Jubilations over Telangana encounter reflect our hypocrisy as a society and a democracy

Much as you may be dismissive of the system, it’s there for a reason: the person who committed the crime should be tried and then punished. If the wrong person is convicted, that is not justice

IANS Photo
IANS Photo

Ranjona Banerji

The great joy and roars of approval at the extrajudicial killings of four men suspected of rape? Were you part of that? Did you celebrate one more nail in the coffin of Indian democracy, of our judicial system, of the foundations on which civilisation is built?

What did they do with witches in medieval times? They made a case, based usually on “public sentiment” and they had a trial with no defence and forms of punishment where if you died from the punishment you were innocent. But if you survived, you were clearly guilty and therefore had to be killed.

What happened in Hyderabad then? A young woman’s vehicle broke down and she needed help. In trying to get that help, she became uneasy and frightened. She was in touch with her sister for some of that time. The sister tried to get police help. The police did not help. The young woman was then attacked, raped and killed.

The initial official reactions ranged from: why didn’t she call the police and her sister, why was she out alone, why was she out at all. That is, all the usual meaningless victim-blaming responses we are so partial to. Then as the public outcry grew for “justice”, four men were arrested on suspicion of rape.

One of the four suspects was a Muslim, so every right-wing news agency in India focused only on that, and ignored the other three Hindus.

The police then announced that all four suspects were shot dead after they were taken to the scene of the crime at 3 am for a re-enactment and tried to escape.

And large parts of India broke out in celebration that the rapists were dead.

But were they?

The police picked up four men and told us they were the suspects. The investigation had barely begun. Nothing had been proved. Much as you may be dismissive of the system, it is there for a reason: the person who committed the crime should be tried and then hopefully punished. If the wrong person is convicted, that is not justice, not for the victim, not for the wrongfully accused.

And when the police take part in extrajudicial killings, they become a law unto themselves. Anyone who has had an encounter with the police in India knows how they are likely to behave if you are not rich, powerful and influential. So, there is utmost hypocrisy in this sudden faith in the police.

What people were celebrating is collective guilt and bloodlust. The same mentality which leads to vigilante justice, to mob violence. To the sort of lynchings that we have seen recently. What they do not realise or perhaps they do is what they were in effect celebrating is a breakdown of law and order. I can hear mutterings about this not being the first time, about encounter killings. Past wrongdoings do not justify current ones.

Just as people digested the impact of the extrajudicial killings in Hyderabad, of the celebrations of so many who felt that “due process” had failed victims, there was news about one of the many rape victims in Unnao was attacked and burnt in UP as she was on her way to a court hearing. She ran for a mile on the road with her burn injuries with no member of the public helped her. She had accused the son of the village headman and his friends of raping her and had faced resistance from the police, pressure, hostility and now murderous attacks. On last Friday night, she lost her life with 90 per cent burn injuries.

The rules then are very clearly different. There are no lynch mobs, no celebrations, no demands for instant justice. In fact, the very same people who are now celebrating and mocking “due process”, had earlier come up with the usual clichés of “law must take its course”.

So, the law must be followed when the accused belongs to your party, family, your social circle, but the law must not just be broken but also mangled and destroyed when you do not know the accused.

The double standards apart however, the celebratory reaction to the Hyderabad police’s illegal actions reemphasises the threat that democracy and its institutions face today. And as ever, this reaction has almost nothing to do with women’s safety or women’s rights.

You know, these are the ways of patriarchy as always.

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Published: 12 Dec 2019, 5:31 PM