Making impartial investigations into killings in police encounters constitutes an area of governance that is quite delicate and controversial. The police version often gains traction in the media, and support from the ruling party and the administration often helps a cover-up. On the other hand, the gunning down of dreaded criminals or extremists in genuine exchanges of fire may also be questioned by interested parties. This is the backdrop in which the state has supported the armed forces with special laws to grant them immunity from prosecution in specified areas, mostly those hit by conflict or insurgency. The recent Supreme Court verdict laying down detailed guidelines on how the police and administration should respond to a death in an alleged encounter, seeks to put in place a proper mechanism that will set at rest all doubt and speculation about the incident. The first requirement being an independent and impartial investigation, the court has now laid down a standard procedure, which will operate in addition to existing provisions in the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) relating to unnatural deaths. Section 176 of the CrPC already provides for an enquiry by a judicial magistrate in such cases. Other guidelines cover investigations by the CID or a police station from another station-house, establishing the victim’s identity, preservation of evidence on the spot, preparation of a rough sketch of the scene, recovery of fingerprints, videography of the autopsy, and informing the next of kin of the deceased at the earliest. Holding the magisterial enquiry and keeping the National Human Rights Commission informed are other requirements. As a general rule, the court has asked the State governments to send a report once in six months (January 15 and July 15 every year) on all incidents of death in police firing, in a prescribed format.
Ending impunity and ensuring impartiality in probes subsequent to death at the hands of the police are easier said than achieved in some conflict-hit regions. As the Supreme Court itself has pointed out, one cannot be oblivious to the fact that the police in India have to perform a delicate task, especially wherever extremism and organised crime have taken strong roots. However, it has also noted that even such criminals must be dealt with by the police in an efficient and effective manner and brought to justice by following the rule of law. The Court’s guidelines are by and large practicable, but it requires political will and an alert civil society to ensure their implementation. A scientific, well-documented investigation that results in a decisive finding, which the law now demands, is not beyond the capability of a modern police force