‘We may have the finest criminal laws, but of what use are they when it can ensure neither a quick, time-bound trial nor punishment?’
‘The outcome, then, will be extra-judicial solutions like what the Telangana police has hit upon,’ argues Saisuresh Sivaswamy.
IMAGE: People shower flower petals and hail the police at the encounter site, where the four men accused of the gruesome rape and murder of a 25-year-old woman veterinary doctor were shot dead by the police early on December 6, 2019. Photograph: PTI Photo
Every now and then, India goes through paroxysms of public outrage, a collective maatam as it were, over rape.
That this outrage does not erupt over each and every incident of rape, needs to be underlined.
Every day our newspapers are full of reports of rape of women and children; yet, not every one of them invites the kind of outrage we saw in the aftermath of the Delhi gang-rape and murder of December 2012, or that of the young Hyderabad veterinarian now.
Was brutality involved in both the cases the trigger point for the public to say ‘enough is enough, just kill the bastards’?
If it was, the recent Unnao rape, in which the accused who are out on bail set fire to the victim, too would have seen a similar outpouring on our streets and social media feeds. But it didn’t.
Or is it the victim’s class and background that determine the scale and extent of the public’s anger, so much so that atrocities perpetrated on some classes and even castes evince a little more than a passing mention in news programmes, and end up as a perfunctory mention in official statistics?
These may be questions to which there are no easy answers but regardless, that one police force in the country took the easy way to ‘solve’ a crime is indisputable.
In carrying out the encounter of the four accused in the Hyderabad vet’s rape-murder, the cops were no doubt emboldened by the knowledge that given the strength of public opinion baying for blood, they would actually emerge as heroes and not villains.
And going by the unprecedented feting of the police force, and the surge of public support, they were not wide of the mark in their calculations.
It is easy to understand the man on the street celebrating the wanton killing of the accused. What is not, however, is the support this act has evoked among our lawmakers.
Because, the meting out of instant justice as in Hyderabad is as powered by public support as it is impelled by the failure of our grievance redressal mechanism, for which our lawmakers must share part of the blame.
And the overwhelming presence of criminal elements among our lawmakers is another reason for the public’s disenchantment with the justice delivery system, which fuels the desire for extra-judicial solutions and the security forces’s gamble to heed what the public wants.
The fact that the killers of the Delhi gang-rape victim are still to face justice, seven long years after the ghastly crime, is a telling comment on our collective failure to ensure that crimes are addressed and criminals punished — in time.
It is a dubious record for any government, and clearly not one that Telangana wants to be burdened with.
No state wants to be seen as soft when it comes to tackling crime and criminals, but there is little much that can be done once matters hit the judicial track.
What everyone hopes for is a 100 metre dash; but often, the lengthy trial process with its inbuilt delays and deferrals make it an unending marathon.
If the purpose of criminal laws is to not merely punish the wrongdoer but also ensure that the punishment serves as a deterrent for future crimes, then the Indian judicial system is a huge failure. It punishes at snail’s pace, thus neither satisfying the victim’s quest for justice nor serving as a deterrent for potential violators.
We may have the finest criminal laws, but of what use are they when it can ensure neither a quick, time-bound trial nor punishment?
The outcome, then, will be extra-judicial solutions like what the Telangana police has hit upon.
Those of us who are shocked by the police’s criminal act, and bemoan the violation of due process, need to remember that when justice fails, as in case after case after case, instant justice will step in.
That Nature abhors a vacuum is as much a law of physics as it is of criminal justice. Something will rush in to fill the space, and it may not always be what the good doctor ordered.
In matters of crime, it is the police that will invent creative ways of dealing with the problem, because as first responders to a crime they are the ones the public expects to punish the guilty. And consequently, it is they who come under pressure for any seeming delay in ensuring it.
Only last week, as protests flared up across Hyderabad over the rape-murder, the police station that housed the accused was almost run over by irate mobs.
However, the precipitate police action in south India’s tech city was not meant only to address public fury. It served two other purposes as well.
One, the pre-dawn gunshots rang out a message to accused and convicted rapists that they too will face a similar outcome from the local police force that will be compelled to act by the across-the-board felicitation of their Hyderabad counterparts, and that even departmental probes will be unwilling to punish those who the public thinks did the heroic thing.
And two, the Hyderabad encounter killings also hopes to serve as a deterrence for potential criminals who, hitherto, bet on the long process of the law sparing them.
The message is that even if the law spared them, the police will not.
Is it an ideal situation? No.
That any such extra-judicial processes will put India on the slippery slope to tinpot country status where upholders of the law turn into violators, is a fact.
At the same time, the police force believes it is unfair to expect them to control crime when the punishment of crime is not in their hands. But few act on this belief; Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao has allowed his police force to, because he knows that it is a question of time before the public fury singes him. No politician will allow that.
Saisuresh Sivaswamy has been a journalist for 35 years and wrote his very first column for KhabriBaba.com on January 25, 1997. You can read his columns here.
Sai (as he is known) usually writes on politics, but once in a while you will find him reviewing the odd film, especially if it features Rajinikanth or Kamal Haasan.
You can mail him at sai@KhabriBaba.co.in.