A trial court has sentenced 10 Delhi policemen to life imprisonment for killing two innocent men in a fake encounter. The sentence should serve as a warning to policemen across the country that the right to life is sacrosanct and even the worst criminal has a right to legal recourse.
The Delhi policemen deserve the harshest punishment since they, most of all, are expected to uphold the sanctity of the law as prescribed by the Constitution. The guilty had pleaded before the court that the killings were the result of mistaken identity.
The argument exposes a mindset that drives police action in India: that murder without trial is justified if the victim has a previous record of crime and the odd case of an innocent's killing should be excused as collateral damage. This logic is unacceptable, which is the essence of the Delhi court's verdict.
Encounter deaths have no place in a liberal democracy. But that's not the case in our country. Extrajudicial killings are far too common here. The National Human Rights Commission received 100 intimations on encounter deaths from the police in 2003-04 whereas NGOs and individuals filed 109 complaints.
In July this year, Gujarat police chargesheeted 13 members of its anti-terror squad including an officer of DGP rank for staging the murder of an alleged gangster and his wife. Designated encounter specialists in Mumbai police boast of their kills and justify murders as necessary acts. So do members of anti-terror squads in states like Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and in the north-east.
There is nothing more un-Indian than denying a citizen his rights. Article 21 of the Constitution protects the citizens' right to life. India is also a signatory to international conventions including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that vouchsafe every individual's inherent right to life. The ICCPR states that the right has to be protected by law and that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.
The police in India seem to have a tacit sanction from the executive and the legislature regarding extrajudicial killings. Why? One, it is a lazy option to actually upholding the law. It takes time and effort to establish a crime and our courts don't help matters.
Two, the police, and unfortunately large sections of society, believe that end of stopping all crime justifies means. Civil rights are non-negotiable in a democracy. Law enforcement agencies can't be an exception to this rule.