Commitment to the rule of law provides a basic assurance that people can know what to expect whether what they do is popular or unpopular at the time. – Justice Sandra Day O’Connor
It will not be wrong to say that public opinion is the new rule of law in our country. According to one definition, “Public opinion consists of the desires, wants and thinking of the majority of the people. It is the collective opinion of the people of a society or state on an issue or problem. This concept came about through the process of urbanization and other political and social forces.”
In November 2019, after the alleged murder and rape of a female veterinary doctor in Hyderabad, an atmosphere of anger and revenge arose across the country. The incident saw mixed reactions; from unequivocal calls for women’s safety to violent calls for the lynching and castration of the accused.
The public discourse was dominated by “instant Justice” (revenge); throughout mass media and social media, questions pertaining to the safety of women in India were rampant.
The same four accused in the case were killed in a police encounter, after they allegedly tried to escape, by attacking the police with stones and sticks.
The due course of an incident should have pointed fingers at the police but what we saw was a mockery of the Constitution of India and rule of law.
The bodies of all the accused were allegedly kept lying at the encounter site for two hours and people started gathering in large numbers, celebrating and cheering the police action with flowers and sweets.
The joy and celebrations that followed the deaths of the accused were disturbing.
Even political representatives of the people, members of Parliament and Legislative Assemblies, who took an oath to abide by the Constitution of India and leaders of political parties, praised and applauded the Hyderabad Police’s “strict action”.
Those seeing this incident as justice, and those who believe it will deter heinous crimes, are either mistaken or lack basic civic sense.
The rule of law is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as; “The authority and influence of law in society, especially when viewed as a constraint on individual and institutional behaviour; (hence) the principle whereby all members of a society (including those in government) are considered equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes.”
Rule of Law should not be firmly rooted in public opinion but should be little ahead of it.
In the midst of all this, what remains to be seen is the accountability of authorities, pertaining to women’s safety in India and whether the due process will be followed.
What about other lesser-known rape and murder cases, with less media attention?
Justice in India is media-driven through media-manufactured public opinion. We, the people of India, seem to have lost faith in the Indian criminal justice system. We want efficiency, accountability and zero tolerance against crimes.
I believe the Police Force is biased and corrupt because they lack accountability and the Judiciary is overburdened, because it fails the purpose of deterrence of crimes, and is likely on the verge of collapse.
Unless there are an expeditious judiciary and well-functioning police infrastructure, who are both principled on justice; the dream of orderly society seems like a bizarre joke.
Crime deterrence is essential for the stability, security, and development of a nation but it cannot be achieved in isolation, through police encounters, public lynching or unjust prosecutions.
Reports of lynching keep pouring in from different parts of the country. The use of arbitrary power is often considered as a plague to the Rule of Law. Constitutional limits on power are the essence of democracy. What we need is “a government of laws not men”
“You have to accept the rule of law, even when it’s inconvenient if you’re going to be a country that abides by the rule of law.” Jesse Ventura
Hence, we can say, we have gone wrong somewhere. We have our priorities and values mixed up. We gave importance to mere projection and jingoism.
What can be done? In a quest to find solutions to this problem, society should imbibe new ways and means to improve the criminal justice system, and simplification of procedures.
“Justice delayed is justice denied, justice hurried is justice buried.”