The news is full of the Ishrat Jahan case. If by some small chance you don’t know about it, here’s the gist of what happened. A girl called Ishrat Jahan was shot down by the police in what they claimed was an “encounter” – meaning that she was part of a group that was shooting back at them. According to the police, they were terrorists. But the evidence seems to indicate that it was a “fake encounter” and that the police staged the whole thing to get rid of her and the people she was with. In other words, there was no gunfight and the lives of the policemen were never in danger. Whether or not she was a terrorist is an open question. The main accusation against the police is that they carried out an extra judicial killing. That they took the lives of people in cold blood.
As this case progresses, most discussion on the Internet seems to focus on whether she was a terrorist or not. What was she doing in the company of men so far from home? Why didn’t her parents file an FIR etc etc. In short, the thread of arguments don’t revolve around her death, but around whether or not she “deserved” it. The prevailing sentiment being that if she was a terrorist, then killing her in that way was the right thing to do. That the policemen were in fact heroes and should be lauded. Instead of leaving her and her companions to the tortuous justice system, they “took them out” and made the world a safer place.
The strength of a criminal justice system depends on how it treats the most vile and hated criminals. To me, the trial of the terrorist Ajmal Kasab in India was one of the highest points of our justice system. Here was a man who was clearly responsible for killing dozens of innocent people. A true terrorist caught on tape. And we gave him a fair trial with a chance to defend himself. He was allowed an appeal and everything was done by the book. I know there are people who lament the crores that we spent on keeping him alive. But as a point to prove that we are a civilized nation, that we want to give a fair trial to even people suspected of the most heinous crimes, it was cheap at twice the cost. In that process, India showed itself to be a truly civilized nation. A nation of laws.
The Ishrat encounter and the justifications being given for it shatter all that. It makes me wonder – what exactly did we get independence from in 1947? Freedom from the British? No. We didn’t get free from the British only to be oppressed by Indians! We got free. Period. And what does that mean? Amongst the many aspects of freedom is the right to due process of law. I hold this to be even more important that the laws themselves. The rights of a person to a fair trial, to defend themselves, to legal counsel are the bedrock of civilization. Those who don’t appreciate these rights are unaware of what the lack of them can lead to. The alternative is placing unlimited power in the hands of the police or the intelligence services without judicial oversight. And what have these organizations done to deserve our trust? Have they proven themselves worthy of public confidence? Have they shown that they can handle power responsibly? Hardly!
It amuses me when I see the childish trust people place in our law enforcement agencies. These are the people who regularly take bribes to perform even the smallest act which we expect them to do. These are the people who refuse to register FIRs for rape victims using all kinds of excuses. They are the shining men and women who jail a ten-year old. It’s these courageous individuals in khaki that arrest girls for commenting on Facebook, while all the time turning a blind eye to the thugs who threaten and intimidate people into following a “bandh”. Knowing all this, yet the average Indian wants to hand over the unlimited power of life and death to them hoping they will use it wisely to protect us! The dissonance is shocking.
Whether Ishrat Jahan was a terrorist or not is irrelevant. That is for a court of law to decide. It’s not as if the police are powerless. If they have evidence of her involvement, there are enough laws they can bring to bear to get them locked up. They can quietly cool their heels in jail as they await trial. Extra judicial killings is a euphemism for murder and the police officers involved should be treated as murderers if they’re found guilty. They’re not patriots protecting India. They are a cancer eating away at our ideals and the very life blood that makes us a civilized nation. They’re worse than murderers because they are abusing the authority given to them. They deserve the most harsh punishment for their crimes.
I’ve heard people trot out the argument that even the US uses drone strikes to kill terrorists along with innocent people without a trial. According to them, the side casualties are just acceptable collateral damage in the “war against terror”. They want India to be a “tough state” and show its strength by killing anyone suspected of being a terrorist without a trial. First of all, just because the US does something doesn’t mean it’s right. They can get away with drone strikes because the affected nation can’t strike back. You think the US would be brave enough to employ drone strikes if the terrorists were located in China or Russia? That would be an act of war and those nations have the power to respond in kind. So what the US is doing is cowardly. It’s not because they’re “tough on terror”, but because the people they’re doing it to can’t respond appropriately. Second, drone strikes are a military operation carried out in another country. Such actions would be completely out of the question on US soil itself. It’s a kind of hypocrisy, but that’s the way it is. They would never flout their own laws in their own land the way Indians want their government to. The Boston bomber is receiving a fair trial. He won’t be just done away with. The people would raise hell. You’ll never find an American suggesting that the government kill him either.
So don’t be eager to emulate the US. Their hands are not clean to start with but they also adhere to a certain set of twisted rules that don’t mirror the bloodthirsty attitude that Indians have towards anyone accused of being a terrorist. Civil liberties, due process, innocent until proven guilty, the right to a fair trial, the right to legal counsel…these are not luxuries bestowed upon us by the government. We don’t have to earn them or live up to them. Our Constitution guarantees these rights to us. Nowhere does it say “To be worthy of these rights you have to do/be xyz”. They are so fundamental to our land, that the Supreme Court awards them even to foreigners on Indian soil! The absurd concept of “duties” which were inserted into the Constitution at a later date are an anomaly. They’re “recommendations” at best and they can be safely ignored. Rights on the other hand are very real. They are our birthright.
The guilt or innocence of Ishrat Jahan is not for the police to decide. Her punishment is likewise not their concern. Their job is to gather evidence and apprehend them if they can. And yes, they are authorized to use deadly force if their own lives and bodies are in danger. Killing people, whether they’re citizens of India or not, isn’t part of their job description and they should be punished as the murderers they are if found guilty.