India, extra-judicial murder, and the theatre of public cruelty

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 7, 2019

What a twisted way to approach justice. I’m referring, of course, to the response by some people to news that Indian police have shot dead the four men accused of the brutal gang rape of a young vet in Hyderabad.

It’s hard to imagine how people can say “justice has been done” when the circumstances of the suspects’ deaths are described as “suspicious”, and they had neither been tried nor convicted. And it’s even harder to imagine anyone cheering this development.

I know that Indians’ faith in the criminal justice system is lamentably low but really there is no better way to reduce it to zero than to have police engage in extra-judicial killings of suspected criminals.

The possibilities that arise are tragic and mind boggling. Police can shoot dead anyone – guilty or innocent – who’s accused of rape, paedophilia or some other crime that provokes social horror.

We’d be back to the law of the jungle. It would be a return to the theatre of public cruelty, something Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, described in Tudor London as follows: “Around 1600 in London’s theatres, mutilation, dismemberment, execution were matinee fare.”

Mr MacGregor went on to describe how life and mindsets were 500 years ago:

“In Shakespeare’s world, hideous human butchery was just a regular part of life. Strolling across London Bridge to see a play at the Globe or the Rose, you would pass rows of traitors’ heads impaled on spikes. The execution of criminals was, if not exactly public entertainment, then certainly public spectacle. You might perfectly well go to Tyburn near Marble Arch in the morning, to witness a public hanging and then move on after lunch to watch Macbeth lose his head or the Earl of Gloucester both his eyes.”

And note this observation in the context of the police shootings in India:

“Making the suffering of criminals and traitors public was a key part of the judicial system, and like the theatre, executions drew not only a large, but a socially very diverse, audience.”

It’s not too fanciful to say that’s where we’re headed if we celebrate the extra-judicial killing of the four accused men in Hyderabad.