Vigilante Justice in India

One of the markers of an uncivilized society is that mobs resort to vigilantism which are acts of summary justice without legal authority or due process. When the police engage in vigilantism, it signals a failed society. That’s what happened last week in Hyderabad in India.

Four people were killed murdered by the police (led by one Mr Sajjanar) in what is referred to as an “encounter.” The four were accused of a singularly horrific crime — the gang rape and murder of a young woman –and were in police custody. Note the word accused.

According to the police, they had taken the four accused to the murder site for investigations. The police claim that the accused started a fight with the police, grabbed two pistols from them, and started shooting. The police then killed all four in “self-defense.”

Swift justice was delivered. Within a few days of the crime, arrests were made, and within a few more days, the suspects were killed by the police. Lots of people celebrated this act of vigilante justice and the police were hailed as heroes.

What’s remarkable about this is that these four were in police custody. The police knew they were not escorting innocent, feeble 80-year olds. They weren’t charged with shoplifting or pick-pocketing. They were accused of an unimaginably heinous crime. And yet — if the police are to be believed — they were not even handcuffed. Two of the accused allegedly snatched revolvers from the police. Does it indicate competency? Sajjanar should be hauled over the coals for this. At the very least, he should be suspended and investigated by an independent agency.

Incompetence is a generous and charitable way of putting it. I think it may be worse — it could be deliberately criminal. The police have a job which is to identify suspects and apprehend them, and present a case against them in a court of law. The police are not empowered to judge the case, determine the punishment, and impose the punishment. A competent court has to hear the case, and pass the judgement.

This is a case of criminal behavior by the police. The fact that the police are celebrated for it, and not condemned, is deeply troubling. I am not making any claim that the four accused were innocent. No one can know their guilt or innocence without due process. My claim is that police misconduct should not be tolerated by a civilized people.

The crime, as reported, was truly gruesome. The people were justifiably horrified and quickly turned into a mob that demanded immediate punishment. Many movers and shakers — politicians, actors, general busybodies — began signalling their virtue by demanding that the criminals be lynched. That could have motivated Mr Sajjanar and his team to demonstrate their commitment to justice by murdering the accused.

It’s easy to see why what the police did is deeply disturbing and should not be tolerated by a civilized society of free individuals. In a civilized society, anyone accused of a crime is not automatically judged as guilty. The presumption is “innocent until proven guilty.” And if guilt is established after following “due process of law,” then the punishment is determined as established by law and not arbitrarily.

Consider the United States. The Fifth and the Fourteenth Amendments to the US constitution constraint governments that no one shall be “deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” The police are charged with investigating crimes and apprehending suspects but they cannot determine guilt or innocence. That is the job of the courts to conduct a trial and pass judgement. Moreover in the United States, there’s trial by jury of one’s peers.[1]

That’s the civilized thing to do. The police cannot — and must not — be trusted to be incorruptible. They have a strong incentive to solve crimes as quickly as possible, and in doing that, they can — and do — sometimes accuse innocents. This is doubly harmful: first, the immoral punishing of innocents, and second, the non-punishing of the guilty.

Even worse things can happen. Imagine that a politician or the head of a organized crime gang (pardon me for repeating myself) wants to get rid of his opponent. He bribes the police and the police frame the other guy and eliminates him in a “police encounter.” You can see where this will lead to: a quick descent into barbarism.

So where’s India headed? Not a very nice place, I am afraid. The administration of justice and the protection of life, liberty and the property of the people is the primary, the core, and the sole purpose of a government. Is the government doing that? Not from what’s being reported.

And the courts? That’s an arm of the government. And equally as competent. There are millions of pending cases there.

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the numbers in the image on the left. But it appears credible.

Anyway, c’est la vie. Good luck to India.

{The image at the top of the post is the poster from a movie that I love watching — Twelve Angry Men. Made in 1957, it depicts a jury deliberating whether a teenager accused of murder is guilty or innocent. It’s one of those movies that changes how you look at the world. Go watch it.}


[1] Juries are mention in the United States Constitution.

Every person accused of a crime punishable by incarceration for more than six months has a constitutionally protected right to a trial by jury, which arises in federal court from Article Three of the United States Constitution, which states in part, “The Trial of all Crimes…shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed.” The right was expanded with the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states in part, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” [Source: Wiki.]



Author: Atanu Dey


9 thoughts on “Vigilante Justice in India”

  1. Following the news from different sources regarding the said incident, I am amazed at certain phenomenon. People in the know and who are close to higher ups are openly praising certain persons for “planning” the encounter. The concern people throwing caution to the wind seem to acknowledge the praise. As Mr. Atanu Dey has taken pains to explain, an encounter should never be planned. That is against Indian law and punishable by death. Are the police culpable for moving the accused under arrest without hand-cuffs?

    Of the four accused, two were truck drivers and two cleaners. There was an outside chance that couple of them get long jail term and not death sentence if the law was allowed to take its course. One of the cleaners have a teenage expectant wife. The episode is a window on how the Indian society currently operates.

    PS. I have recently watched the 12 angry men starring Henry Fonda. You are correct about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The productivity of Indians in India is not high enough to afford a semi-functioning democracy, the rule of law, or a separation between judiciary and state, or gaumutra and state. On the slippery downslope of energy depletion, India is just discovering how little it can afford. The while joint will devolve into full-blown bandit-land with some island cities with tall walls, like so many Hollywood post-apocalyptic movies depict.


    1. Sir Caustic, it isn’t true that a people have to be wealthy to all those goodies — democracy, rule of law, constraints on government. Even poor people, if they chose to value them, can have them. Let’s recall that the US at its founding chose to have them, and at that time the people of the US were, in material terms, much poorer than the people of India are today.


      1. When USA was founded, educational services were not as monetized as they are today. To get a good grasp of working definitions of democracy, its many moving parts, and the discipline and responsibility needed to assemble those parts and keep them rolling, are not available in the typical middle class urban family or school or college in India today, which regard education as merely a means to jobs. Besides, democracy itself has evolved a lot since the founding of USA. So I hold my ground that the bulk of voting Indians have no resources to get the kind of education needed to preserve even an initially well-oiled democracy, leave alone overhaul one that is falling apart like a pig in a blender. You have certainly heard of phrase transitions in social organization. India is on the edge of one. If one must pick a single factor leading India toward this abyss, it’s just this: at least since independence, there has never been a point of time when the rate of (real) education outran the rate of population increase. The rest can be worked out from there.


        1. (Side note: Comments are held for moderation whenever a comment is submitted with a “new” email address. If you consistently use an email address — even a fake one — then the comment will not be held for moderation.)

          When USA was founded, educational services were not as monetized as they are today.

          I submit that I don’t fully understand what that has to do with the matter at hand.

          I do understand that the Indian education system sucks. But the Americans of the late 18th century were not highly schooled either. I think what matters is culture. It’s not the only thing that matters though; luck and leadership also matter.


          1. I meant, earlier (in both India and USA) you were less likely to be shut out of a decent genuince education for lack of money. In a sense I agree with you, because culture and education were more closely tied together and decent education was less expensive. If you are in the current Indian schooling “market”, you will realize the dire supply vs. demand situation of quality teachers. It is very unlikely that even good expensive schools in India can do enough about teaching students the foundations of democracy and liberal economics, and how they should (not) interact with religion and society, given the resources at their disposal. (As a related example, big-name international schools operate without a field where one can run around.) They are regarded as having done enough if they have imparted jobworthy skills. Meanwhile there is no society or culture left that’s worth talking about. Honestly I don’t see what is obscure or unclear about all this. Culture and education are not disjoint but highly intertwined.


  3. You write very well, as you know. I am amused at an Indianism that I noticed: “led by one Mr Sajjanar”. I see that style only in Indian writing. Most people in the west would say “led by Mr. Sajjanar”.


    1. Doobie, I believe you are wrong in thinking the construct “by one Mr” is Indian. It’s standard English. If you do a search for “by one Mr” you will find over a million hits (only a small fraction of which are spurious such as “one by one, Mr King dismissed them”.)

      That construct is used in cases where the person is not generally known, and is being introduced in the piece for the first time. It’s the equivalent of “The person of interest is named Bob. He was involved.”


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: