Two gangsters and suspects in the murder case of Punjabi singer Sidhu Moose Wala were recently killed in an encounter by Punjab Police's Anti-Gangster Task Force in a four-hour-long shootout.

Encounter killings or extrajudicial executions by the police often make headlines and have become increasingly familiar in India. So, FactChecker analysed data on such cases only to find that in the last six years pending cases of encounter killings have increased nearly five-fold. In 2016-17, 25 such cases were pending, which increased to 124 in 2021-22.

While India has seen a 15% decline in encounter killing cases registered in the six years between 2016-17 and 2021-22 (till March 10, 2022), the cases shot up by 69.5% in the last two years.

In all the six years, only once has the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) recommended disciplinary action or prosecution regarding "death in police encounters", according to a response given by Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai in Rajya Sabha in March 2022. Instead, the NHRC has recommended a total compensation of Rs 7.16 crore in the last six years.

Six years, 813 Killed in Encounters

India has registered 813 cases of encounter killings in the last six years, which means one such case has been registered almost every three days since April 2016 in the country. While there was a significant drop in these cases during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic (from 112 in 2019-20 to 82 in 2020-21), there was a 69.5% spike the next year with 139 cases.

In the six years since April 2016, Chhattisgarh recorded the most extrajudicial killing cases (259), followed by Uttar Pradesh (110) and Assam (79).

Although Chhattisgarh saw the highest number of these cases in the six years, the number of cases in the state have dropped by 62.6% in the period. Assam too has seen a drop in extrajudicial killings by 45% in the span of six years with a 325% spike in the last one year — 4 in 2020-21 to 17 in 2021-22. But, it's not the same for Uttar Pradesh.

The most populous state has seen more than a two-fold increase in extrajudicial killings in the last six years. In the six years since April 2016, UP saw the highest number of encounter killing cases in 2017-18, coincidentally the year the Bharatiya Janata Party's government came into power in the state. The UP Police, in their unofficial mission called 'Operation Langda', shot and injured more than 3,300 criminals in 8,472 encounters, leaving them with bullet wounds in legs, reported The Indian Express.

In the last one year since April 2021, Jammu and Kashmir (38) has reported the most extrajudicial killing cases in India, followed by Chhattisgarh (28), Assam (17), and Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand recording nine cases each.

Moreover, there exist wide data gaps in reporting of encounter killings by the NHRC and the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB). While according to NCRB's Crime in India report, three cases of encounter killings were registered in 2020, NHRC's data showed 156, 112 and 82 killings in 2018-19, 2019-20 to 2020-21, respectively.

Law on Encounter Killings

Encounter or extrajudicial killings violate the fundamental rights of offenders given in the Constitution of India, which mandates that every person has a right to life and liberty and equality before law. No law in India exclusively defines encounter killings but it is still classified under 'Cases Registered against State Police Personnel for Human Right Violation' in the NCRB.

However, as per Right to Private Defence under Sections 96-106 in the Indian Penal Code, 1860, there are certain circumstances when a death in an encounter shall not be counted as an offence in India. Under this law, which applies to every citizen of the country and not just police officials, death in an encounter will not amount to a criminal offence when it is caused by an action taken to defend yourself.

This means police officials may injure the criminal in order to defend themselves or for maintaining peace and order, but their motive must be scrutinised. If the death cannot be justified under the law then the cops must be tried under culpable homicide.

NHRC Guidelines on Encounter Killings

According to the 1997 guidelines of the NHRC, all states and Union

territories must follow the following guidelines:

· Police station in-charge must appropriately register information about death in an encounter as soon as they come to know.

· Immediate steps should be taken to investigate the facts and circumstances leading to the death of the accused.

· Since the police themselves are involved in the encounter, the cases must be investigated by an independent agency, such as the state CID.

· Investigation should be completed within four months. If the investigation results in prosecution, steps for speedy trial must be taken.

· Issue of granting compensation to the dependents of the deceased may be considered in cases ending in conviction

· An FIR must be registered under appropriate sections of the IPC when a complaint is filed against the police regarding a cognisable case of culpable homicide.

· A magisterial enquiry must be conducted in all cases of deaths due to police action, preferably within three months.

· All cases of deaths due to police action must be reported to the NHRC by the Senior Superintendent of Police/Superintendent of Police of the district within 48 hours of the occurrence of death.

· A second report must be submitted to the NHRC within three months providing information regarding the post mortem report, inquest report, findings of the magisterial enquiry and enquiry by senior police officers.

There have been zero prosecutions and convictions in such cases in the last six years. In 2010, the NHRC, in a letter stated, "The Commission finds that most of the states are not following the recommendations issued by it in the true spirit."