Justice vs Revenge: Why Hyderabad Encounter Should Have Us Worried



At the primal level, the encounter killing of the four alleged culprits in the rape and murder of a young veterinarian in Andhra Pradesh is deeply gratifying. The outpouring of national public adulation for the police after the news became public is proof that their action has satisfied the collective urge for quick revenge after crimes of such barbaric nature. The judicial process is just too long-drawn. The Nirbhaya case of 2012 is a case in point. Plus, the end result may not always square well with the public expectation.


But can evolved societies afford to operate at the primal level? Should instant justice be allowed to supersede the slow-grinding yet methodical justice system with fairness as its pivot? Before this encounter gains legitimacy by way of public approval and becomes some kind of a template to dealing with such cases in future, the matter merits a discussion.


The first sentence in this column puts ‘alleged’ before the word culprits. Alleged because we don’t know whether they were the actual criminals. We only have the version of the police to go by. It is possible that under pressure to deliver quick results they have picked up the wrong people while the real ones roam free? What if there were more people than these four? What if one of them was actually trying to save the victim? The confessional statements before the police are of little evidentiary value; they can be extracted by putting people under duress.


The cases of encounter, also known as extra judicial killing, makes the police the judge and the executioner. The success of this model, which has been popularised by the idea of the vigilante cops in our movies, hinges on two critical factors: the absolute incorruptibility of the man playing the executioner and the black-and-white starkness of facts justifying his action.


Vigilante justice movies give the audience both within the runtime of the show. It is also a judicial process where the audience is presented the facts of a case and asked to be the judge. The maker of the movie has to convince them that the hero’s action is equal to the gravity of the crime committed against him and the society. That he kills the villains in the end, is akin to the hangman doing his job. It is the final act of a process of scrutiny, more like capital punishment awarded to culprits by courts.


Unfortunately, the real world is much more complex. The same movies show policemen being corrupt to the core. They take bribes, manipulate cases, apply third degree to elicit confessions and conduct encounters with spurious motives. This, as is well-known, is closer to reality. The hero in our movies is a product of fantasy, created in the model of the ideal man in general perception. He does not exist in real life. The circumstances and the bad guys he encounters are real though. The latter is true for all of us.


Now, which version of the police you go by, the real or the fantastical? In real life few cases are open-and-shut. The police working under several pressures and being corruptible may not be in a position to be the arbiter of truth. Left solely to them, the idea of fairness can take a bad hit. The judiciary, a neutral player, comes in here. Civilised societies leave the job of judging facts of a case and the power to punish with this agency. Its verdict provides sense of conclusion to cases. Once conviction takes place in the court of justice, the word ‘alleged’ retires. The truth is established firmly.


Encounter killings have a fairly long history in India. However, they caught national attention when more than a thousand alleged criminals were killed in a span of around 14 years from the early 1990s to mid-2000 in Maharashtra. The genre of encounter specialists among the police force gained prominence. Pradeep Sharma, Daya Nayak and Vijay Salaskar among others became cult heroes. However, they soon got embroiled in allegations of corruption, high-handedness and selective killing. The practice of extrajudicial killings often had innocent people as victims, the National Human Rights Commission mentioned. As they increasingly acted with impunity and gained in riches they invited public suspicion. The halo of heroism was gone soon.


Such killings, many would argue, were necessitated by the failure of the judiciary to ensure quick justice to victims of crime. Given the long years that take for cases to conclude in India it is partially true. Partially because delivery of justice, like all delivery systems, follow a process. The process is aimed at ensuring fairness. The accused is allowed to present his side of the matter and challenge the charges against him. The prosecution will need to establish its case with evidence.


The whole purpose is to prevent miscarriage of justice. The society’s demand for quick revenge becomes a less important concern. Even in films it is not quick. Transpose any vigilante cop story to real life. The developments easily stretch years before the policeman delivers justice in his own way. If the audience in the dark theatre were a real-life court bench judging a case, it would take years for them to get convinced about the final act. They would even reject the cop’s case if it is not strong enough from the points of view of fairness, personal suffering and the quotient of being wronged.


So what are we driving at? Well, justice is not about revenge or pandering to public emotions. Its majesty lies in its being impersonal and equidistant from all involved. It would be no different from a tribal court or a khap panchayat if it failed to be so.


If encounter killing is seen as a solution to a problem, then the problem needs to be addressed immediately. The remedy lies in making the police more credible, particularly from the perspective of neutrality. Yes, the non-essential sources of judicial delays need to be eliminated too. This is a call that requires the involvement of the political class, the meddling of which has left the police system in a mess.


The call has to be taken quickly. Otherwise, it would lead to normalisation of encounters in the mass perception. It would have dangerous ramifications in the long run.

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