The police officers who made away with the body of the 19-year-old Dalit woman in Hathras destroyed evidence in a capital case and are guilty at least under Section 201 of the Indian Penal Code, carrying seven years punishment. Yet they roam free, and even their suspension from duty came only after the Allahabad high court took suo moto cognisance of the matter. This one act alone makes them complicit in the ghastly crime, yet the investigation remains with the state police.
This is not the first time the agents of the law have been found shielding offenders. Indeed, the agents of the law offend so often in the many fake encounters and custodial killings, that courts are driven to lament time and again. The time has come to do more.
Getting rid of the body quickly could only have been done with the knowledge and intent the Supreme Court has held essential to Section 201 – knowledge of the crime and intent to shield the criminal (V.L. Tresa v State of Kerala). The language used in the section indicates the following ingredients are required to come under the ambit of Section 201:
- Committal of an offence;
- person charged with the offence under Section 201 must have the knowledge or reason to believe that the main offence has been committed;
- person charged with the offence under Section 201 IPC should have caused disappearance of evidence or should have given false information regarding the main offence and
- the act should have been done with the intention of screening the offender from legal punishment.
Did the policemen know of the offence before or at the time it was committed? That is a matter for investigation.
Let us apply the facts of the actions alleged to have been committed by the police as we know them. The police and the state machinery have allegedly committed the following illegalities:
- Not registering the FIR on receiving information of a cognisable offence having been committed in a timely manner as mandated by the Supreme Court of India,
- Delaying the forensic examination of the victim and asserting that no rape had been committed,
- Pressurising the family to change its statement against the accused, and
- Forcibly cremating the body of the victim while restraining the family.
The above illegalities show that right from the inception, the police did not want to prosecute the accused; this is evident from their hesitation to register the FIR that they were duty bound to do. The police also delayed the forensic examination and has been stressing that no rape has been committed. The chronology of events certainly makes us beg the question why the police officers in question were so interested in ensuring that the accused who were named by the victim in her statements were not charged with rape. The matter is made worse by the district magistrate reportedly trying to pressurise the victim’s family. Assuming that all the effect of shielding the accused was incidental, why was the police so interested in cremating the body of the victim without letting her family members perform the last rights?
The above questions require answers, and a detailed investigation. The police officers who committed these egregious acts must be investigated and examined by an independent agency and potentially prosecuted under Section 201 of the IPC to find out whether the acts they committed were with the object of shielding the accused named by the victim before she died. At the very least, the state must bring about some reform in the police system lest people start taking the law into their own hands.
Then, there is a greater human rights violation – that of depriving the dead of the procedure established by law, and violating the dignity of the dead and her grieving survivors. The victim was robbed of dignity while she was living by the accused, and in death by being hastily cremated by the police without letting her family be there. Such violations have to be nipped in the bud and law and order must be ensured to allow persons to live their life without fear and with dignity.
The way the police cremated the body is wholly illegal and in violation of the human rights of the victim and her family members. The Supreme Court of India has deprecated police excesses in Punjab in unceremoniously cremating possibly thousands of bodies with an unidentified tag. In the case of Paramjit Kaur v State of Punjab, it held that in a democratic society, such human right excesses were unacceptable. The matter was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation and also dealt with by the National Human Rights Commission.
The court also recognised the importance of a decent burial or cremation in the case of Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan v Union of India and others, while dealing with a public interest litigation pertaining to unclaimed dead bodies of the homeless. In that case, the MCD specified the role of the police in such matters:
- The police reach the spot and steps are taken to identify the dead body and reasons for the death,
- The dead body is photographed and sent to the mortuary for the post mortem,
- Unclaimed dead bodies are cremated in the electric crematorium.
In the case of Dashrath Singh v State of U.P., the Supreme Court criticised the callousness of the investigating officer in his failure to conduct a post-mortem on the body. The case ended in an acquittal because of this lapse.
In conclusion, the lapses and conduct of the suspended police officers require a detailed investigation. The police officers who committed these egregious acts must be investigated and examined by an independent agency and potentially prosecuted under Section 201 of the IPC (and more, perhaps) to find out whether the acts they committed were with the object of shielding the accused named by the victim before she died. At the very least, the state must bring about some reform in the police system lest people start taking the law into their own hands.
Raghav Tankha is a lawyer practising in Delhi.