Gangsters Atique Ahmed and brother Ashraf were gunned down while in police custody by three young men who shot them at point blank range, even as the Uttar Pradesh Police looked on and didn’t fire back. This, when they had shot dead Atique’s son a couple of days earlier for allegedly shooting at the police. Rightwing social media ecosystems erupted in applause.
A fairly basic application of rationality, a vague idea of rule of law and knowing why courts and judicial processes exist, would make one realise what a gross travesty the murder-in-custody-on-live-TV is. And one needn’t have to put up a disclaimer that one has no love lost for Atique. Of course, we don’t! He was a convicted criminal and a known gangster. But even convicts are guaranteed right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution and the right to a fair trial.
UP has seen 183 encounters by police since Yogi Adityanath’s ascent to CM-ship. What is as worrying as the collapse of any notion of law and order is the acceptance and applause this seemingly staged custodial murder is eliciting in public discourse in India, for some years now.
I remember first noticing this in 2008, on a Mumbai local train about a month after the terrorist attacks in the Taj hotel, the Oberoi, CST and other parts of Colaba. Mumbai was in shock and Mumbaikars were seething. I was heading back to the suburbs. A group of women were talking. “We should do a nuclear attack on Pakistan.” “We should erase the existence of Pakistan.”
It was the first time in my memory that channels had begun a shrill trial on the captured terrorist Ajmal Kasab. There was a bloodlust in the public discourse. Luckily for rule of law in this country, the then government subjected Kasab to a proper trial as per the law of the land. That was not a sign of the love for Kasab, it signalled a respect for the legal and judicial processes.
The same bloodthirsty din was raised after the heinous ‘Nirbhaya’ gang rape case in Delhi. The six rapists who were arrested were jailed and placed under trial. One of them died in jail by suicide, but five others were punished as per the law of the land. One was acquitted after serving the maximum term a juvenile can serve under Indian law and four were hung to death.
Even Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, was afforded a fair trial although mass sentiment at the time surely would have eliminated Godse on the spot.
The simplest argument in favour of rule of law is that the state, which possesses power to rule and has the capability and legitimacy to resort to violence, must operate with due processes that are accepted as fair, equal and dispassionate. Quite simply, the state is neither arbitrary nor vindictive.
And democracies have added credibility as their laws are seen as having been accepted by the people, for they are made by representatives of the people, elected by people themselves.
Each time the state or its agencies abdicate the responsibility of conducting themselves as per the due process of law, they lose the legitimacy of being responsible guardians of law and executors of power and violence. Each time a state allows a mob to run rampant and function with impunity it only loses its own right to rule.
There is no greater betrayal than the abdication of responsibility by those who have the power and are responsible to protect us. That’s why abuse of children by parents is particularly horrifying. Similarly, abuse of power by the state and human rights violations by state agencies are particularly harmful.
An extrajudicial killing, a custodial death or an encounter are not things to be celebrated. These signal a state of lawlessness. They are a sign that the agencies have depleted credibility because they are acting like criminals. When those in power act like criminals, that is not strong governance. That is anarchy.
The writer is an award-winning Bollywood actor and sometime writer and social commentator.