Why the Supreme Court is right about encounter cops

The Supreme Court’s observation that cops involved in fake encounters should be hanged may sound extreme but it addresses a pressing issue with due seriousness.

Akshaya Mishra August 09, 2011 12:17:32 IST
Why the Supreme Court is right about encounter cops

The concept of the vigilante cop delivering instant justice works best in movies. It cannot be an institutionalised solution to the problem of crime and criminals in the real world. Their acceptance by governments and the public at large only highlights systemic dysfunction – the inability of regular channels of crime control and justice to set things right.

Encounter cops, who are lionised and romanticised to ridiculous extents in our movies, are hardly any better than the regular sharp-shooters in criminal gangs in reality. Only, in the case of the former there’s the licence to kill. States, which experimented with this macho solution to crime, are realising it the hard way. Probably, they never counted in the possibility of such cops turning rogue and staging fake killings for selfish personal motives.

Now, the Supreme Court has taken serious note of the menace in khaki.

Why the Supreme Court is right about encounter cops

Extra-judicial violence. Chris Hondros/Getty Images

In a scathing observation on Monday, a Supreme Court bench said encounter killings could be classified as the rarest of rare crime since the protectors of law become murderers.

"Fake encounter killings by policemen are nothing but cold-blooded murder. Such policemen should be hanged," said a bench of the apex court. It was hearing the fake encounter case of alleged gangster Dara Singh by the Rajasthan Police in October 2006. Two senior policemen—one of the DGP rank and the other an additional SP—are absconding in the case.

"Policemen as custodians of the law are expected to protect people, not eliminate them as contract killers. Ordinary people are ordinarily punished for the crimes they commit. In the case of policemen much harsher punishment should be given since they do an act contrary to their duties," said the bench.

The "…to eliminate them as contract killers" part rings a bell. In the early 1990s, the Maharashtra government gave its tacit support to the idea of eliminating dreaded gangsters to rid the city of crime through encounter killings. Soon a crop of licensed to kill trigger-happy cops was out on the streets 'cleaning' the city.

Between 1993 and 2003, more than 600 criminals were gunned down by encounter 'specialists'. They even kept score of the body count and made it a badge of honour. The cops inspired fear and adulation in equal measure for the extra-judicial killings.

Gradually it came to light that they were not the honest men on a mission as they were supposed to be. Some of their killings were done at the behest of more powerful dons who wanted their rivals finished, some were done in brazen show of power, and still others with political intentions. Most of them were corrupt to the core. There excesses were too much to handle for the state. They had to be neutralised. No wonder, most of them are facing criminal charges for murder and corruption.

In Gujarat, the Narendra Modi government launched a similar initiative with disastrous results. Here it had a strong ideological overtone. The Shorabuddin killing and the murder of Mumbai girl Ishrat Jahan and her friends in encounters by the police revealed the flip side of too much power to the police. But it's not about Maharashtra and Gujarat only. In other states too there is tacit support of the governments for such extra-judicial action.

There is no proof as yet that such killings have brought down crime anywhere. It only serves to highlight the fact that the state’s mechanism to tackle criminal activities has failed. The encounter cop kills the criminal, not the crime. The situation gets worrisome when he himself turns part of the underworld and tries to manipulate the powers vested in him in crooked ways.

Of course, there's the issue of violation of human rights. Our fantasists in the movie world won’t quite grasp the nuances here. The state would try to look the other way when such violations happen. The hero-worshipping members of the public won’t be sensitive to the seriousness of the issue till it's happening to others and their rights are not crushed by the cops with powers disproportionate to their abilities.

The Supreme Court must intervene forcefully to curb the unwelcome phenomenon of encounter cops.

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