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Vigilantism, encounter killings draw attention to justice delayed

It is time the government devoted greater attention to reforming the criminal justice system. The capability of the system to control crime and deliver justice in time must be enhanced. Till this happens, the incidents of instant “lynch justice” done in anger or for “revenge” — either by the public or by the police — will continue to occur.

Written by G. P. Joshi |
Updated: December 21, 2019 12:18:43 pm
hyderabad police encounter, citizenship amendment act, hyderabad rape-murder case, superme court justice, indian express Hyderabad vet rape-murder case: Senior Police officials at the site of the encounter

The incident involving the encounter killings of four alleged rapists by the Hyderabad police has received a mixed response. It has been condemned on the ground that the police encounter was fake and it violated two interlinked principles of the rule of law on which the system of jurisprudence in this country is based.

One, a person accused of committing a crime is to be treated innocent till he is pronounced guilty by a court of law, and, two, it should be ensured that not even one innocent person gets punished even if in the bargain 10 guilty individuals getaway.

While the police action has been denounced by some, it has simultaneously received wide public support and appreciation. Showering of flower petals on police vehicles, touching of the feet of the police personnel, distributing sweets, beating of drums, bursting of crackers, singing and dancing with joy on the streets — these are just some of the ways in which the public, particularly women, expressed their enthusiasm and appreciation of what the police did. Celebrations were reported not merely from Hyderabad but from other parts of the country as well. The police in this country generally have a poor image. They are alleged to be oppressive and corrupt.

The puzzling question is why, suddenly, were the police personnel involved in killing the accused accorded a grand hero’s welcome. The answer is that the general public over time has become hugely dissatisfied, in fact, disgusted, with the way the criminal justice system has been functioning. This discontent is essentially due to two reasons: Lack of or a very poor rate of conviction, and enormous delay in the disposal of criminal cases.

As the Madhava Menon Committee on Reforms of the Criminal Justice System has observed: “It is common knowledge that the two major problems confronting the criminal-justice system are huge pendency of criminal cases and the inordinate delay in disposal of criminal cases on the one hand and the very low rate of conviction in cases involving serious crimes on the other.” This has occasionally encouraged people to take the law in to their hands to deal with crime and criminals.

According to the police, they took the accused to the crime spot at night so as to protect them from being lynched by the public. This fear on the part of the police was not misplaced. There is an increasing tendency on the part of the public to deliver instant “lynch justice” by killing those who are caught while committing a crime, or even suspected of a crime.

It is the public fear of crime and the incompetence of the criminal justice system to deal with criminality in a fair and swift manner that promotes a tendency amongst people to engage in vigilante justice — and beat up the accused or suspects of a crime to death. Such public fear and perception sometimes provide a license to the police to deal with crime and criminals by using rough and illegal methods. The blinding of criminals by the Bhagalpur Police, back in the early Eighties, was another example of such license. The present incident, once again, shows how closely linked police vigilantism is to public vigilantism.

The prominent danger in ignoring public vigilantism is that it is likely to promote greater acceptance by the public of police vigilantism. Turning a blind eye to incidents of public or police vigilantism is a sure and certain way of sounding the death-knell of a civilised democratic system of governance based on the rule of law.

Public outrage at any injustice perceived to have been meted out to victims of crime has been seen in the past and, on some occasions, with beneficial outcomes. Both in the Jessica Lal case and the December 12 rape and murder case in Delhi, people organised street marches, held candlelight vigils, circulated petitions and sent messages protesting against what was perceived to be a clear miscarriage of justice. In one case, the government was forced to appeal to the high court against the acquittal and, in the other case, the rape law was thoroughly revised and made harsher.

Public outcry over ghastly crimes is thus welcome if it results in improving the working of the criminal justice system. It must, however, be ensured that public outrage results in guaranteeing fast delivery of justice and in strengthening the rule of law, and not in subverting it. Public outrage can easily descend to mob vigilantism, some signs of which were seen in many furious responses to the Hyderabad incident.

The criminal justice administration has been one of the most neglected areas of governance in this country: The price for that is being paid by the citizens, not only in terms of an increase in victimisation, but also in terms of the overall deterioration in the quality of life resulting from an overpowering fear of crime. It is time the government devoted greater attention to reforming the criminal justice system. The capability of the system to control crime and deliver justice in time must be enhanced. Till this happens, the incidents of instant “lynch justice” done in anger or for “revenge” — either by the public or by the police — will continue to occur.

This article first appeared in the print edition on December 21, 2019 under the title “Crime and instant punishment”. The writer retired as director in the Bureau of Police Research and Development.

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