Crime and punishment

The brutal rape and murder of a veterinarian in Hyderabad sparked public outrage all over the country.

Crime and punishment

Irony: By resorting to illegal methods, the police deflect attention to themselves from the negligence of others.

Sankar Sen

Sankar Sen
Ex-director, national police academy

The brutal rape and murder of a veterinarian in Hyderabad sparked public outrage all over the country. The killing of the rape suspects has led to public celebration and has been hailed as vindication of justice. Many political leaders heaped praise on the police, while people showered rose petals on the cops responsible for the encounter. Earlier, in Parliament, MP Jaya Bachchan advocated lynching of the rapists. Now, former UP CM Mayawati has exhorted police departments to emulate their Telangana counterparts.

Admittedly, the police version of the encounter does not stand the glare of scrutiny. It strains credulity to accept the view that the unarmed suspects accompanying the police tried to escape and that it was a genuine encounter.

The police across the country are facing criticism because of an upsurge in crimes against women. It is a sad and hard fact that crimes against women, and particularly rapes, are escalating and the perpetrators of such crimes are not getting their just deserts. After the brutal rape-murder of a girl in Delhi in 2012 (Nirbhaya case), there were an outpouring of public grief and a demand for stiffer anti-rape laws. The Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013, contains stiffer and stringent provisions for punishment of rape, particularly gang- rape. But stiffer laws have not curbed the incidence of rape in the country. The upswing continues.

As the justice delivery system is poor, cases drag on interminably in courts. Speedy and deterrent punishment has a retarding effect on crime.  Unfortunately, disposal of cases by the courts is notoriously slow. The Supreme Court has deplored the delay as well as abysmal rate of conviction in rape cases. The conviction rate for rape cases in India was 62 per cent (1971); 44.3 per cent (1973); 37.7 per cent (1983); 26.9 per cent (2009); and 27.1 per cent (2013). Again, in many cases, the maximum punishment is not imposed by the judge after adducing some extenuating factors.  In one case, the court exonerated two young men of rigorous imprisonment because they had suffered enough as undertrials.       

The atmosphere in police stations and courts is unfriendly; the victims face an ordeal during the investigation by the police and the trial in courts of law. The police investigators are often insensitive; the paucity of women police officers is another impediment to a sympathetic and efficient investigation. Many victims of sexual violence used to complain to the National Human Rights Commission that they were embarrassingly and insensitively questioned by the police officers and treated with lack of courtesy and consideration. Quite often, there is a jurisdictional dispute regarding the registration of cases.  One police station does not want to record a crime on the pretext that a particular case did not occur in its jurisdiction. The same thing happened in the Hyderabad rape-murder case.    

But the answer to these problems is not to give the police a ‘blank cheque’ and permit them to take the law in their own hands and function as judges as well as executioners. This will be a retrograde step and erode the foundations of the rule of law in a democratic polity. It will also adversely affect efficient police functioning. Instead of thoroughly investigating a case, the police will increasingly rely on shortcuts and illegal methods. The number of ‘liquidators’ will grow within the force.

However, the fact cannot be gainsaid that there is public as well as political pressure on the police to adopt ruthless counter-measures to deal with rapists, dreaded criminals and terrorists. It is the responsibility of senior police officers to resist such pressure and not dance to the tune of their political masters. The National Police Commission, in its fifth report, strongly deprecated encounters and said that this could not be the remedy for the situation; the answer was to strengthen the law and legal processes. There is always the danger that the practice of breaking the law in the name of law enforcement will be arbitrary as a process and random in its effect. Further, violating the rule of law will have the effect of scapegoating the police. The police top brass has to remember that when cops take recourse to extra-legal tactics to make up for the deficiencies of law and legal processes and procedures, they are being used to remedy deficiencies which they have not created. By resorting to illegal methods, they deflect attention to themselves from the negligence of others.

The political leaders and the police chiefs may encourage strong-arm methods, but it is the junior field officers who will have to face the fire of judicial inquiries or other outside interventions that may follow. I know of some bright young officers coming to grief and their careers shattered because of their involvement in custodial torture and fake encounters. In order to fend off such inquiries and interventions, the police develop a ‘bunker mentality’. “Illegality in the name of  public security makes policing a furtive and anxious job  and undermines the pride which is the basis of job satisfaction,” says David Bayley, an authority on criminal justice and policing. Therefore, it is the responsibility of police chiefs to understand and convince the rank and file that illegal and extra-legal methods are counter-productive.

Media reports mention an encounter specialist’s presence in the police party involved in the Hyderabad encounter. But I have also seen how some of these so-called specialists lionised by the politicians and police bosses are eventually cast away when things go wrong.

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