Guna Encounter: India Needs Better Justice Delivery, Not ‘Swift Justice’

It's time to introspect – have the other organs of the state failed to uphold the majesty of law?

4 min read
Hindi Female

I haven’t read the complete reports on the inquiries into the incidents that have in the recent past been referred to as ‘police encounters’, and, therefore, do not intend to sit in judgement over the actions of my fellow colleagues in police. However, there is little doubt that the society is split down the middle on the issue of ‘encounters’ – certain sections of the society love it and some detest it. Unmistakably, though, the strong arm of the law needs to prevail. Public order, law and order and safety are paramount.

Recent incidents that have caught media attention are the Guna encounters of poachers, the Hyderabad encounter in the rape case, the frequent trickle from Jammu & Kashmir of terrorists and militants, and the admittedly botched operation at Oting village in Mon, Nagaland. The immediate trigger for these actions can be anything from an attempt to attack law enforcers to ‘live encounters’ during search or cordon operations, or, they could be based on specific inputs in bona fide operations aimed at neutralising criminals.


Law Is Supposed to Bridge Individual Differences

A special category is the encounters of ‘gangsters’ or ‘history-sheeters’, or known criminals. ‘Encounters’ within this latter category are the ones that the public, by and large, approves of and appreciates. The other extreme is held by the so-called elitists and liberals, who frown at most such acts, and in the process, are often accused of bias, having a soft corner, or even outright collusion.

Guidelines for the arrest and restraint of criminals and suspects exist, but subjective interpretation and appreciation of the ground-level requirements make things difficult. Besides legal provisions, elaborate guidelines have been established by the Supreme Court of India, the High Courts and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) for the investigation of custodial deaths.

From the police perspective, it is imperative to have ‘boots on the ground' and trust them and their judgement, instincts and decisions.

There may be cultural-moral differences and perceptions across various ranks in the hierarchy, but aren’t those sought to be bridged through laws, training, and professionalism, backed by accountability and performance audits?

Individual proclivities and perceptions could vary. But blatant – at times ostentatious – deviations from the ‘normal’ ought to be checked.


For the Common Person, Police Are the Law

The law shouldn’t merely be respected, but the majesty of law should be paramount – almost sacrosanct. The majesty of law in civilised societies is enshrined in the ‘substantive law’, which defines the crimes and deviations, and the ‘procedural law’, which defines how justice ought to be dispensed, the process and procedure. This, perhaps, is where faltering starts. Varying sensibilities of humans apart, better and water-tight systems, which are dynamically upgraded, could be a solution.

For the common man, the policeman in his khaki, wielding a lathi, or a weapon, is the law, not the statute book per se. Bereft of legal nuances, immediate action and interventions by police and law enforcement are the instruments through which the supremacy of the ‘state’ is respected. For him, the policeman ‘dispenses justice’, an idea far removed from an expert, liberal view that the police is merely the first and initial interface in the pursuit of justice. Access to “your honour” and “lordships” is a far cry – almost as obsolete as the use of these phrases in post-independence India.


Courts Remain Spaces Open to Only a Few

Except for some northeastern states, a mere visit to a court is a suffocating experience. Even without considering the inadequate infrastructure of the Indian judicial system, it is evident that the staffing of the judiciary is not enough, as mere numbers show. Often, the victims, complainants and witnesses do not get space to even stand.

Most bail proceedings are held in a perfunctory and routine manner. Even trials suffer a similar fate. Only those who can afford legal heavyweights get a patient and fair hearing.

With “bail not jail” being the prescription, the police and prosecution cases suffer. The best efforts by the police to bring a budding ‘petty criminal’ to book can be brought to naught – often, bail is granted routinely, allowing police and prosecution no room for ‘conditions’ to be imposed.

Policing and justice dispensation become hostage to social dynamics, often indulging in trading of charges rather than shouldering responsibility equally. The immediate impacts of this are threefold: the police’s effort goes waste, the criminal gets emboldened and the fear of the judicial process vanishes.

Increasing absolute numbers in the judicial system dynamically – which can be tied to the prevalent crime rates, the growth rate of the population and the enactment of fresh legislation to deal with emerging crimes – are some suggestions to address the quantitative inadequacies.


Time to Introspect

Besides this, reforms in the criminal justice system, procedural reforms and better infrastructure in courts – fast-paced computerisation, use of video-conferencing, audio-visual recording of court proceedings, and a fully functional ICJS (Inter-operable Criminal Justice System) with linkages between police, hospitals, forensic laboratories and prisons – would add synergy.

Some other measures that could be helpful include allowing counsels to mandatorily provide ‘written submissions and summaries of arguments’, curtailing the adjournments intended to delay proceedings and ‘time-bound trials’. If the trials or court proceedings were to be disposed of in a “timeframe prescribed by law”, the dispensation of justice would be quick and deterrence higher. The majesty of the legal process and judiciary would be restored for the common man.

Encounters may have social approval – vigilantism against corruption, violence against oppressors. But can this be permitted? If the police were to dispense justice using violent methods, why should only the police have this license? Isn’t every citizen then ‘duty-bound’ to root out evil and crimes?

Social approval notwithstanding, any manner of irreversible punishment is wrong, unless our own lives and safety are adversely jeopardised. Remember, we are a means for delivery of justice, we do not deliver justice. However, when the public is happy at such a ‘swift’ model of justice, it is time to introspect – are we respecting the majesty of the law, and have the other organs of the state failed to uphold it?

(The author is an IPS Officer currently posted as DG Prisons, Homeguards and Civil Defence in Nagaland. He tweets @rupin1992. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Police encounters 

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