Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Police excesses

Going by the sequence of events in the Vikas Dubey encounter killing case, the onus is on the Uttar Pradesh police to explain and prove its innocence. The reports suggest that Vikas Dubey was shot dead by the police as he made a vain attempt to escape after the police vehicle, in which he was being brought to Kanpur, turned turtle, a day after his arrest from a temple in Ujjain. He was on the run since the killing of eight policemen in an ambush in Kanpur on July 3. This incident has raised many questions because he met the same fate like five of his associates in the past few days, who were also accused of ganging up and having their way in attacking the police officials during the past many years. The official narrative of the events on July 10 morning, a police vehicle accident, an attempted escape and police reacting by firing in self-defence is not being trusted. This appeared to be an action-packed drama starring a dreaded gangster, who by any accounts knew too much about the political patronage, wheeling-dealing with politicians and police officers. It appears that there was police complicity in the gangster’s success in evading the law so far and hush-hush talk of his connections to politicians in high places. It did not appear to be a different story so far as criminals becoming politicians and going up the ladder in a matter of few years. The governance in UP with sanction for promoting ‘encounter-culture’ and impunity to the police has been coming in for criticism since the present dispensation took over the reins of the government. This ‘culture’ is enjoying sanction by the ruling regime, and shored up by the apparent lack of popular outrage at extra-judicial killings, if not outright popular support for such summary executions, and impatience with fundamental principles of criminal justice. In a country governed by the rule of law, the UP police have much to explain not only in this case but also others that have not come under the scanner of courts. But if this culture persists and police refuses, as forces in such situations do, the court must step in and intervene. In the past, the courts have intervened and spoken on encounters and extra-judicial killings in which there is a perverse inversion of the norm – the FIR is usually filed against the killed, not the killers. It cannot be forgotten that in 2009, a five-judge bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court, a state that has a dubious record of encounter killings, made it mandatory for the police to register an FIR against police officers after every ‘encounter’ killing and ruled that a judicial magistrate would decide the next steps. The Supreme Court framed guidelines to be followed in ‘encounter’ cases in People’s Union for Civil Liberties versus State of Maharashtra, (2014). Unfortunately, ambiguity in the wording and requirement of government sanction to prosecute police officers have conspired to ensure that police impunity is not dented. Other institutions have also not lived up to their mandate. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) laid out guidelines of its own in such cases in 1997, but these have not been taken seriously. The culprit, in part, is the NHRC’s inadequate infrastructure, and partly institutional decadence. Almost 27 years after it came into existence, it fits the description that it is a toothless tiger like many other constitutional bodies. It falls on the highest court of the country to follow through. The SC already has a template – in cases of corruption, the court stepped in to direct systematic overhaul, and to mandate judicial oversight of prosecution. The SC decision in Vineet Narain versus Union of India in 1998 set an example. It has asserted its power to monitor investigations, pass interim orders, appoint amicus curiae, continually hold investigative agencies accountable. This should be followed in the case of the extra-judicial killings and police excesses. If the court refuses to intervene, the police and other forces will continue to eliminate the accused in such ‘encounter killings’ at the behest of their political master and then get away with it also defeating the very purpose of creating constitutional bodies like court to adjudicate upon on such cases.