Why do some believe in instant justice

Eight days after the rape and murder of a veterinary doctor on the outskirts of Hyderabad, the four men suspected of the crime were shot dead in an ‘encounter’ in the early hours of December 6. The rape and murder had left everyone shell-shocked at the barbarity of crime and generated sharp reactions, leading to an outcry for the death penalty for the accused after a swift trial.

But the killing of the suspects in an encounter led to a collective outburst of joy and celebration for many people, including politicians and celebrities, who hailed the police’s action as ‘swift’ justice for a ghastly crime. This may be because it would have taken a long time to punish the guilty if proper criminal justice process had been followed.

The believers in methods of ‘instant justice’ have little faith in the legal system which is too slow to deliver proper justice in a fair and timely manner. There are several such examples of a huge time lag between crime and appropriate punishment.

The high profile example is the December 2012 Nirbhaya rape case in which the fate of convicts is still in suspense. On the other hand, there is a small section of people, civil society groups, civil rights activists and lawyers who have questioned and condemned the Hyderabad police’s action that came ahead of the trial of the four accused.

This is not the first time that suspects/accused in crimes like rape and murder have been killed in an ‘encounter’. The December 6 incident is similar to a case in 2008, where three men accused of an acid attack were also shot down in Andhra Pradesh.

There are many more examples and one does not need to go into numbers to establish the point that ‘encounter’ killings are not exceptions but also not an irregular phenomenon either.

In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, 3,000 encounters have taken place in two years, in which 69 criminals were gunned down, 838 sustained injuries and 7,043 were arrested. This was claimed by chief minister Yogi Adiyanath in January 2019.

But crimes in Uttar Pradesh has not come down. A horrific crime was reported from Unnao district in Uttar Pradesh on December 6 in which a gang rape survivor was set on fire by the same group of men who had raped her in December last year, while she was on her way to the Rae Bareli court for a hearing in the gang rape case. The victim died on Saturday.

Instances of brutal rape and violence against the women who report it have given India the dismal reputation of being one of the worst places in the world for women. According to recent government data, 32,500 cases of rape were registered with the police in 2017, which is 90 cases a day.

These are only the registered cases and actual number of rape cases could be much higher, as many cases go unreported. At the end of 2017, the courts had disposed of 18,300 cases, leaving more than 127,800 cases pending. Crimes statistics in India follows the primary offence rule.

For instance, in an event where the victim is raped and murdered, the incident will be recorded as a murder and not rape, because the primary offence is what the government considers the ‘most heinous crime’ – in this case murder. Such cases are excluded from data about rape.

While the conviction rate for all crimes against women stands at a dismal 19 per cent across India, compared with an average conviction rate of 47 per cent for all crimes, data on conviction rates for rapes follows the same trend – with an all India rate of about 25 per cent in 2017.

A disturbing observation is that while reported cases of rape have increased over the last six years (25 per cent in 2013, the highest in last 15 years), mainly owing to the outrage and awareness created out of the unfortunate Nirbhaya case, conviction rates have remained more or less stagnant.

The outrage created by the brutal Nirbhaya case, in which a young medical intern was gang-raped and brutally tortured in a moving bus in South Delhi led to the changes in India’s legal system, including the passing of stricter sexual assault laws, and the creation of fast-track courts.

But crimes against women have not come down. Data suggest that India is among the nations with highest levels of crimes against women.

While stricter laws are a welcome step in dealing with the problem, they are not enough in controlling crimes against women and delivering justice in a timely manner, as higher rate of reporting has not led to quicker investigations and higher rate of conviction.

So, what should be done to fix the problem? Is rejoicing over ‘encounter’ killing, because the culprits ‘deserved the punishment’, the right way to deliver speedy justice to victims? Leave aside common people, what’s surprising is the fact that a Rajya Sabha member like Jaya Bachchan and politicians like Mayawati and others, besides film stars and sportspersons were among those who praised the police for killing the suspects/accused in Cyberabad-Hyderabad gang-rape case in the middle of night.

This raises the fundamental question: is a police encounter an actual solution? What about the law and the Constitution which requires that a crime should be established under due process of law and the accused should be proved guilty by the justice system in a democratic republic?

What’s implicit in the jubilation is the fact that a vast section of society doesn’t seem to care whether the encounter was indeed genuine but supports and encourages extra-judicial killings when they should be actually asking for speedy trial of criminals and delivery of justice under existing laws.

It is true that the police does not investigate crimes, particularly against women, speedily and often the investigation is so shoddy that the criminals are let off. It is also true that the legal system is too slow to deliver justice in a timely manner.

Thus it is the inability of the police to provide protection to women as also the inability of the legal system to deal with the demands that bad policing puts on it that has led to lack of faith in the system – both police and the judiciary. So, what needs to be done is fix the system through police and judicial reforms.

If India is a vibrant democracy committed to the rule of law and its Constitution then the rule of law should be supreme, irrespective of the public sentiments. Whatever the compulsions, the police also needs to uphold the rule of law as supreme, irrespective of the public sentiment.

The writer is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist.