Is a police encounter an actual ‘solution’? This was the question on many minds, as the nation learnt on Friday, 6 December 2019, of the ‘encounter killings’ of the four accused in the Cyberabad-Hyderabad gang-rape case. It was reported that the police had taken all the four accused into remand.
Then, in the wee hours of Friday, the four accused were, as per the police statement, taken to the scene of crime to ‘reconstruct’ the actual incident, during which the police had to ‘shoot them down’ as they ‘tried to escape’ (as per one version of the event). Such attempt at ‘reconstruction’ (of a crime scene) is a part of a formal and systematic investigation.
As per another version (of the encounter killing), the four accused tried to ‘snatch’ the weapons of the police party, which compelled the police to open fire in ‘self-defence’, causing the death of all four.
Why Police Encounters Have Earned a Bad Name
The electronic media and the social media are full of praise for the police; there are euphoric crowd distributing sweets among the police.
There are sections that are ecstatic, but there is a section of society which stands vehemently against the encounter, and is harping on the need for a deeper probe into the matter. In case the police is found to have faulted, strict legal action must be taken. Obviously, there is merit in what is being said by the latter section because the rule of law is supreme. India is a vibrant democracy committed to the rule of law and its Constitution.
Whatever be the public sentiments, whatever be the compulsions, the police personnel are required to uphold the law and the Constitution as supreme, and should never get swayed by public sentiment.
Now, coming to the matter of police encounters. Police encounters have earned a bad name as being ‘shortcuts’ to tricky and sticky law and order situations. In this context, the police was under public and political pressure to do something dramatic like an ‘encounter’ and get public accolades. But regardless, the basic fact remains that if it is a staged encounter, if it is a fake encounter, legal action must be taken against it.
Limited Scope for ‘Right of Private Defence’ in Encounters
There is a limited window of the right of private defence, via Section 96 to Section 106 of the Indian Penal Code, which permits the ‘use of minimal force’ to safeguard the life and property of self, or the life and property of another person. It is in the exercise of this right of private defence, that encounters happen. That is, if the format is clear and indeed the assailants try to overwhelm the police party.
Whether the police party indeed used ‘minimum force’ under those circumstances, that too in ‘self-defence’, will have to be examined and evaluated as per the elaborate guidelines given by the Supreme Court and the National Human Rights Commission, and also a State Human Rights commission.
There has to be a magisterial inquiry, and an investigation that must be conducted not by the local police, but by the CID.
And in these open inquiries and investigations, if there are public witnesses, the statements will be recorded, and if the police and the firing party are found guilty, rest assured, a case under ‘murder’ will have to be registered. The firing party will be charged for ‘cold-blooded deliberate murder’, they will be sent to jail, they might not only lose their jobs but all other medals and accolades that they may have earned in their career earlier.
There are serious consequences of fake encounters. And I do hope that this encounter is genuine and not a fake one. Few police officers would want to risk both life and career in fake encounters. But as the law mandates, they have to be subjected to the scrutiny of a magisterial inquiry and an elaborate investigation by the crime branch of the state police.
Society Can’t Condone Knee-Jerk Reactions & Fake Encounters
Civil society should not condone anything that is fake, anything that is knee-jerk, and anything that is impulsive. In our 150 years of British rule, as far as I can remember, there was only one case where Chandrashekhar Azad was surrounded by Sir John Nott-Bower and the British Police in Alfred Park, Allahabad, on 27 February 1931, and an exchange of fire took place. It is alleged that when our freedom fighter was surrounded, he shot himself dead. One section of society also continues to allege that Azad died due to police firing, but that of course is a matter that requires further investigation.
There are important lessons to be drawn.
While genuine police encounters are understandable, there should be a policy of zero-tolerance towards fake ones.
In the investigation and inquiry in all encounters, including the Hyderabad case, one should be prompt and expeditious, and action be taken on merits thereafter.
This, so that if the police have done well, they should be rewarded, but if they have been proven to be trigger-happy, the law should take its own course and exemplary punishment must be meted out.
(Dr Vikram Singh is an Indian educationist and retired Indian Police Service officer. He joined the IPS in 1974, and held the post of Director General of Police in the state of Uttar Pradesh during the period June 2007- September 2009. He tweets at @VikramSingh112. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)