When I was a young student of law, those accused of heinous crimes like murder or rape were tried swiftly and punished or set free, as the evidence on record dictated, within a year. The average time taken was eight or nine months, during which time the accused were in the custody of jailors.
The hearings were held daily, and no adjournments were asked for or given. The public prosecutor and the lawyer of the accused were invariably present in court to rise in their seats when the presiding judge entered at the appointed hour of the morning. The witnesses were kept ready outside the court and would be ushered inside the courtroom when his or her name was called by the judge’s clerk.
There was great precision and solemnity to this whole process. Sadly, this has disappeared now with advocates for the prosecution or the defence seeking adjournments, often on flimsy grounds. Sadder still, they are able to obtain it without any difficulty. The entire atmosphere has been transformed into one witnessed routinely in the courts of the lower judiciary.
Delays in the disposal of trials of those accused who are charged with murder and rape, or other heinous crimes, has warped the judicial system. If those who dare to commit such crimes feel that there is laxity within the system, where the chances available to suborn witnesses are enhanced, then the threat of law catching up with offenders retreats. An atmosphere of lawlessness creeps in.
It is exactly this atmosphere of lawlessness that presently prevails. The middle-class, who form the bulk of the opinion makers in any country, put pressure — subtle or overt — on the governments of the day to preserve their sense of security in any way possible. Since the judicial system does not operate as smoothly as it used to in the past, popularly elected governments, in turn, put pressure on the police forces to use other methods to solve the problem.
I remember Gopinath Munde, deputy chief minister and home minister in the first Shiv Sena-BJP coalition government in Maharashtra, standing up to critics in the legislative assembly and countering them by proclaiming openly that he had ordered his police chief to dispose off criminals by shooting them at sight. He was not concerned by the legality of what he said he had ordered the police to do, and, surprisingly, the Opposition also seemed to have concurred.
Third-degree methods adopted by the police and the fake encounters which have become a part of the police and public lexicon, are short-cuts that have become accepted, and almost formalised, because of public support. A beleaguered society that knows not what ails the system, openly supports short-cuts adopted by the police to circumvent the failures of the judicial process. The public is unaware of the fall-out of this new practice of fake encounters: A whole new breed of criminals is born. They are known as “encounter specialists”.
These “specialists” are hero-worshipped by this puzzled society. Even films and biopics are made on their patently illegal deeds. In the process, they turn into criminals in uniform, willing to take on private requests for a price. That they are in uniform gives them an immunity that is doubly dangerous. Many of them have become filthy rich. If they contest elections after retirement, they declare assets that are clearly beyond the capacity of police inspectors to accumulate.
The Telangana police unit which shot dead the four suspects in the veterinary lady doctor’s rape-cum-murder offence were likely carrying out a mandate entrusted to it by their own leaders who, in turn, will have received instructions from political superiors. The public baying for blood is a symptom of a puzzled and ill-informed society.
Until the system of judicial process is put back on the rails, these short-cuts will continue. How does the government — with the judiciary, the Bar and the police, all components of the judicial process — correct all these flaws in the system? For starters, the courts must hold daily hearings in such cases without any interruption. No adjournments should ever be given. If lawyers are busy with other cases, they must take steps to send their juniors to attend those other cases instead.
All stakeholders in the judicial process must sit across the table and take a decision to speed up the trials of rape and murder cases, at least. No encounters should be encouraged by the political leadership. In fact, there will not be any such demand from the public if the offenders are charged and punished swiftly. After all, the public, specifically the middle classes, who have a vested interest in law and order, want the legal system to work. They will not ask for illegal methods to be adopted if they enjoy a feeling of security.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 7, 2019 under the title ‘Criminals in uniform’. The writer, a retired IPS officer, was Mumbai police commissioner, DGP Gujarat and DGP Punjab.