The phenomenon of due process has become an integral part of the public’s consensus on justice, so much so that they are almost synonymous in the popular canon. A violation of due process in many societies invokes a visceral reaction against such violation.
Should state authorities bypass the restrictions placed on them and consequently take justice in their own hands, it becomes a catastrophic failure of the State’s apparatus against tyranny. Yet, in certain circumstances both the public and the authorities seem to have widespread support for one of the most extreme failures of due process, extra-judicial killings. Therefore, there exists a pressing need to analyze this process and the reaction to it to understand why police encounters are lauded.
Extra judicial killings occur when state authorities, usually the Police force in a domestic context, murder an accused to a crime. Historically there have been many reasons for extra judicial killings, a common one being the protection of societies’ status quo.
Stories of police forces stamping out revolutionary ideals in capitalist countries like the United Kingdom and the United States of America during the multiple red scares that had occurred in the 20th Century along with various cases of racially motivated violence in countries like South Africa and again the United States of America by the police give us a detailed picture as to why the restrictions placed on the police force must not fail. In many of these countries however, there doesn’t exist a loud cry of approval from the general public. In India, curiously, the highly publicized cases of police ‘encounters’ are met with decisive condemnation by relatively few. Even the word ‘encounter’ has been distorted so severely it has become a parody of itself.
Outside the current context, a police encounter would describe a violent face-off between criminals and officers. Today the public generally understands that a police ‘encounter’ merely describes a setup, a platform from which police pat themselves on the back for violating the very tenets they swore to enforce. The blatant hypocrisy of murdering a murderer in the name of justice seems to elude them. The process of encounters has become so widespread that the country has very well-known ‘encounter-specialists’, officers who are well known for their proficiency at enforcing the greatest failure of the Indian Justice System onto those accused. In 2019 a survey was conducted, where it was observed that one in five police personnel believed that killing criminals was better than a legal trial.
An older survey conducted in 2018 showed that one out of two people supported the use of violence by the police.
The question remains; why do extrajudicial killings happen and more importantly, why does the public often support it? The answer, in my opinion, lies in the inefficiency of the Indian Justice System. Infamously, there is an absurd backlog of cases in the courts of the country. Courts can’t deliver justice fast enough. This causes frustration among both the general population and the police force. In cases such as rape, which is a crime that is unique in the sense that it can spark massive public outrage, often the long-winded trial and appeal processes characteristic to Indian courts lead to the wide perception that justice cannot be delivered by courts.
Continuing with the example of rape, when the public is faced with heinous details of the crime a sense of collective wrath forms (further enhanced by sensationalism in both traditional and social media) which leads to calls for harsh punishment. The lingering distrust of the courts and the constant calls for blood by the public leads to the police taking matters into their own hands.
While internal reform of the police department and efforts to quell twisted notions of justice among both the people and police may help, a heftier and more effective stopgap for the commission of extrajudicial killings is a more effective, efficient and reliable judicial system. When both the police force and the public begin to trust the system in place, incentive for seeking other means of ‘justice’ becomes non-existent.
This article is written by Shashwat Singh of Jindal Global Law School.