionals still compel degrading "two-finger" tests. These obstacles to justice and dignity are compounded by inadequate health care, counseling, and legal support for victims during criminal trials of the accused."
In some cases the failure is graver, as it happened in the Unnao gang-rape case where the survivor was attacked again by the criminals who were out on bail. In complete absence of witness protection laws, the woman was on Thursday cornered in a deserted part of Rae Bareli by five men including two who were accused of raping her. She was thrashed with sticks, repeatedly stabbed and set ablaze. The victim ran screaming for help in a ball of fire and by the time she was rescued and admitted to hospital, her body had suffered 90 per cent burns. She died on Saturday in Delhi's Safdarjung hospital.
Asha Devi, whose daughter Jyoti Singh was gangraped and brutalized in December 2012 leading to her death, is still waiting for justice. She told news agency ANI that she was "extremely happy with this punishment. Police have done a great job and I demand that no action should be taken against the police personnel".
She was quoted, as saying in another report that "at least one daughter has been served justice. I thank the police. I have been shouting for 7 years, punish the culprits even if it needs to be done by breaking laws and then see how the society changes for good. I am still taking rounds of the court. 13 December is yet another date and I have to go to the court again."
It may be argued that the pain of a mother who has lost her child to a brutal crime should not be used to justify extrajudicial killing, but when a state routinely fails its citizens and its institutions are unable to perform the roles assigned to it, there develops a sense of collective frustration that seeks a release. The extrajudicial killings have provided that release.
Daksh, an organisation that does data-driven research into India's governance institutions, has found that average pendency of any case in India's high courts is about three years and one month. If we add the subordinate courts, the average time jumps to nearly six years. It means that litigants who are forced to appeal to at least one higher court is likely to spend more than 10 years in court and this average time increases by three more years if the case goes to Supreme Court.
In June this year, Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told the Parliament that over 43 lakh cases are pending in 25 high courts of the country, among which 8 lakh are over a decade old. In Supreme Court, 58,669 cases were still pending.
What's worse, pendency in courts have increased over the last few years. PRS Legislative Research data indicates as of April 2018, there are over three crore cases pending across the Supreme Court, the High Courts, and the subordinate courts (including district courts).
Following the Delhi gang rape and murder incident in December 2012, the Indian state came up with a series of tougher laws including death penalty for perpetrators in "rarest of rare cases". Has the situation improved? According to Death Penalty in India report published in January 2018, "there were 371 prisoners on the death row in India by end December 2017 with the oldest case from 1991. Only four death-row prisoners were executed in the last 13 years. One had raped a minor and three were convicted of terrorism."
Finally, justice is not just elusive, it is also frightfully expensive. The study by Daksh, mentioned earlier, finds that on average, each litigant spent Rs 519 per day to attend court. Even a conservative estimate of the total amount of money spent by litigants just to attend court hearings puts the figure at Rs 30,000 crore per year.
The chronic diseases afflicting Indian's moth-eaten criminal justice system must be addressed at once by reforming the judicial administrative machinery. Delivery of justice should be made swifter, time bound and affordable. Police should be sensitized and there should be proper medico-legal care for survivors of sexual assault. Until these rudimentary steps are taken, the society will demand quick retribution driven by a fear that justice may remain forever elusive in the labyrinthine corridors of law.