No room for vigilante justice in our society
To end the culture of encounter killings, look at the political climate that sustains it
Pulverised by a series of attacks against their henchmen, the underworld in Bombay was stunned into disbelief in the 1980s as police sharpshooters started gunning them down one by one. Accolades were showered on the so-called encounter specialists who worked with great precision, and, in the process, created a new term in the police lexicon, encounter killing. Four decades later, similar encomiums are being expressed in certain quarters for the Uttar Pradesh (UP) Special Task Force (STF) for the killings of Asad Ahmad, son of gangster Atiq Ahmad, in an encounter last week.
Should encounter killings be celebrated in a democracy? Certainly not. But can you blame people living for decades under the thumb of a marauding gangster for exulting over his demise? Politicians reacted expectedly along party lines, some even calling the encounter fake — an irresponsible statement to make before the Supreme Court-mandated magisterial inquiry findings.
Is an e.ncounter the answer to a gangster’s menace? No. But neither is the existing broken criminal justice system. Out of 100 crimes registered against Atiq, 40 were dropped. A murder trial from 2005 continued even after 18 years, and the prime witness was murdered.
Lawyers engaged by the accused prolong trials by seeking future dates at every hearing, which suits everyone except the complainant. Even a conviction after several years can be stuck in endless cycles of appeals. So, where is the closure for the complainant?
The most troubling is the sociopolitical environment that fosters the growth of such mafia dons. In large swathes of the country, they have a loyal following because they are seen as dispensers of justice. The same culture of weak institutional structures and unbridled power births another set of larger-than-life figures, the encounter specialists. For the common folk who remain subjugated, the display of machismo and dominance appears glamorous.
The fall of Atiq was as spectacular as his rise — shot down in police custody, just outside a hospital, by three assassins allegedly posing as journalists. Police security for a dreaded criminal, who had shared with the court a fear for his life, was shoddy to say the least. The court must have asked for daily medical check-ups while in police custody. It was important for the police to appeal to the court that daily movement involved security implications, hence check-ups should be allowed in the police station. Otherwise, security should have been carefully planned and handled by personal protection experts. The murder will cast a long shadow on Prayagraj police’s professional acumen.
The Jhansi encounter that killed Asad Ahmad was the 183rd in UP in the last six years, and the third in connection with the Umesh Pal case. Parties aligned against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) say the state government is running an encounter raj. But UP has always held this dubious recognition. Out of 440 encounters in the country in 2002-08, UP led with 231, followed by Rajasthan 33. During 2009-13, UP again topped the pack with 138, followed by Manipur, 52, out of 555 encounters.
State governments should sober up to the harsh reality of encounter killings. There is nothing to rejoice when a criminal justice system in tatters is a helpless witness to kangaroo courts taking over. When petty criminals are gunned down in encounters, it’s time to sit up and take serious notice. When gangsters are felled on account of religion, caste and party affiliations, it’s time for constitutional watchdogs to take over. On the UP Police’s website is a list of “most wanted” criminals against whom rewards range from ₹50,000 to ₹5 lakh. Besides, there are a number of other dons, said to be aligned with various political parties, who have between 28 to 106 criminal cases against them. A zero-tolerance policy against the mafia means relentless pursuit of all cases against each of them, requiring active cooperation of the court, prosecution, police, jail authorities and the officials concerned. Where do we begin to put an end to encounter killings? The first step would be to look at the breeding grounds of the mafia and the political climate sustaining its rise. Will parties stop promoting, using and giving tickets to criminals? Perhaps not. The fall of such dons will always be celebrated, whether by justified means or not.
From the Bombay underworld in the 1980s to the badlands of UP today, the same questions continue to be raised. The imperative to set the criminal justice system right cannot be overemphasised. Police, prisons, judicial and prosecutorial reforms are a dire need. Piecemeal tweaks will not help. A white paper should be released, laying out the broad areas of reform and the timeframe to achieve it. Too much time has gone in trying ad hoc and short-term measures. A holistic package is required — from CCTVs in all stations, certain percentage of women in every station, prison, court or prosecution, forensics support, able prosecutors, capable fast-track courts, and a prison-monitoring system.
New-age policing relies on technology. Can illegal sand, coal, forest and other mafias flourish in an era of drones and satellite imagery? Can kidnapping and extortion continue with impunity in an era when high-tech electronic gadgets are available with the police for interception? Zero tolerance for crimes against women, illegal mining, and looting of State resources is needed to stem the tide. To let criminals flourish under one political dispensation and down them in encounters under another reveals a serious flaw in our system. But as long as police action is privy to the political executive’s nod, the system will continue to suffer.
Yashovardhan Azad is chairman Deepstrat, a former central information commissioner and a retired IPS officer who has served as secretary, security, and special director, Intelligence Bureau The views expressed are personal