Are you celebrating or outraging over Hyderabad killings? Either way, you may have a blindspot

Better await an investigation into the incident.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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It must be a confusing day for the young Indian Police Service recruits training at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy in Hyderabad. As they gear up to take the mantle of police leadership, they must be confounded by the markedly conflicting reactions to what happened only around 55 km away. The four men accused of raping and murdering a veterinarian were killed in what the police claimed was an exchange of fire early Friday morning near the city’s Chatanpally Bridge, where they had been taken to reconstruct the crime scene but tried to escape.

In what became a rather contested turf of public reasoning, the news of the killings was received with a clear divide between praise for the police action – even triumphant celebration – and the expression of concern about the alleged subversion of due process of law and doubts about the police’s version of the shooting. Over a few hours, celebrities, netizens on social media, and ordinary citizens reflected the polarised terrain of a country looking at the killings from two different prisms.

While the binary of views on the killings is predictable, both sets of responses reveal significant underpinnings. It, therefore, becomes important to try and understand why people responded the way they did – both in their laudatory and critical reactions to the Telangana police’s action. It is equally important to identify the major blindspots in both these responses.

To begin with, the celebratory response to the killings has to be seen as the public unmasking of a society which has always harboured a retributive impulse in its imagination of justice. In more ways than people realise, the yearning for proportionate and instant justice has been at the heart of lynch mobs that have been much talked about in India of late but without analysis of their nature and motivations. What is lost in the contested social media diatribes about alleged communal lynchings is that they constitute only a  subset of the crisis of defiance of law for instant delivery of justice. Their grievances could be as diverse as actual or suspected acts of theft, child lifting, eve teasing, cattle smuggling, witch-spotting.

A case is point is something that did not garner much national media attention but tells us how the more banal – and non-political – reasons for mob lynching can be identified in the impatience for instant justice. According to data made available by the Bihar police in September, there were 39 mob lynchings in the state over just two and a half months, resulting in the killing of 14 people. The common reason for most of the lynchings was rumours about child abduction.

It’s not always in the actual acts of mob violence that retributive urges of instant justice get manifested. It’s visible in popular amusements of our times, too. The way Indian mainstream cinema, a microcosm of popular culture in the country, has indulged moviegoers with the vicarious thrill of instant justice delivery has been obvious to generations. The hierarchy of torture reserved for different categories of villains – often at the hands of messianic heroes that include the police officers resorting to rowdy ways to settle scores – is in a way a blend of the proportionate and the instant dimensions of justice delivery that serve retributive wishlist.

As expected, there is a strong tendency to see the celebratory response to the killings of the four men by the Telangana police in terms of the depletion of trust in the institutional efficacy of criminal justice system in the country.  In other words, it’s being seen as a cathartic outpouring of bypassing judicial scrutiny – a process that many perceive as an unsure and very long road to justice.

Such analysis is valid in terms of diagnosis, though a disturbing sign for the outlook of any form of modern citizenship – the premises of which have to embrace AV Dicey’s idea of rule of law in times of institutional dysfunction as much as it does in times of their robust working. The same applies to its conceptual adjunct, the due process. 

It is here that a section of the rightwing, if it’s tempted to join cheerleading of the killings, may be undermining the value system of the larger ideological fold of conservatism. Contrary to what they might believe, any applause for the killings violates the conservative position of standing for the order of things and consistent adherence to the code of common living and decencies – a code that assigns the role of justice delivery to the judiciary. In its clear opposition to any radical approach to change – rather than careful, unhurried and steady wisdom – the conservative stream cannot be seen legitimising the Maoist ways of radical justice delivery.

It’s equally relevant to look at what shaped the other set of response – the one that didn’t think twice before jumping the gun to refute the police’s claims about the killings. For starters, none can claim to be in possession of any significant material to confirm or refute the police’s explanation about what provoked the killings, the theory of retaliatory fire. While denying the police the benefit of the doubt is understandable, prejudging their guilt, in the absence of any authorised investigation, is as much an abdication of the tenets of rule of law and due process as the sceptics are suspecting, even accusing, the police of. The sceptics are far from applying the same standards of establishing the truth of circumstances of the police’s action that they expected for the alleged crime of another set of the accused. Waiting for an investigation is the least they could have done before their polemical flourishes on social media.

With varying degrees, three factors have shaped such scepticism. First, the low credibility of police as a law enforcing agency. To put a number to this trust deficit in popular perceptions about police: In 2018, a Centre for the Study of Developing Societies survey of 15,562 respondents across 22 states found that over 75 percent of them didn’t trust police to perform their duty well. 

Second, this low credibility, much of which is deserved, is further reinforced by widespread ignorance about powers, limitations and functioning of police. In this case, for instance, few know that when challenged by human rights activists, the Telangana police would most likely cite the first of the two situations in which Justice MN Venkatachaliah, in his note sent to all states and Union Territories as chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission in 1997, made allowance for police to use “lethal force”. The first situation is described thus: “Under the scheme of criminal law prevailing in India, it would not be an offence if death is caused in the exercise of the right of private defence.”  

By citing retaliatory fire, the Telangana police would be defending its case. What, however, any subsequent investigation would be looking at is how serious was the provocation for it, if any at all.

Third, citing the “encounter record” – which could be an operational necessity in many policing tasks if done legally – of Cyberabad police chief VC Sajjanar again is a weak argument against a career policeman who would handle a wide range of cases, tasks and investigations under different circumstances. The sceptical assumption of the reenactment of a dubious policing strategy needs to conform to the specific circumstances of each case. That is, await investigation into this matter. Moreover, one needs to look at whether his past actions were legally tenable or not.  

Swinging between celebration and outrage – what the country woke up to yesterday – was in a way a revelation of many of its faultlines as well as a catharsis of its retributive urges. In many ways, it would be a daunting project for the Indian state to tide over these challenges to modern citizenship and law-bound social contract.


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