The shocking truth about police encounters

By Jagdish Rattanani

The nation should be shell shocked by the report of an eminent panel set up by the Supreme Court to investigate the death of four accused in the brutal rape and murder case of veterinary doctor (identified only as Ms. Disha) in Hyderabad in 2019. The panel, comprising Justice V S Sirpurkar (retired judge of the Supreme Court), Justice Rekha P Sondur Baldota (former judge of the Bombay High Court) and Dr. D R Kaarthikeyan (former CBI director), begin their recommendations in the case of the “encounter” killings with the following words: “Just as mob lynching is unacceptable, so is any idea of instant justice. At any point of time, rule of law must prevail. Punishment for crime has to be only by the procedure established by law.”
Their 387-page report is so thorough, meticulous and in graphic detail that it amounts to a conviction of the police and the State machinery for what clearly and beyond any shadow of doubt was a staged encounter in which four accused, three of them juveniles, were killed. Accused Jollu Shiva, Jollu Naveen and Chintakunta Chennakeshavulu were aged 17, 15 and 15 respectively, their ages conclusively proved as recorded in school registers. The fact that at least two of these three were juveniles was clearly known to the police. The fourth accused killed in the “encounter”, Mohammed Arif, was 26.
All the four were from poor families – truck drivers and cleaners who were picked up, it appears, not by police but by the owner of the truck that was seen in video footage as the investigation commenced. The report should also be shocking to all of India because it gives a graphic account of how the police function, almost like rookies who have no clue about anything remotely linked to any formal investigation, let alone investigating a shocking case that led to a nation-wide public outcry.
If 75 years after independence, this is how police operations work in some of the most important cases, then questions need to be asked on the state of the nation itself. Further, the case comes not from what was once the backyards of Bhagalpur but in a thriving State capital that wants to become the techno-cyber capital of the nation and attracts investments like Amazon’s largest campus anywhere in the world. These modernistic investments and infrastructure sit ill at ease with governance structures that live on from pre-historic times. They mock the State, they bring ridicule to its elaborate and carefully constructed norms of due process, and they lower the standing of a nation that seeks to be a global power. It would therefore be legitimate to ask: has India progressed since independence at all or we slipping and heading toward a governance collapse?
The report should further shock the entire cadre of the Indian Police Service officers, who are considered the top echelons of the police bureaucracy but have rarely if ever spoken about the growing menace of staged encounters, the shoddiness of investigations and the lack of anything remotely professional in the functioning of the Indian police. Each and every IPS officer in the nation would hang his or her head in shame on reading this report.
Now in the dock and almost impossible to escape are the local police and the State machinery that not only allowed and probably sanctioned at the highest level such a crime but also did not complete a full and proper investigation of a case that had shocked Telangana and the nation. In that sense, the so-called encounter quietened public anger but it did not do justice to anyone, not even the victim, because the case was not investigated fully and the real culprits probably were never at risk of being caught. The encounter that killed four accused also killed all leads; it killed investigation and it murdered the process by which justice is delivered.
The report by the eminent panel records some of the most ludicrous claims put up by the police – that when taken to the spot for recovery of material evidence, the accused threw mud into the eyes of the police escorts, that they snatched a revolver and fired at the police. One para from the long report illustrates the bankruptcy of the official narrative: “On account of the fact that the allegation of throwing of dust and earth is introduced belatedly and considering the improbabilities in the version, it is to be held that this allegation is an embellishment and introduced only to give a plausible explanation that the accused could escape from the custody of such a large contingent of armed police party. When any such mischievous attempt is initiated by one of the accused, the entire police party would get alerted and would thwart all such attempts. Such helplessness could not have been expected even from a layman…”
The report illustrates how State-sanctioned killings and the subsequent coverups are done – at one level ham-handed but also unfettered by any fear of a follow up. The teams put to this task are so brutalised and confident that there will be no accountability that they care not about a cover for their killings. Linked to this of course is the political class – all parties at all levels – that want quick fixes for potential political trouble on law & order issues and to keep the economy ticking. The nexus of the political- business class stands out clearly, standing as a force called progress and prosperity against the weak and the downtrodden who have little hope of justice from such a system. This is an India-wide divide and it makes the nation weaker even though the numbers on the economic dashboard may look stronger.
The Supreme Court of India has done yeoman service by setting up the panel, which has served the nation by its detailed findings. The report should lead to immediate local area arrests of the guilty policemen but it must also trigger a rethink on the problem of police encounters. All political parties must recognise this as a dangerous decline in standards. IPS officers must speak up. We also need new administrative protocols – sending on compulsory leave top officers in the immediate chain, leading to the IPS officer in charge, as the case is investigated by a judicial panel, will end the sorry case of police encounters right away. Until then, silly stories like the accused threw mud in the eyes of the police will continue to throw mud in the eyes of the nation.
(The writer is a journalist and faculty member at Bhavan’s SPJIMR. Views are personal) (Syndicate: The Billion Press) (e-mail: [email protected])

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