The rape and murder of a young veterinarian near the Indian city of Hyderabad, and the killing by police of the four men accused of the crime, have led to fears that “retributive blood lust” is becoming the preferred way of dispensing justice in the country.
There is widespread approval of the police action and there are calls for the public lynching of rapists, but women’s rights groups says “encounter killings” are an absolute violation of the rule of law and constitutional guarantees.
Those in favour of “instant justice” say the courts take too long to deal with horrific rape and murder cases.
The role of the apex court in dealing with such matters is also being examined and lawyers are concerned that the high courts’ position is being undermined by the Supreme Court’s involvement in the case.
The high court conducted a hearing about the case yesterday (Monday) and extended its order that the bodies of the four accused be preserved until Friday. The court will hold another hearing into the matter on Thursday.
The Supreme Court is set to hear a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petition in the case on Wednesday (December 11).
The petition questions the legality of the police killing and calls for an independent investigation.
Commentators are asking why the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a petition in this case when the Telangana High Court is already seized of the matter. They argue that this could diminish trust in the High Court.
The vice-chancellor of NALSAR University of Law in Hyderabad, Faizan Mustafa, tweeted: “When the Telengana High Court had already taken cognisance of the event, this PIL should have been thrown out at the first instance. Trigger-happy PILs + the SC have steadily made the High Courts irrelevant as Constitutional bodies, with dangerous long-term consequences.”
India’s human rights commission has meanwhile called for an urgent investigation into the police killing and emphasised “the right to life and equality before law”.
The murdered veterinarian, who is being referred to, at the request of police, as Disha, and was reported to be 26 years old, was raped and killed on November 27 and her charred body was found under a culvert the next day. The four suspects were killed on December 6.
Police say they were acting in self-defence and that, when the accused men were taken to the scene of the crime for a reconstruction of events, they started pelting police with stones and other objects and snatched their weapons.
The “Hyderabad encounter” does not look like an act of self-defence, Mustafa says. “It defies common sense and stretches credulity that the police would take accused to the scene of crime at 5.30 a.m. The sun rises a little after 6 a.m. ”
Women’s groups said that sanctioning police to murder suspects was no answer and only shielded the state from accountability. “Celebrating such killings amounts to inhumanity,” they said in a letter to the chief justice of the Telangana High Court, Justice Raghvendra Singh Chauhan.
The Women in Criminal Law Association points out that the guilt of the four accused had not been established. “No court had dealt with the case and the investigation of the police was in early stages. This is not justice and we condemn the celebratory statements issued by politicians and public figures in this regard,” the lawyers said.
The lawyers said they unequivocally disowned the use of violence in the name of women’s rights and women’s safety.
“The murder of people in so-called “encounters” by the police and security forces does not give us a safer society,” they said. “It only perpetuates the use of violence as a tool of oppression, making all of society and women, in particular, more vulnerable.
“It also shifts focus away from patriarchy as a structural problem and the systemic failure of all institutions in discharging their duties effectively in the first place.”
The murder of “Disha” was the fourth murder in Telangana in four days. A 19-year-girl was raped and killed by a friend on her birthday and a Dalit woman was gang-raped and murdered at Asifabad. The body of an unidentified woman was found at Shamshabad and the reason for her death is yet to be ascertained.
Calls for public lynching
However, the killing of the four suspects has sparked widespread jubilation over what is being lauded as “instant justice”. Rose petals have been showered on police personnel involved in “the encounter” with the rape-and-murder case suspects.
Several Bollywood stars have heaped praise on the police. Actor Rishi Kapoor tweeted “Bravo Telangana Police, my congratulations!” and actor Anupam Kher tweeted: “Congratulations and #JaiHo to #TelenganaPolice for shooting down the four rapists … in an ENCOUNTER.”
The Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, commended his Telangana counterpart and also applauded the police for their actions in the case.
Hundreds of people mobbed the Shadnagar police station, where the four accused were being held, and demanded that the men be publicly hanged.
According to local media, the murdered woman’s father said he was grateful to the police, and his wife was reported as saying she was extremely happy that the four men had been killed.
‘Blood lust has become the norm’
In an opinion piece for The Hindu yesterday, the former Supreme Court judge Justice B. Sudarshan Reddy and the director of the Council for Social Development in Hyderabad, Kalpana Kannabiran, said the ends of justice were not served by “wanton killing and retributive blood lust” and India must follow constitutional morality.
Faizan Mustafa says in his piece in The Hindu today (Tuesday) that, while there is reason to be concerned about delays in rape trials, a Hyderabad-like solution is out of the question.
“We, in India, continue to follow a ‘culture of control’ and a tendency to ‘govern through crime’, Mustafa wrote. “There are instances where the police, of late, have become the judge and the media, especially electronic, has started behaving like a court.”
Earlier, such “encounters” as just occurred in Telangana used to be criticised by the public and media, Mustafa wrote. “But in the new and ‘resurgent’ India, we have started celebrating this instant and brutal form of justice.”
Blood lust has become the norm in preference to due process and constitutional norms, Mustafa says.
“Is India moving from rule of law to rule by gun?” he asked.
The right thing to do in rape cases, Mustafa says, is to appoint senior judges in fast track courts. “No adjournments should be permitted, and rape courts should be put under the direct control of High Courts; the district judge should not have any power to interfere, and the trial must be completed within three months.”
Speaking at an event in Jodhpur, the Chief Justice of India, Sharad Arvind Bobde, said he didn’t think justice could ever be or ought to be instant. “And justice must never ever take the form of revenge. I believe justice loses its character of justice if it becomes revenge,” he said.
Relatives in other cases demand ‘Hyderabad-like punishment’
The case of the horrific rape and murder of a young paramedical student known as Nirbhaya in Delhi in December 2012 is now again at the forefront of people’s minds.
Nirbhaya’s rapists were sentenced to death, but are yet to be hanged. Shreya Sinha, reporting for India Today, said that Nirbhaya’s mother had expressed happiness over the police killing and had criticised the “snail-paced” Indian judiciary for the delay in executing those convicted of her daughter’s rape and murder.
The next-of-kin of several murdered rape victims have demanded “Hyderabad-like punishment/justice” for those accused of the crimes, Sinha said.
“Following the Hyderabad killing, two incidents of mob action have already been reported from Mhow in Madhya Pradesh and Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh,” she wrote.
“Lawyers at the Mhow court premises attempted to thrash an accused brought to the court in connection with the hearing in a rape case involving a four-year-old child in Indore district.
“In Bilaspur, bystanders joined the relatives of a rape victim to grab an accused brought by the police to a court.”
The father of a 23-year-old woman who was raped and died after being set on fire in the city of Unnao in Uttar Pradesh when she was on her way to testify in court against two men who had allegedly raped her has said his daughter’s killers should be shot dead, “like it happened in Hyderabad”.
The five men who poured petrol over the woman and set her ablaze included the two accused, who were out on bail.
Judgement is due to be pronounced in another Unnao rape case on December 16. Former Bharatiya Janata Party leader Kuldeep Singh Sengar is accused of raping a 17-year-old girl on two occasions in April 2017, and is also alleged to have committed criminal conspiracy, murder, and attempted murder.
In July this year, the rape victim was involved in a car crash that Sengar is accused of orchestrating. Her two aunts died in the crash, and her lawyer was also injured.
Human rights organisations call for urgent investigation
India’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued a statement on Friday (December 6) saying it had taken “suo motu cognisance” of media reports about the death of the four accused in Telangana state and had asked for an NHRC investigative team to be immediately dispatched to the scene.
“As per reports, all four accused, were taken to the scene of the crime around 60 km from Hyderabad for a reconstruction as part of the investigation,” the NHRC said.
“Reportedly, as per police version, one of them signalled to the others, possibly to escape and they tried to snatch weapons from the police personnel when the police fired on them and they died allegedly in cross firing.”
The NHRC has asked the director-general of its investigation division to immediately send a team to carry out a fact-finding, on-the-spot investigation.
“The commission has already taken cognisance of the increasing cases of rapes and sexual assault on women across the country and a detailed report has been called for from the all- state governments and police heads as well as from the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development,” the NHRC said.
“If the arrested persons were actually guilty, they were to be punished as per law pursuant to the directions of the competent court.”
Amnesty International India on Thursday called for an independent inquiry into the police killing and said that the Telangana government must ensure “an independent, impartial, swift and thorough criminal investigation into the alleged extrajudicial execution of four undertrial prisoners by the state police”.
The executive director of Amnesty International India, Avinash Kumar, said: “The reported delay in filing the First Information Report by the Telangana Police in this case coupled with the shoddy investigation and the general low conviction rate for those accused of rape raises deeply disturbing questions about the state of justice in India.
“In a modern and rights-respecting society, using extrajudicial executions to offer justice to victims of rape is not only unconstitutional but circumvents the Indian legal system and sets a grossly wrong precedent. An independent investigation is essential.”
The parents of two of the suspects say that their sons were still minors. The point is also being made that if the accused had been from from middle- or upper-class families, such police haste and action have would have been highly unlikely.
‘A violation of rule of law and constitutional guarantees’
A group of activists, including representatives of women’s and other civil organisations, wrote to the chief justice of the Telangana High Court on Friday saying they were seeking “due process” and legal action “as per the orders of the apex court”. They called for the post mortem on the four rape and murder suspects to be carried out by an independent panel of autopsy surgeons.
“The versions arising in the media raise pertinent concerns of this being a staged encounter or even a case of custodial death,” the activists said.
The gruesome rape and murder of the veterinarian had given rise to strong passions in society, with several people even clamouring for the accused to be handed over for a public lynching, the activists said.
“The police seem to have taken advantage of this sentiment to commit a deliberate and cold-blooded murder of the four men in their custody. As usual, they have trotted out the ludicrous version of ‘self-defence’.”
Some reports suggest that there were more than fifty police personnel present during the recreation of the events at the crime scene, the activists said.
“Fifty policemen failing to catch hold of four unarmed accused/suspects is beyond any logical comprehension”.
There had, the activists said, been an “absolute violation of rule of law and constitutional guarantees”.
They added: “Preventing crimes against women involves a long, sustained and complex battle that has to be fought in, among other arenas, society, our homes, educational and work places.
The activists asked that the High Court immediately monitor the case “to ensure that the guidelines issued by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in PUCL versus State of Maharashtra in its judgement dated 23rd Sep, 2014 are being followed” and send its own observer to elicit, on the ground, the facts surrounding the encounter.
In the September 2014 judgment, apex court justices R.M. Lodha and R.F. Nariman said that the right to life under Article 21 is available to every person and that even the state “has no authority to violate that right”.
In their letter to Justice Raghvendra Singh Chauhan, the activists called for the immediate constitution of an independent, court-monitored committee to examine all relevant reports and records, including the records of government vehicles used by all police officers engaged in the “encounter”, and the previous week’s records of calls on mobile phones used by all the police officers engaged in the incident.
The activists demanded that all police personnel who participated in the killing of the four accused be immediately arrested and prosecuted for the crime of homicide.
They called for the investigation of the case to be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). “The Telangana police cannot be trusted to be fair in the matter,” they said.
‘India must follow constitutional morality’
In their opinion piece for The Hindu, Justice B. Sudarshan Reddy (pictured left) and Kalpana Kannabiran, said constitutional morality must replace public morality. “It is not easy, because it is not a natural sentiment,” they said. “But it is non-negotiable.”
There is nothing to suggest that the four suspects in Telangana posed a threat to the lives of the police personnel since they were in custody and presumably unarmed, Justice Reddy and Kalpana Kannabiran said.
Talking about the murder in Asifabad, Reddy and Kannabiran said the woman belonged to an extremely vulnerable nomadic community that eked out a living from wage labour and petty vending.
“These cases are just two in a long list where women across India have been killed and maimed in the most brutal fashion while we have had a stringent, amended rape law in place and also fast track judicial processes,” they said.
“Sexual assault is pervasive, these incidents tell us, and the response must be systemic, not episodic.
“In moments such as this, families react with deep anger and grief. Most times this is exhibited through a demand for instantaneous retribution. For several affected families, death is the only answer to rape. It is also a fact that this is not a universal view. Grief at loss and pathways to healing speak through different tongues, and we need to be mindful of this fact.”
Public responses that equate judicial outcomes and “justice” to immediate and quick retribution are not universal, nor just, Reddy (pictured left) and Kannabiran said.
In thinking through the course of justice, it is extremely important to rise above the heat of the moment and provide moral reassurance and comfort to families, while keeping sight of the rule of law and constitutional tenets, they added.
“The course of justice cannot be determined by the grief and grieving of victims’ families. Justice lies in supporting them in their moment of grief and pain and insisting on due process that brings suspects and accused to trial through a robust, stringent and competent criminal investigation.”
Reddy and Kannabiran point to the fact, that after the rape and murder of Nirbhaya, the law on rape was amended substantially based on the recommendations and deliberations of the Justice J.S. Verma Committee.
“The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, or Nirbhaya Act, 2013, as it is christened, is testimony to the possibility of translating public angst into just law,” Reddy and Kalpana said.
The 2013 Act expanded the definition of rape to go beyond penile-vaginal penetration and include all kinds of forced penetration with any body part or object. The punishment for rape remains seven years’ imprisonment extendable to a life term, but the 2013 law provides for twenty years to life imprisonment for gang rape and allows the death penalty for repeat offenders.
In 2015, the Juvenile Justice Act was amended to allow minors between the ages of 16 and 18 to be tried as adults in cases of murder and rape. In 2018, the central government introduced the death penalty for the rape of children under the age of 12.
Police were ‘severely injured’
Cyberabad Police Commissioner V.C. Sajjanar has been quoted by local media as saying there were “nearly ten” policemen in the team accompanying the accused to the scene of the reconstruction of the crime. Two of them were severely injured and admitted to a local hospital, he said.
Sajjanar said that, at the crime scene, the accused started to attack the police with stick, stones, and other objects and then snatched weapons from two of the officers and started firing. Police asked the men to surrender, Sajjanar said, but they continued firing and were killed when the police retaliated.
The police commissioner is now being dubbed “the encounter specialist”. He was the superintendent of police when, in 2008, police killed three men accused of committing an acid attack on two women in Warangal, which was then in Andhra Pradesh, but is now in Telangana. In the Warangal case, police also said the suspects attacked officers when taken to the scene of the crime.
It is alleged that the four rape-and-murder suspects deflated the rear tyre of their victim’s scooter, then, when she arrived, approached her with offers of help. They then allegedly switched off the woman’s phone and raped her. After killing her, the four men reportedly put her body under a bridge and set it on fire.
According to The New Indian Express the murdered woman’s sister called the police to report the veterinarian missing on the night of November 27. The Express quoted the veterinarian’s sister as saying police had not searched areas near the Shamshabad toll plaza, where the veterinarian had parked her scooter, and her body wasn’t found until the next day.
Lawyer receives death threats on Twitter
Senior Supreme Court advocate Vrinda Grover received rape threats on Twitter for condemning the Telangana encounter. She wrote on Facebook: “People who disagree with my views are so enraged by the fact that I am condemning the encounter and demanding an investigation into the killings by the Hyderbad cops, that they are asking for me to be taught a lesson by raping me.
“I have also received calls from men aggressively threatening me and questioning my views.”
These are the people, Grover said, who are celebrating the “encounter killing” of the four suspects in Hyderabad and are applauding the police for “instant justice”.
This public, Grover said, was not exhausted by the delays in the justice system.
“This public doesn’t believe in the rule of law,” she wrote. “They believe in retributive mob justice. They are not opposing patriarchy, misogyny or violence against women.”