Many woke up to a morning news alert on Friday, December 6. Andhra Pradesh cops killed all the four accused in the gang rape and murder of the Hyderabadi girl. They were killed in an encounter as they tried to escape. There was a relief and a sense justice was done. People felt it was quick retribution and well deserved by the perpetrators of the horrendous crime. Social media was full of praise for the police. It was a blood curdling, gory and unspeakable crime that was avenged.
But civil society activists suspected that it was a ‘fake encounter’. They alleged it was a stage-managed extrajudicial killing. The story put out by cops that the accused tried to snatch the weapons of the cops seemed too far-fetched. It was incredible that the cops led the accused to the scene of the crime at 3:00 am without handcuffs. A complaint was lodged by a journalist Anjali Mody with the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC) to investigate the encounter. Twitter was on fire. One of the posts said, "In India today if the VIP is the accused then the police kill the victim. If the accused are nonentities then the cops kill the accused."
Vigilantism and Vigilante Heroes
When I read the news, I heard myself saying 'Thank God’. I was startled at my own reaction and couldn't help at the same time feeling a sense of shame. The ‘vigilante’ lurking inside me craved for avenging the injustice - swiftly and with finality. The sheer horror of the cruelty inflicted and the way the life a young innocent girl in love was extinguished had shaken me to the core as it had the entire nation. I was deeply aware that a crime howsoever heinous cannot be justified by another crime. I was ashamed of this demon in me with blood lust. Who has not cheered lustily when Hollywood Western heroes like John Wayne pummelled his fists into the face of the villain and when Clint East Wood sprayed bullets into the knees of the Ugly Lee Van Cleef in
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and dug his cowboy boots with spurs into face of bad guy or the classic Bollywood films Zanzeer and Sholay.
In Sholay, when enraged Dharmendra beats the ultimate villain Gabbar Sigh into pulp, (played by Amjad Ali Khan) and was about to kill him, the Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar ) who had hired Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan, stops Dharmendra and crushes Gabbar Singh's hands with his spiked boots and destroys both hands to avenge the brutal dismemberment of his own hands by Gabbar Singh years ago. This was vigilante justice at its best because Sanjeev Kumar retired as a cop. Vigilantism and vigilante heroes are part of folklore and is embellished with stories of outlaws in literary traditions of the West and the East. Everyone loves a
Robin Hood and The Batman. The staple of Indian cinema in every language is vigilante vengeance by the protagonist against the villain. Also read: Hyderabad encounter: Let's choose between Gandhi and Godse — once for all
Watching the jubilation of the crowd on the television and the showering of petals on the cops who killed the rapist murderers reminded me of a very popular Netflix serial ‘
Dexter’. Morgan Dexter was forensic blood spatter analyst in the Homicide Department of Miami Police Department in the US. He was orphaned when his mother was brutally murdered by a chainsaw by drug dealers. He was adopted by a police officer. Also read: Hyderabad: The road from the encounter killings heads to infinite darkness, not justice
Dexter was a man possessed - he was on a mission to bring to justice, the most inhuman gruesome serial rapists and killers. He found that many usually got bail and were generally not convicted for want of evidence. And they roamed free to commit the crimes again. So he became a self-styled vigilante encouraged and counselled by his adopted father. He took the blood samples of these killers who were out on bail and after convincing himself through incontrovertible evidence of blood samples through DNA tests that he collected himself, he executed them with cool, clinical efficiency and disposed of the body parts in the ocean. He was portrayed as a loveable hero, a normal guy, with a nice girlfriend, a pleasing persona, who was a kind of Robin Hood. You couldn't help taking a liking to him. He catered to the deep ‘vigilante instinct’ that is in all of us. You want the villain punished in this life and avenged. I found myself with bated breath, desperate, waiting for Dexter to catch and execute the rapist-killer every time I watched the serial.
Are Cops the New Vigilante Lynchers?
So it explains probably why the cops themselves turn vigilante lynchers. They are as moved by the mother or the father of the raped and murdered victim because they find themselves like the citizens, helpless in bringing the killers to justice because the justice system of which ironically they are part of has failed and doesn’t deliver justice. The criminal must be dealt with, avenged outside the system as the law is insufficient or ineffective.
Also read: Hyderabad encounter: Conflicting reactions from politicians, celebrities and citizens
“Vigilantes normally see the government as ineffective in enforcing the law; such individuals often claim to justify their actions as a fulfilment of the wishes of the community. Persons alleged to be escaping the law or above the law are often the victims of vigilantism,” according to studies. The alleged ‘fake encounters of Hyderabad (it may take another decade or more for the courts to deliver the judgement on this) are inevitable and likely to recur when law and order collapse and institutions are compromised and everyone loses faith. Political parties are loth to create independent institutions. They do little to improve the justice system while in power and complain only when in the opposition when the boot is on the other foot and they are themselves trampled under it.
Best Medicine for Vigilante Violence
The only way to bring down such terrible crimes and the vigilante reactionary violence that follows it is to ensure that the rule of law and justice and fairness prevail. And speedy reforms and structural changes are brought about to deliver quicker justice. And significantly institutions like the police, attorney general, CBI (at the state and centre) are made truly independent of ruling parties. The BJP does not seem to be keen on this, nor the regional parties who largely rule the state. The Congress did little on this front during its long rule since independence.
In such crimes as these, the Unnao, the Nirbhaya and now the Hyderabad case, we may be tempted to say like John Bunyan in his novel “Hanging is too good for him”. But we must beware, howsoever cruel the crime, regardless of the compulsions to pay back through swift retribution, taking recourse to vigilante justice will in the end only lead to more abominable crimes. We have seen these in mob lynchings, more recently cow vigilantes, or mob killings against hearsay or religious beliefs or hideous rapes, many innocents become victims because of mistaken identities. There's a danger that while fighting monsters we ourselves become monsters.
As the Mahatma Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye, makes the whole world blind." Civil society and our governments have much to do and need to act in unison to reduce evil.
GR Gopinath is the founder of Air Deccan.