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The moment after the encounter killing of the four accused of raping and murdering of a 26 year old vet in Hyderabad, hundreds of people on the street and social media alike congratulated the Telengana police and government. People distributed sweets, burst firecrackers, showered flower petals on police, and chanted ‘police zindabad’ and ‘CM zindabad’.

Perhaps sensing the public mood, slew of politicians and celebrities also applauded the action as the swift delivery of justice. To many, at least in this particular case, which had strong support of evidences, shoot to kill the accused, before trial, is justifiable.

Why one should get disturbed at this development is precisely because of a paradigm shift that has happened in the discourses on encounter killings in the country. Whenever such incidents happened in the past, the primary question used to be whether the encounter was genuine or fake. But this time, all, except Hyderabad police, seems to have approved the incident as an execution, not as an encounter. The debate now has stooped into whether the police could kill an under-trial or not.

Problematic Assumptions

The language of the police is this: when the accused were taken to the scene of the crime to remake the incident as part of the investigation on the Friday morning, they tried to snatch weapon and shoot police, and the police shot them in retaliation in which all four died.

According to this narrative, the shooting happened not as a punishment to the alleged heinous crime committed by the accused, but for trying to escape. Then why should the public eulogise the police, rather than blaming it for its failure to do required preparedness? But the story is different.

When someone congratulates the police for killing the four accused, it cannot happen without two basic assumptions: first, the accused are the real culprit and there is no need of any further investigation to prove that; and secondly, it was not an encounter as claimed by the police, but a planned execution of “criminals”.

These tacitly approved assumptions would effectively undermine the criminal justice system of the country that has been evolved in a long period of time. The police arrested the four accused on November 26-27 midnight. The investigation is still under process and the charge sheet has not yet been filed. The trial has not begun and the accused have not been heard by any court. Then how the under-trails are considered as the culprit? What role left for the judiciary?

The question of separation of powers

The idea of separation of judiciary from other two branches is under threat now. If the encounter is perceived as the execution of culprits by the police, it, no doubt, legitimizes the encroachment of executive branch, in which police is an integral part, over the judicial branch.

It is to be underlined that the demand for separation of judicial system from the ambit of executive power in India is older than even the demand for swaraj. The visionary leaders from Raja Rammohan Roy to Dr. BR Ambedkar realised its inevitability in a modern civilized society.

The idea was this: in order enforce the principle of justice, the body that would adjudicate should be insulated from all external pressures and it should be able to give judgments without fear. This prompted the nationalist leadership to design a judicial system that would be protected from potential pressures from all sources, particularly from the two other branches of the state-legislator and executive.

If the people have started celebrating the loss of balance between different institutions of democracy, ostensibly because of the ineffectiveness of the overall system to respond to the circumstances, that definitely has to worry us all. That is the beginning of the destruction of the system per se.

Shahul Hameed Mattumannil is PhD candidate at Centre for Political Studies (CPS), JNU. He is working on politics of accommodation in Kerala.


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