By Bala Sai:
In 2002, on a pleasant December evening in Patna, three college students were gunned down in broad daylight by the city police. The official stance was that they were secret accomplices of a notorious gangster, Ashok Natwa. It took 12 years for the truth to come out. In June this year, a Patna court handed the death sentence to the officer in question, after a CBI probe proved conclusively that the youngsters were in fact innocent, and were victims of a ‘fake encounter’.
This is not an isolated incident. The history of our peace-keeping forces is studded with such misadventures. According to the National Human Rights Commission, there were 440 cases of alleged fake-encounters in the period between 2002 and 2008, which roughly comes up to 63 cases per year. The figure has since risen to a terrifying high of 111 in the period between 2009 and 2013. In other words, once every three days, a police officer somewhere in the country might be abusing his powers to kill people in cold blood.
In this context, a recent judgment passed by the Supreme Court acquires tremendous importance. The judgment lays down stringent guidelines to be followed by various parties on the incidence of an encounter. For instance, henceforth, every intelligence input about armed terrorist movement must be recorded in writing, without disclosing vital information like venue and suspects, by the police party before proceeding to confront them.
Similarly, it is mandatory for an FIR to be registered immediately if there happens to be any causality as a result of police firing, and a magisterial enquiry should invariably follow. Detailed guidelines are also given about how the investigation into the deaths should be carried out, in a just and transparent manner.
This landmark judgment comes in the wake of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise to curb extra-judicial killings and bring the perpetrators to justice. This was in response to a recent report by the Justice Hegde Panel appointed by the Supreme Court to investigate the allegations of police abuse in a dozen encounters which happened in Manipur, one of which resulted in the brutal murder of a minor boy.
It should be pointed out that the state of Manipur alone is alleged to have witnessed 5,128 extra-judicial killings just in the past 30 years, with the murderers easily escaping the clutches of justice, protected under the aegis of the much-debated Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The states with high number of alleged fake-encounters are Uttar Pradesh (138), Manipur (62), Assam (52), West Bengal (35) and Jharkhand (30), between 2009 and 2013.
The severity of the problem has for the first time been acknowledged by the apex court in the judgment. However, the root of the issue of extra-judicial killings goes much deeper. Police generally resort to such practices in order to prevent the accused from escaping justice through various loopholes in the law. Time and again, we have witnessed criminals sneaking out through mere technicalities and manipulations. Though, this in no way justifies the crime, it does shed light on the problems faced by the law-enforcers in our country.
The judgment has its negatives too. Firstly, the practicality of keeping a written record of every single intelligence input is to be tested. Secondly, the new guidelines impose inordinate pressure on the police, by requiring them to surrender their firearms for forensic and ballistic analysis following an ‘encounter’, and stressing that all promotions, awards and recognitions be put off until the investigations are completed and the officer’s gallantry is proved beyond doubt.
In other words, the concerned officer is immediately assumed to be guilty, until proven innocent. This move is sure to demoralize the enforcers and will lead to a scenario in which police officials tend to avoid such cases to save themselves the trouble of a long-drawn investigation that could severely affect their career growth.
It cannot be stressed enough, the responsibility wrested in the hands of our Police department, and the crucial role they play in our society as guardians of justice. This issue is wedged between the rights and the responsibilities of the Police in peace-keeping. The stance of the Supreme Court, while striving to impart to the law-enforcers, their supreme responsibility of upholding justice, may have infringed upon their rights and freedom. This infringement, though, is partly justified, as the loss of an innocent life lands a more powerful blow to our spirit of democracy, than a criminal slipping through the cracks in the law.