In a country where 90 rapes are reported every day and extrajudicial killings rarely shock people, the gunning down of the Hyderabad rape suspects only hints at a sloppy judicial system
90 Rapes A Day
- 32,559 Total number of rape cases under IPC (figure excludes cases where rape victim was murdered)
- 223 Total number of rape cases where the victim was murdered
- 4,154 Total number of attempt to rape cases under IPC
- 86,001 Total cases of assault on women with ‘intent to outrage modesty’
The Supreme Court acquitted a rape convict in March this year, ruling that the charge against him was fabricated. Ganga Prasad Mahto had been sentenced to seven years of rigorous imprisonment by a local court in Bihar’s Samastipur district in 1998, and the Patna High Court had upheld the verdict in January 2014. On December 15, 1997, a woman in Samastipur had accused Mahto of barging into her house the previous night and raping her at gunpoint.
While acquitting Mahto, the Supreme Court bench of Justices A.M. Sapre and Dinesh Maheshwari pointed out that the police had not even bothered to have the rape complainant medically examined, and that the subordinate courts had not taken into account several similar false complaints made by the woman against other men in the past. After spending 20 years branded as a rapist, including nearly a decade in jail against his sentence of seven years, Mahto is now an innocent man.
Now, consider an alternative reality. The woman accuses Mahto of rape and he is arrested. There is a public outcry for justice; the country’s lawmakers join in and some demand that the rapist should be lynched. The police take him to the woman’s house to “reconstruct the crime scene”. He “attempts to escape, forcing the police to open fire”. Mahto is shot dead. The crime is avenged. The cops celebrate and the public is euphoric. There is no further need to investigate whether he was guilty, or if his alleged attempt to escape was driven by fear of being framed for a crime he did not commit.
POLICE LINE DON’T CROSS
Four men accused of raping and killing a woman in Hyderabad were shot dead by police near the crime scene.PHOTOGRAPH BY AP
The case against Mahto and its adjudication by the trial court had happened at a time when public consciousness and anger over rape or the response to it by our lawmakers had not been as emotive as it has become in recent years, particularly since the ghastly Nirbhaya case of 2012. Judicial indictments of those found guilty of rape or gang rape and the frequency of death or life sentences have also increased. Laws to deal with such cases have become progressively sterner. Yet, there is something broken in this system, something rotten that has made bloodthirsty citizens and raucous lawmakers crave for instant justice without caring a damn for due process. ‘Human rights’ has become a cuss phrase, diligent investigations are seen as a waste of time and judicial trial as a dilatory tactic, while trigger-happy policemen are showered with flowers and women tie rakhis around their wrists.
This was the third encounter killing helmed by Cyberabad police commissioner V.C. Sajjanar.
The recent encounter killing of four men suspected of raping and murdering a 26-year-old veterinary doctor in Hyderabad, the wanton jubilation it triggered in society and the way it was condoned with gusto by leaders cutting across party lines are symptomatic of a bloodlust that seeks to compensate for a system that can’t prevent the average of 90 rapes per day reported in India. A National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report pegged the number of rapes in India in 2017 at 32,559. That number is in addition to 223 cases where the rape victim was also murdered.
Many argue that instant justice in rape cases, post-Nirbhaya amendments made to the Indian Penal Code to award stricter punishments for sexual assault and strengthening of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act by enacting death sentence for those accused of raping children younger than 12 years are an effective deterrent to sexual crimes. And yet, days after the Cyberabad police gunned down rape and murder suspects Mohammed Areef, Chennakeshavulu, J. Naveen and J. Shiva, there were three separate reports from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Tripura of victims of sexual assault being burnt to death by the rapists. Signs of deterrence?
The question of what really acts as an effective deterrent in stopping crimes against women, or any other crime for that matter, is one that crops up ever so often. Lawyer and civil rights activist Vrinda Grover believes that it is the “certainty of punishment and not its stringency” that can be a deterrent. “We need a system of effective police investigation as well as a trial that is fair to both victim and the accused,” Grover says, adding that “short cuts like death penalty” benefit only the police and politicians “by allowing them to project that action is being taken”.Killing suspects without trial is being seen as a way to scare potential rapists and prevent rapes.
The Hyderabad case is particularly outrageous, not just for the horrendous gang rape and murder of the victim, but also for the events that followed. It was the local police that was initially reluctant to register a complaint by the victim’s family. The Telangana home minister insinuated that the crime could have been prevented had the victim called the police first, instead of her sister, when she felt her life was in danger. The four accused arrested for the crime did not stand trial in a court of law, so their guilt was never established. Even the process of gathering evidence to nail the accused hadn’t been completed because it was ostensibly while carrying out this exercise—surprisingly, in the pre-dawn hours in a field that had no lights—that the police gunned them down. The four accused were alleged to have attacked the 10-member armed police party after snatching their guns.
This was the third such encounter killing helmed by Cyberabad police commissioner V.C. Sajjanar in the past decade. He was hailed as a hero for his decisive leadership in “serving justice” regardless of the oft-quoted principle that dispensing justice is the job of the courts and not the police.
Vikram Singh, former director general of police in Uttar Pradesh, believes there are “horrible faultlines in the criminal justice system” that need to be addressed with urgency. “Investigations drag on for months and years, trials even longer. Appeals and mercy petitions go on endlessly. This needs a course correction—180 working days could be the outer limit of investigation, right up to the sentence and period of appeal. The Hyderabad case is a wake-up call for the nation,” says Singh.
In August, the central government finalised a scheme for setting up 1,023 fast-track special courts across the country for time-bound trial and disposal of pending rape and POCSO cases. The 14th Finance Commission had recommended allocation of Rs 4,144 crore between 2015 and 2020 to establish 1,800 fast-track courts across the country, a large chunk of which were supposed to adjudicate on cases of sexual violence. A majority of the states are yet to make provisions for such courts or appoint judges for them. No wonder the Cyberabad killings triggered such applause, whose reverberations nearly muted the few doubters who questioned the police’s version of events.
The assumption that an encounter killing is most likely the outcome of an act of self-defence by the police doesn’t stand scrutiny in the light of facts. The National Human Rights Commission, India’s statutory human rights body, has questioned the veracity of police claims in 1,244 of the 2,560 suspected extrajudicial killings it investigated since 1993. In October 2018, 16 former Uttar Pradesh Provincial Armed Constabulary personnel were sentenced to life after the Delhi High Court found them guilty of killing 42 Muslims in Meerut’s Hashimpura locality in 1987. Last month, a judicial inquiry in Chhattisgarh concluded that the killing of 17 alleged Maoists in June 2012 was a “staged encounter”.
The culvert where the woman’s body was found. The four accused in the Hyderabad case did not stand trial, so their guilt was never established.PHOTOGRAPH BY PTI
Not everyone minds cold-blooded murder of rapists, though. A common refrain among the celebratory mob is that “rapists do not deserve the due process of law”. Many have pointed out that Nirbhaya’s rapists haven’t been hanged even seven years after their sentencing by the court. Others like BJP MP Rajyavardhan Rathore have mocked those who are questioning the encounter theory. “Pseudo-liberals standing with the four rapists, your utopian world will shatter if you think of the Hyderabad doctor as your own daughter,” he tweeted. Clearly, not only were the suspects declared guilty without trial, but their killing by the police is also being seen as a potent way to scare potential rapists and prevent rapes.Since the Hyderabad encounter, three rape victims have been burnt to death in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Tripura.
So has India really transformed into an enormous khap panchayat of bloodthirsty citizens? Does the fault lie with a tardy judicial process that fails to inspire public confidence? How much of this is influenced by blockbuster films that glorify encounter killings such as Ab Tak Chhappan, Shootout at Lokhandwala and Batla House? Or is it just common citizens venting their frustration at a system that shields ruling party leaders accused of rape, while waxing eloquent about ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’? Has the public silence on a spate of lynchings of Muslims and Dalits normalised bloodlust in a corrosive search for an ‘enemy’? Is this instinctive ‘kill them all’ rage the new normal?
A very violent streak “has come out with impunity in the last few years”, believes Maxwell Pereira, former joint commissioner of police, Delhi. “This atmosphere of violence, particularly against women, is spreading fast largely because of the patronage it receives from politicians and the inherent patriarchy in our society,” he says. “The belief that more stringent laws would curb the crime is also flawed as such laws end up motivating perpetrators to kill the victim so there is no witness.”
Rajya Sabha MP Manoj Jha believes that the public applause for the Hyderabad encounter is an “affirmation for a Taliban style of governance”, and that his colleagues in Parliament who were hailing the encounter as justice or those who demanded lynching of the accused displayed “utter disregard for the law, our Constitution and our responsibilities as lawmakers”. Like Jha, senior Akali Dal leader Naresh Gujral cautioned against public figures advocating instant justice. “We are not savages.… Do you want anarchy in this country?” he asks, adding that “we have set a bad and dangerous precedent”.
Social activist Harsh Mander, who spent the past two years travelling across the country meeting families of victims of lynch mobs, describes the elation over the encounter as a “manifestation of hate and valourisation of violence”. “Moreover, the call for instant justice through lynching or encounters has a definite class angle. Lust for revenge and blood is much higher when an accused is from the underclass, while if he is from a higher economic status, the demand is for due legal process to be completed expeditiously,” adds Mander, citing various studies and NCRB data showing that the accused is known to the victim in over 90 per cent of the cases of sexual violence.
This hypocrisy in the outrage of the political elite and the citizenry has been on ample display in the rapes, hate crimes and lynchings perpetrated across the country. In Uttar Pradesh, BJP legislator Kuldeep Singh Sengar, a key accused in a rape case and in continuing harassment of the victim, found support in many party leaders—Unnao MP Sakshi Maharaj most prominently. Last January, protests over the rape and murder of a girl from a nomadic community (Bakharwal) in Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir, saw the Hindu right-wing coming out in support of the accused and marching in rallies holding the national flag. The silence of the ruling party and its supporters on rape allegations against another BJP leader, Swami Chinmayanand, also fits into this pattern. So does demonisation of the victim that plays out when a Muslim, a Dalit or an adivasi is lynched.
And what to say of the filth routinely peddled on social media against political and ideological adversaries? Calls for rape, murder, acid attacks and brutalisation have become commonplace. And a large number of users on platforms like Twitter from whom such calls emanate are “followed” by leading politicians, including the prime minister. The venom and vitriol on social media spares none, irrespective of which side of the ideological divide one is on. The nastiest trolls, though, are the most vocal advocates of mob justice, who are often supporters of the ruling party.
Mahto may have spent the prime of his life waiting for justice—for the justice system to wipe clean the taint of being a rapist. Yet he was lucky to at least have had a shot at absolving himself. That’s a chance we as a people, our political leadership and much of the media aren’t willing to give to most of our compatriots now. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has decided to appoint a retired apex court judge to probe the Cyberabad encounter. The NHRC too is conducting its parallel inquiry. The Telangana High Court has asked the police to preserve the bodies of the slain rape suspects till December 13. What if the probes reveal a truth we don’t wish to hear?