On December 6, 2019, the Telangana police shot dead four men who were accused of raping and murdering a Hyderabad veterinary doctor. Known as the Disha case, the crime had led to widespread outrage with pressure mounting on the police to quell public anger. However, even as the investigation into the alleged encounter is ongoing, the police response appears to have become the gold standard for dealing with rape cases.
In two recent incidents that made the headlines, politicians have called for an 'encounter' to deliver justice to the victims. On August 24, a 22-year-old MBA student was gangraped and her boyfriend was assaulted by a group of men in Mysuru. Former Karnataka Chief Minister and JD(S) leader HD Kumaraswamy 'advised' the Karnataka government to deal with the accused in the Mysuru gangrape case just like the Hyderabad police handled the Disha case. Similarly, TPCC Chief Revanth Reddy has called for an encounter of rapists, speaking in the context of the six-year-old girl who was raped and murdered allegedly by her neighbour in Saidabad.
Shortly after the Disha encounter case, Uttar Pradesh Opposition leader Mayawati attacked the Yogi Adityanath government over the safety of women in the state. She asked the UP and Delhi police to take "inspiration" from the Hyderabad police instead of treating the accused like state guests. In response, the official handle of the UP police actually boasted about the number of encounters that they had committed in the state, claiming that "jungle raj" was now a thing of the past.
The figures speak for themselves. Jungle Raj is a thing of the past. No longer now.
103 criminals killed and 1859 injured in 5178 police engagements in the last more than 2 years.
17745 criminals surrendered or cancelled their own bails to go to jail.
Hardly state guests. https://t.co/3Tk8qFLtK3â€” UP POLICE (@Uppolice) December 6, 2019
It's not surprising that many people, including celebrities, welcomed and glorified the actions of the Telangana police when they shot dead the accused in the Disha case. Such a cinematic and populist notion of justice was effective in making the public believe that the victim had been avenged. However, it is unacceptable that politicians, who are lawmakers, are celebrating such a narrative.
It's important to note that in the Disha case, the police wasted a lot of time wrangling over the jurisdiction of the station when the family approached them to find their missing daughter whom they believed to be in danger. Instead of filing a Zero FIR and moving on the case, the police delayed the search by several hours. The ongoing investigation into the encounter of the accused also suggests several lapses on part of the police, including statements that contradict those of Disha's sister. Without establishing the guilt of the accused beyond doubt in a court of law, the police delivered 'justice' to change the public mood that was going against them. Is this something that we have to celebrate or question?
The police's job is to register an FIR, investigate the case, gather evidence, make arrests, file a chargesheet and produce the accused before the court. It's also the police's job to improve the public's confidence and trust in the system to approach them when in danger, particularly in sensitive crimes such as sexual assault. It is not the police's job to deliver the verdict in the case. With several shocking incidents of custodial violence coming to light, including instances where innocent people have been tortured into confessing to crimes they did not commit, the public should be wary of going by the police version of events entirely.
Watch: The monstrous shades of custodial violence and killing
Furthermore, even if the accused were indeed guilty, it is not up to the police to decide the quantum or nature of punishment, depending on how angry the public is or the media interest in the case. As a civilised society, we cannot allow emotions to dictate judgements. If that were the case, only victims whose cases are widely reported and outraged over will have any chance at obtaining justice. One must also understand that too often, the long arm of the law is quick to crush alleged perpetrators from underprivileged sections but is lenient towards powerful people accused of similar crimes. In the Hathras gangrape and murder case, for example, the police even cremated the body of the victim allegedly in a bid to destroy evidence and protect the upper caste accused.
Society, too, is inconsistent in its response to the accused. When the perpetrator is someone of high profile, there is a constant stream of whataboutery and victim blaming in the narrative surrounding the crime. Several other powerful people, political parties and institutions also stand by the perpetrator. For instance, the church has put its weight behind Bishop Franco Mulakkal who is accused of raping a nun in Kerala. In the Kathua case, two BJP ministers joined a rally in support of the accused. An encounter by the police in such cases is unlikely to be unanimously celebrated by the public or political class as in the case of Disha.
The conviction rate for rape in India is below 30%, but that does not mean that the solution is for the police to kill the accused they believe committed the crime. Instead, the police must do its job in conducting a thorough investigation, collecting evidence and building a strong case that will stand in court. There have been too many instances like the horrific Walayar sisters' case where police laxity resulted in the accused being acquitted.
Politicians must stop demanding encounters and instead focus on what's within their considerable power to transform society and the system that they help make and sustain. The Disha case solution is a mere placebo and not a cure for the disease. It's time that all of us acknowledge this and demand better from the police and the political class.
Views expressed are author's own.