Vrinda Grover interview: ‘State shielding policemen behind Disha encounter’

Advocate Vrinda Grover says that a serious fallout of the police vigilantism in the Disha case is that the perpetrators of the crime, by which a 26-year-old veterinarian lost her life in Hyderabad in 2019, will never face the law.
Vrinda Grover
Vrinda Grover
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On May 1, the Telangana High Court passed an interim order suspending the report of the Justice VS Sirpurkar Commission of Inquiry in the Disha encounter case of 2019. The report, which was submitted before the Supreme Court in January 2022, said that the shooting of the four accused in the rape and murder of a Hyderabad veterinarian was a “fake encounter” and an extra-judicial killing, adding that the ten police officers who were at the spot should be tried for murder. 

The Sirpurkar Commission, comprising former SC judge VS Sirpurkar, former Bombay HC judge Rekha Baldota, and former CBI director Karthikeyan, was constituted on December 12, 2019, to inquire into the encounter killing of the four accused in the rape and murder case that took place in Hyderabad on November 28, 2019.
Read: Hyderabad Disha encounter case: Inside details of Commission's hearing 

A group of activists petitioned the Telangana HC and later the Supreme Court seeking the courts’ intervention in the extrajudicial killings. They were represented by advocate Vrinda Grover, who has appeared in several landmark cases representing victims and survivors of state excesses. As she did in the Disha encounter case, Vrinda has challenged the impunity that the police enjoy in other custodial deaths and extrajudicial killings, by seeking independent investigation and prosecution. 

Following the HC’s suspension of the Sirpurkar Commission report, TNM spoke to Vrinda Grover. Excerpts from the interview:

What led the women’s rights activists to petition the Telangana HC in the Disha encounter case?

The news that the suspects in the Disha case had been disposed of by the police in an encounter was announced with jubilation by a senior police officer who remarked, “The law has done its duty”. Many, feeling anxious and angry after Disha’s rape and murder, received the news of the encounter killings with applause. 

However, for some social activists and feminists, the encounter killings denoted a vigilante and trigger-happy notion of instant justice, which is anathema to the rule of law. They were sceptical of the police account of firing in self-defence, and troubled by the sight and reports of public adulation and celebration of the encounter as a just punishment for the suspects, including by political leaders. 

The press conference addressed by senior police officials, in breach of all norms of supremacy of rule of law, awarded a certificate of innocence to the policemen involved in the encounter killings, even before any inquiry or investigation, as mandated by law, had commenced. Such acts of the senior police official, coupled with widespread adulation for the killing of four suspects, cast a dark shadow over the prospects of any fair inquiry or investigation into the alleged encounter, as the incident already stood pre-judged and celebrated. 

It was in these circumstances that women’s rights activists wrote a letter to the Chief Justice of the Telangana High Court, seeking the intervention of constitutional courts to uncover the truth of how four suspects in judicial custody were gunned down by the police.

What is the importance of an independent investigating team like the Sirpurkar Commission in the Disha encounter case? 

The Commission of Inquiry had submitted its report to the Supreme Court on January 28, 2022. The report called for prosecution of all 10 police personnel involved for murder, after concluding, "In our considered opinion, the accused were deliberately fired upon with an intent to cause their death and with the knowledge that the firing would invariably result in the death of the deceased suspects."

The Supreme Court in its order of May 20, 2022, directed the parties to approach the High Court of Telangana, where a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by women's rights activists was already pending, to seek directions on the basis of the Commission report.

I have been appearing before the Telangana HC bench on behalf of the PIL petitioners. It was in this petition that directions were passed by the court to preserve all the evidence that was later examined by the Sirpurkar Commission. Before the High Court, I have argued that in conformity with the law as laid down by the Supreme Court in PUCL vs State of Maharashtra (2014) and as recommended by the Sirpurkar Commission of Inquiry, a first information report (FIR) needs to be registered against the 10 members of the police encounter team under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code for murder of the four suspects.

Given that senior police officials have endorsed the alleged encounter, it is imperative that the investigation be conducted by an impartial and independent investigating team, which is appointed and monitored by the High Court. Interestingly, police officer associations, and the policemen who were part of the encounter team, have intervened in the PIL and argued that they should be heard before an FIR is registered against them. 

Do you think the murder of the accused prevented the truth behind the murder of Disha from being known? 

Even as the bench headed by the Chief Justice of Telangana was hearing the matter, the policemen who were part of the encounter team approached the HC through separate petitions in which the PIL petitioners are not parties. It is in those proceedings that the order has been passed for no coercive action. 

There is much to be said here about propriety and the acts of omission and commission by the State, that somehow shields the policemen from being held accountable and responsible. From the very inception of this case, if we have moved any closer to the truth, it is because public spirited persons moved the court seeking that the rule of law be upheld, whereas the State machinery has rigorously tried to protect the policemen. This stay order will obviously be a subject of challenge soon.

A very serious fallout of police vigilantism is that the perpetrators of the crime by which Disha lost her life will never face the wrath of the law. Apart from the version presented by the tainted police party, the truth stands overshadowed by the spectacle of the “encounter”. In my view, in the Disha case, the right to justice and the right to know the truth have both been buried. Three minor boys, belonging to a primitive tribe, and an adult Muslim man were extrajudicially executed without subjecting them to the due process of law.

The Hyderabad shootout was hailed even by celebrities. What are the dangers of such actions?  

Celebrating and grandstanding “encounters” by the police brings no assurance of freedom and security for women, as the spiralling graph of crimes against women inform us. Preying on the fears and anxieties of women and families, trigger happy men in uniform may become the rogue arbiters over our lives, usurping the role of law and courts.

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