Vikas Dubey, a history-sheeter, with 62 criminal cases against him, was shot dead in an 'exchange of fire' by the U.P. Police on 10th July. The gangster was arrested a day before in a public temple in Ujjain and was being escorted to Kanpur to be presented in court. He was wanted with a bounty of 5 Lakhs for the killing of 8 police officers on July 2-3 at Bikru Village.
Dubey, according to the police, tried to flee when the vehicle carrying him lost control and overturned on the way. It was claimed by the police department that Dubey was shot multiple times by the police officers after he fired at them with an “intent to kill” using a pistol, which he, taking advantage of the situation, snatched from one of the officers.
The police operation came under question for a plethora of reasons. First, a hardened criminal like Dubey was supposedly brought without any handcuffs and managed to escape heavily armed policemen. Second, the journalists and reporters trailing the police convoy were stopped a few kilometers before the spot of the incident. And most importantly, Dubey was earlier seen in a TATA S.U.V. while crossing a toll plaza while the car that met with the “accident” happened to be another vehicle.
The incident has brought to attention one of the major problems plaguing the Indian judiciary and criminal law and order – Fake Encounters.
The possibility that Dubey’s death was officiated retribution for the murder of the eight policemen is hard to dismiss. Moreover, Dubey was a gangster with political links and patronage and had ties to the police department. The U.P. Police have themselves claimed the involvement of their men in tipping off Dubey on the night of 2nd July.
When Dubey was arrested in Ujjain, it had been widely speculated that the U.P. Police would kill him because he knew far too much about the policemen he paid off and the politicians who had kept him in business.
Moreover, while being nabbed, he was eager to establish his identity, shouting his name out so that every bystander knew who he was: possibly arranging to give himself up in a public place to ensure that he was not shot 'while trying to evade capture'.
What Are Encounters?
Encounter is a famous euphemism used in India since the mid-1900s to explain apparent extrajudicial killings by the police or military – supposedly in self-defense when they encounter suspected terrorists or gangsters.
In India, not unlike the Dubey episode, many a time police forces have faked encounters to fulfill their motives. Taking a recent example, five closest aids of Dubey were killed in similar shootouts by the police with almost identical problems during transport, gun snatching, and firing on the police.
According to the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC), there were a staggering 1782 cases of fake encounters in India during the period between 2000 and 2017. Of these, 44.55% of the cases originated from the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Why Police Resort to Encounters?
Going back as far as the late 1960s, encounters were used to finish off the Naxalite movement in West Bengal. In the 1980s, they were used during the Punjab insurgency and Mumbai's increasing troubles with underworld gangsters.
The rationale that is often used for the popularity of encounters focuses on the inadequacy of the legal system. Cases take years to come to trial; in the interim gangsters are given bail and resume their criminal activities. It is also pointed out that Dawood Ibrahim – most wanted by India with a reward of $25 million over his head – was out on bail when he fled the country for Dubai.
Also in India, witnesses are imperative to lead a case to conviction; the witnesses - due to the lack of resources - are often vulnerable to bribes, intimidation, and in controversial cases, tend to become hostile at the last moment. Instead of voicing for the reform in the judicial system, this is seen as an argument to giving the judiciary a wide berth and letting the police provide ‘instant justice’.
While sometimes, it is the nexus of politicians, gangsters, and policemen that is exposed after an encounter like Dubey, other times it is archaic and insensitive laws that grant a free hand to the police.
For example, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002 grants police officers excessive powers to contain the activities of terrorist groups. In some of the north-eastern states of India, by the virtue of the contentious Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), security forces have committed extra-judicial killings, without following the due process of law.
Recent Public Reaction to encounters
On 6th December 2019, all four accused, who were booked in the gang rape and murder case of a 26-year old women veterinarian were shot dead on the Chatanpally underpass in Hyderabad where the charred body of the victim was found. According to the police, the accused were taken to the crime spot to reconstruct the crime scene, where they snatched the weaponsfrom the officers and opened fire. It was there in self-defense that the officers retaliated and the accused were shot fatally.
Public response to this incident strikes at the very heart of the criminal justice administration. The natives, in huge numbers, came out to support these ‘extrajudicial killings’ by police, distributed sweets, and termed it as ‘quick justice’.
In recent years public support for these killings has grown, partly as a result of encouragement on social media and on news TV – the fan-boy reaction by TV Presenter Arnab Goswami on the Vikas Dubey encounter has become a viral meme. Anyone who raises doubts about the execution of a gangster is chastised for being on the side of the bad guys or simply as an ‘anti-national’.
In our films, documentaries, and popular culture these encounters are glorified as justice and their executioners are romanticized as ‘encounter specialists’ thus abetting veiled crime as an answer to glaring crime.
Do They Reduce Crime?
A report published by the National Herald stated, “From the societal point of view anything as bizarre as the other can neither bring nor ensure order. This has been exactly the case with recurring and ever deadly police encounters. These have resulted in the deaths of so many allegedly hardened criminals all over the country and yet, strangely, the crime scene has only been getting from bad to worse”.
After the Hyderabad encounter, the reaction of the public suggested that India had finally found a fool-proof solution to the country’s rape culture and no one shall come in the way of these encounters. Subsequently, the Andhra Pradesh assembly passed a resolution mandating the death penalty for rape convicts and provided for the trial to be completed in 21 days.
But did the encounter and the government’s reaction deter crime or lead to a fall in crime rates? After the brutal rape incident on November 26, the Times of India reported seven rapes in Telangana in three weeks – one rape every 3 days. In Andhra Pradesh, 13 rape cases were reported between November 26 and December 20. In 12 of these cases, the victim was a minor.
Around the same time, the survivor of the infamous Unnao rape case was set on fire and killed because she insisted on pursuing the case against her rapists. A law student was gang-raped in Jharkhand; a girl in Bihar was gang-raped, shot and set on fire; a girl in Bihar’s Rohtas district and another woman in Uttar Pradesh were killed for resisting rape.
This only means that a police encounter, as a way of delivering justice and reducing crime, is as ineffective as our judicial courts are perceived to be. One can understand the popular acceptance for encounters if the killing of an accused leads to an immediate and noticeable drop in the crime graph of a particular region but that hasn’t happened in this case.
Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest and politically the most salient state, under the Yogi Adityanath Government has publicly adopted this encounter strategy for reducing crime. A December 2019 report showed the U.P. Police were involved in 5,178 violent engagements, leaving 103 people dead. This was proudly claimed as the end of ‘Jungle Raj’.
According to the latest available National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, in 2018, Uttar Pradesh topped the country in crimes against women (59,445 crimes) — a 7% increase from 2017. The state also recorded the highest number of gang rapes and the second-highest number of rapes (4,323 cases) in the country.
Dowry deaths, crimes against children, and crimes against senior citizens, all recorded an increase from 2017. The state ranked highest in reported murders, 4,324 cases in 2017 (the latest year for which NCRB’s disaggregated data is available.)
The Yogi government proudly claims to be the savior of law and order of the state by touting encounters, which are overwhelmingly used against petty criminals. This has indeed won the government popular approval but has done little to stunt the crime rate in the state as the figures stated above show.
Instead, as revealed by an investigation by India Today, the U.P. Police officers are now at ease with framing innocents for crimes they have never committed and even killing them for money and promotions. Political and sectarian forces have become so involved in crimes that it is impossible to expect an unbiased police force.
However, India’s criminal justice system has evolved a lot to preclude this interference. For instance, the police are responsible to take prompt cognizance of an incident but have to put the case before a court for a trial, and if the case is upheld then the task of ensuring the punishment falls in the purview of jail.
Unfortunately, encounters – fake or real, cut short these processes and go against the very system it is designed to quicken. A short-cut approach to justice may look miraculous and tempting but it is immensely misplaced because every suspected criminal cannot be done away with an encounter. The bottom line being, the discriminatory nature of encounters is more of a bane than a cure or correction to our society’s criminal problems.
(The views expressed are the authors own. Cover Image credits: Photo by kat Wilcox from Pexels)