There is little about Vikas Dubey’s encounter which comes to us as a surprise. The encounter killings of his associates over the days preceding Dubey’s death, and Uttar Pradesh’s notorious reputation for being an ‘Encounter Raj’ presents us with the larger picture within which Dubey’s death is but a small piece. In fact, Dubey’s encounter killing follows the established pattern so clearly that his death was a foreseeable step to some observers. Hours before his death, a petition had been filed before the Supreme Court seeking security arrangements to be made for Dubey, out of the apprehension that “there is every possibility that even accused Vikas Dubey shall be killed by Uttar Pradesh Police like other co-accused once his custody is obtained Uttar Pradesh Police”. But who can we look to for security when the police force entrusted with the duty of protecting citizens is the very institution which is endangering them?
A History of Encounters
Police Encounters are specifically used to immobilise the Muslim community by killing young Muslim boys and against Dalits and OBCs by implicating them in criminal cases”. S.Darapuri, a former UP senior police officer turned human rights activist
Dubey’s death must be seen within the context of the UP police’s long history of conducting similar encounters. Investigative journalist Neha Dixit found that in the 10 month period between April 2017 and February 2018, the UP police had conducted four encounters per day. However, encounters are not unique to Uttar Pradesh; an RTI query revealed that, between 2000 and 2017, there were 1,782 cases of fake encounters registered in India.
A large proportion of the victims of encounter deaths belong to marginalised groups such as poor, lower-caste, Adivasi, or Muslim communities. S.Darapuri, a former UP senior police officer turned human rights activist, revealed that “encounters by the police are being used as a strategy which is illegal… This strategy is being specifically used to immobilise the Muslim community by killing young Muslim boys and against Dalits and OBCs by implicating them in criminal cases”. Encounters have long been the ‘norm’ in states like Chhattisgarh, Kashmir, and Telangana against alleged ‘Maoists’ and ‘separatists’.
A significant portion of the public, however, has continued to support or acquiesce to such encounter tactics adopted by the police. Encounters have ironically been seen as a measure to improve the law and order situation since they supposedly ‘eliminate criminals’ and reflect a strong police force that is willing to act ruthlessly if needed. This public approval of excessive and arbitrary force has been used by governments to justify and further exploit such extrajudicial measures to escape accountability and circumvent the law.
The Supreme Court strongly condemned such encounter killings in 2012 by stating that; “This Court has repeatedly admonished trigger happy police personnel, who liquidate criminals and project the incident as an encounter. Such killings must be deprecated… They amount to State-sponsored terrorism”.
The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) has filed a petition before the Supreme Court seeking CBI/SIT inquiries and a Monitoring Committee to investigate the thousands of police encounters in Uttar Pradesh. Letters written to the Chief Justice of India and the Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court have highlighted that such extrajudicial killings convey “an unfortunate and horrifying message about how fractured and anaemic the Judicial system is, which will result in the common man losing his faith and trust in Indian judicial system and valued principles of rule of law as is promulgated by the Constitution of India”.
Despite NHRC guidelines and Court directives being issued, encounter killings continue unabated. Governments have been able to dodge scrutiny because they have often had a public opinion (and the media) on their side. While Vikas Dubey’s death has raised important questions and stirred debate, what is still lacking in public discussions is the required emphasis on police accountability and the fundamental right of fair process.
Although the Indian judicial system is broken and flawed in many ways, we cannot adopt an instant, encounter style of ‘justice’ as the alternative. Encounters are not only targeted against notorious gangsters or criminals; often it is innocent people who are killed on the basis of petty accusations or remote suspicion. Even when the victims of such encounters are confirmed criminals, this cannot be a justification for killing them with impunity. Article 21 of the Constitution grants all persons the right to life, whether they are under-trial prisoners, convicted criminals, or non-citizens. One’s right to life can only be taken away ‘according to the procedure established by law’. Police encounters circumvent any such fair procedure and when conducted intentionally amount to murder by the State.
From a strategy which has been routinely used to suppress marginalised people in ‘troubled’ areas such as Kashmir, Bastar, and the North-East, police encounters have started to become normalised throughout the country, due to the lack of public opposition to such extra-legal measures. Public approval makes it easier for the state to fabricate a flimsy explanation for such actions, as there is nobody to question or hold them to account. This ‘exception’ to the rule of law could, very realistically, become institutionalized as a weapon against dissenters, political prisoners, and any ordinary citizen who may turn out to be inconvenient to the state’s agenda. When such arbitrary and extraordinary forms of power go unchallenged, nobody is safe from bearing the brunt of it. By giving assent to such extra-legal methods, we are essentially giving up our own right to life and personal liberty.