The vigilante killings in Hyderabad and its celebration are a death warning for constitutional methods

Ajit Ranade

On a day that we observe the death anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar, who is venerated as the architect of our Constitution, came the news of the extrajudicial killings of the four accused in the horrific rape and murder of a doctor. The encounter killings earned the cheers of many people across the nation, including central ministers, leaders of the opposition, celebrities, and even sports stars. The police were showered with petals of gratitude for having done “justice” to the victim. They became instant heroes in the eyes of a grateful nation. Apparently, the police fired in self-defence. There’s no video footage or independent witness to corroborate this. Surely the police could have fired and injured their attackers? The probability that not even one out of four would survive is so remote, that one wonders whether it wasn’t just coldblooded killing.

More shocking than the act is the public jubilation. Has the public lost all faith in the process of the law and judiciary? Has the prosecution and law enforcement system broken down? What would Dr Ambedkar have said had he been alive? Would he have also cheered, or would he have died a second time? Is this a sign of the complete irrelevance of the constitutional system? Our Constitution gives everyone a right, yes, to every citizen, good or bad, the right to life, the right to be heard before a court, and the right to judicial process. Ajmal Kasab was put on trial, and not shot dead in a fake encounter, because we Indians wanted to show to ourselves and to the world that we are a functioning constitutional democracy, where there is rule of law, and even the most heinous cases follow the judicial process.

But the Hyderabad killings and their celebration are a shocking jolt. Leave aside for a moment the minority view that capital punishment for rape is counterproductive, nay regressive. That’s because it raises the bar for evidence beyond doubt, so high that we will have very rare successful prosecutions. And even in such cases the guilty might get a reprieve. Because capital punishment is given in the rarest or rare cases, the cases, arguments and counter arguments will drag on. And justice delayed is justice denied. It is not the severity but the certainty of the punishment that is a deterrent. If rapists get imprisoned for life, but with much higher degree of certainty, that may be a better deterrent than capital punishment. But this is a minority view. And the jubilation over the encounter killings will ignore the minority view. The celebrations show most people seem to have given up on getting speedy justice.

The Indian courts are clogged with 35 million pending cases, many of them winding interminably through system, getting ‘taareekh pe taareekh’. The popular feeling is that only the rich have access to assured justice, and the poor are denied. India’s high pendency ratio is largely attributed to high degree of vacancy in all courts. The high courts have nearly 40 per cent unfilled vacancies of judges. The entire judicial system still manages to dispose of nearly two crore cases annually, but 2.5 crore new cases are filed every year. So pendency keeps piling up, and the insufficiently staffed judiciary keeps struggling to meet the overload.

By contrast, the pendency at least for criminal cases in the United States system is almost zero. And mind you, the US is a much more litigious society. The reason is that if a case goes to trial, there is more than 90 per cent chance that the defendant will be proven guilty. In India if a case goes to trial, there’s more than 50 per cent chance that the guilty will go scot free. And why is that? Because the prosecution builds their case in such a watertight manner that the defendant has no chance in American courts. By contrast, the prosecution’s case here is quite shoddy and even investigation is often botched up, by negligence or by design. Remember Arushi Talwar’s case? Or the sweeper who was wrongly indicted in the Delhi school rape case? Or that all the accused in the 2G scam were found innocent? The examples are endless. Will not the public start losing faith in the system of prosecution, investigation and the judiciary? The celebrations in the Hyderabad case tell us that people have more faith in vigilante killing, instant mob justice and maybe even lynching. All this barely a week after celebrating India’s Constitution Day. Dr Ambedkar warned us that in a constitutional republic there is no room for unconstitutional methods. Otherwise the whole edifice built up so painstakingly by our founders will simply collapse.

To protect and uphold the Constitution is everyone’s responsibility; by celebrating the killings we are also killing the idea of a constitutional republic.