Two incidents in the recent past have brought back the spectre of extra-judicial killings. The first incident refers to the alleged encounter killing of a Delhi-based businessman by officers of the Delhi Police Special Cell. The second incident refers to an earlier encounter killing of 20 red sandalwood smugglers near Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh by officers from the Andhra Police. Since both incidents are currently under judicial scrutiny, it would be unwise to arrive at judgements surrounding their culpability. However, rising evidence against the versions presented by both sets of police forces has left numerous observers, from both the political class to civil society, rather disturbed.
In the first case, reports have emerged that 10 days before the Delhi-based businessman was gunned down in an alleged encounter, the Delhi Police Special Cell had told a local court that neither an FIR nor a complaint was received against him. This discovery flies in the face of the Special Cell’s claim that the slain businessman was wanted in several cases and had been on the run from the law. With reference to the encounter killing of 20 red sandalwood smugglers, news reports have emerged that the many of the slain were possibly tortured before being murdered. According to the police, these 20 labourers had attacked them with sickles, axes and stones and the police had gunned them down in self-defence. This claim is perplexing on many levels.
The police was not involved in a skirmish with highly trained and heavily armed militants; they were dealing with a group of underpaid minimum wage labourers. If it was indeed in self-defence as they claim, where are the injuries of the task force members? Reportedly, only two members of the task-force were injured. Further disheartening is the inefficacy of our legal system in resolving encounter killings. According to government figures, out of 555 recorded encounter killings between 2009 and 2013, only 144 cases were been resolved.
Irrespective of a final judgement on both incidents, one cannot rationalise extra-judicial killings, without going down a very slippery moral slope. Once the State and its police go down the path of extra-judicial killings, it is likely to make its way towards tyranny. It is impossible to condone summary executions, especially if they are conducted by those who consider themselves to be the guardians of the law. Instead of summary executions, the State, especially its police, must follow the due process of law and subject the suspect to a trial process. Even Ajmal Kasab, one the perpetrators behind the heinous terror attack in Mumbai, was subjected to a trial process. According to respected political commentator Praful Bidwai, “Civil liberties are too valuable to be subordinated to reasons of state without undermining democracy”. The truth behind both these murky incidents, therefore, must come through soon.