The gunning down of Asad Ahmed and Ghulam Hussain by Uttar Pradesh Police in Jhansi on Thursday has led to considerable ire among a section of politicians and lawyers.
According to the police the duo was involved in the gunning down of Umesh Pal in Prayagraj on 24th February. Pal was a prime witness in the murder of Raju Pal, a former MLA, in 2005. Ahmed—a 19-year-old-law student—was the son of Atiq Ahmed, a don who is currently behind bars.
Political reactions began to fly thick and fast within no time of Ahmed’s gunning down. Former Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav said “By staging false encounters the BJP government wants to divert attention from true issues. The BJP does not believe in courts.” He also demanded an inquiry into the Jhansi encounter and others and said the guilty should not be spared. Tellingly he said the BJP is against brotherhood and fraternity. It is worth pointing out that Atiq Ahmed was once an MP and a legislator from Yadav’s Samajwadi Party. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had recently said on the floor of the state assembly that criminals had been given protection by the Samajwadi Party and in the context of Umesh Pal’s murder said dons will be “razed to the ground”.
Legally, the position on execution of criminals is clear: it is the courts that have the power to sentence convicts to death. But it is equally clear that any police force in the country can respond to criminals who fire at them while trying to escape. In this particular case, no doubt the episode will be closely examined, possibly by the courts. But The police were well within its rights to use lethal force if required against dangerous and audacious criminals.
At a broader level, the current government in UP has a stringent policy of not tolerating hardened criminals who once had immense political influence in the state. There has been a sharp break in this respect since Yogi Adityanath came to power in 2017. But it is equally true that these encounters that have led to the death of criminals have been investigated and scrutinised by the superior judiciary. There has not been a single instance in which it has been proven judicially that the state police acted out of line in these cases. Another recent example is the killing of gangster Vikas Dubey on 10th July 2020. A commission of inquiry led by a retired judge, justice B S Chauhan, found no suspicion in what the police said about the encounter. The Supreme Court also refused to proceed further in the matter.
What is in the ambit of controversy is the broader policy of ending the run of hardened criminals, including the use of the National Security Act to detain them. But this is a one-sided claim about the threat of rule of law when these criminals are gunned down or are held in administrative detention. Anyone who is familiar with the political history of UP knows that at one time the line between politics and crime had blurred to the point that the state was known as a disorderly province that was a haven for such criminals. Any one-sided plea about the rule of law comes perilously close to justifying that horrendous state of affairs. The Yogi government has sought to send a stern message in a state where the rule of law has been absent or repeatedly abused.
It is high time that liberal lawyers and others paused to understand why the “policy of encounters” has support from the wider public. It is easy to dismiss it as some sort of bloodlust on part of the public. The reality is that no one speaks about the erosion of rule of law when criminals, in active connivance with politicians, wantonly kill ordinary people. In such situations there is no recourse to succour and speedy justice for the families of those who have been killed by criminals.