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Allow no shortcuts in the law

On August 13, the women of Nagpur’s Kasturba Nagar murdered a notorious criminal of that colony inside the court premises. However, det...

Written by G. P. Joshi | September 4, 2004

On August 13, the women of Nagpur’s Kasturba Nagar murdered a notorious criminal of that colony inside the court premises. However, details of what happened are not very clear. In the absence of precise information, all types of rumours abound. The initial reaction in some quarters was to perceive a police hand in the incident, if not in its execution. Talk of this being the result of gang rivalry, with women providing a cover-up, was also heard. Some felt that caste was a factor in the incident — a predominantly dalit community finally taking revenge on a goon belonging to a backward caste. Many questions are being asked. How could this happen inside the court premises? Why couldn’t the police rescue him from the mob? If a similar attempt had been made earlier, why wasn’t the attack foreseen and adequate arrangements made to safely escort him? Why couldn’t the man do anything to defend himself? Was it because, in violation of D.K. Basu’s judgement, he was handcuffed while being brought to the court?

Some of these questions will be answered during the trial. For the time being, let us accept the story as it has been reported and analyse its implications. The police are prosecuting five women, though 400 are reported to have come forward openly confessing to the crime. Women have shown no remorse but, in fact, issued a determined warning that they would do it again if another Akku Yadav takes birth. Their argument is that they had suffered enough wrongs at his hands and that the entire state machinery had failed to provide security, protection and justice to them. They therefore decided to right all wrongs by taking the law into their own hands. Very few voices of disapproval over what happened have been reported. While the residents of Kasturba Nagar are all united behind the women, it appears that people elsewhere too are sympathetic to what happened.

There are two important reasons for this public sympathy. One is the fact that the act, as per the story, was done by women, who did not belong to any naxalite or militant group and had no criminal record. They were simple, ordinary women belonging to poor or lower middle class families and had been victims of all kinds of humiliations and atrocities for a long time. The other reason is the helplessness that most citizens experience when they find the justice system failing them when it is needed most. The system is too slow and inefficient to provide them with a feeling of security.

One of the important needs of citizens is to get protection from crime and criminals and they expect the state to provide that. When crime continues to rise menacingly and the state fails to deal promptly, justly and effectively with those who commit crime, it creates a feeling of insecurity. The rich are able to buy security, private as well as public; but most have no means to defend themselves. Their sense of insecurity resulting from fear of crime, combined with a sense of injustice caused by the repeated failure of the system to deal with criminals effectively, gives rise to vigilante incidents. It shows a complete collapse of public faith and confidence in the capability of the formal system.

Delivering instant private justice to suspects of crime has very serious implications for the functioning of the criminal justice system and good governance in a democratic society. Article 14 of the Constitution provides equal protection of law to all citizens and Article 21 says that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law. Killing a person without legal or judicial sanction constitutes an offence of murder. However, this is not viewed accordingly by the public when they take the law into their own hands and beat known criminals to death. It is such public fear and perception which sometimes provide a licence to the police to ignore the law and deal with crime and criminals by using rough and illegal methods. Blinding of criminals by the Bhagalpur police in the early ’80s was one example of such licence. This has since been followed by many other incidents. In fact, killing criminals in fake encounters is a manifestation of police vigilantism. The prominent danger in ignoring or supporting incidents like the one that occurred in Nagpur is that it is likely to promote greater acceptance by the citizens of both public as well as police vigilantism.

Fear of crime grows faster than actual crime. The state knows this and uses the opportunity provided by the fear of crime to arm itself with repressive powers. It reacts by enacting black laws, enhancing police powers, overlooking the use of third degree methods by state agencies and curtailing citizens’ rights. Ultimately, it is democracy that really gets “mugged”.

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