After a week of anger, outrage and violent calls for the lynching and castration of the men who allegedly raped and murdered a veterinarian in Hyderabad, Telangana Police said on Friday that all four accused had been killed in an encounter. The police claimed that the four were trying to flee the police at around 3:30 am while being taken to the site of the crime to reconstruct the sequence of events.

“They fired upon the police team and we retaliated in self-defence,” unidentified officials told PTI. “Two of our men are also injured in the incident.”

The incident, involving police somehow losing control of a situation and killing the accused, still led to scenes of jubilation, with many congratulating the police officers for their actions.

This may seem like justice and indeed, the applause coming in from many quarters of society – including, above, from a Union Minister – makes it seem as if the actions have the backing of both authorities and the people at large.

But many were also deeply unsettled by the news and indeed, Thursday’s developments leave us with more questions than answers when it comes to crimes against women and the actions of the police. It is worth spelling out here why the encounter – an Indian phrase that usually refers to an extrajudicial killing albeit with the fig leaf of self-defence here – raises alarm rather than satisfaction about justice having been done.

How do we know they were the culprits?

This is the obvious, straightforward question to ask even if you believe that justice should be swift and that the state should execute the accused. How do we know the police have picked up the right people?

It is not as if they were caught in the act itself. That being the case, we now have to believe that the police have arrested the actual perpetrators and not just four people whom they can pin the crime on.

There is a reason that the police do not get to label anyone guilty in the Indian justice system – investigators can only accuse, it is the courts that decide whether the accusation is accurate. This is because the incentive for the police is to say the crime has been cracked. And it is not unheard of in India for the police to simply pick up men from vulnerable communities and accuse them of the crime in order to assuage public outrage.

A recent incident, for example, was the Ryan International murder in which Haryana Police said a bus conductor had confessed to murdering a Class 2 student in 2017. When the Central Bureau of Investigation took over the case, however, it said that the conductor had been framed and instead took into custody a Class 9 student, a juvenile, who reportedly said he murdered the young boy to postpone exams.

While the delays in the judicial process can be frustrating, it is only through the methodical task of investigating, charge-sheeting and a trial that we can come close to affirming justice.

How do we trust the police’s story?

Technically speaking, no execution has taken place, and no pronouncement of guilt by the police either. On paper, the claim is that the accused somehow managed to break free of the police, obtain possession of some guns and attempt to shoot, only to get killed in the process. Why do we not believe this claim of self-defence?

Again, it is hard to definitively know one way or the other, yet here all the evidence makes one question the police’s claims. The accused had been in custody for a week, one in which there was tremendous scrutiny on the police’s actions. They were not on the run. Were the police so incompetent that when they were being taken to the scene of the crime – at 3:30 am – the accused were able to get away and get their hands on police weapons?

Moreover, there was specific chatter in Hyderabad about the police considering something possibly beyond the bounds of the law. For one, the Commissioner of Police overseeing the case, VC Sajjanar, was the Superintendent of Police of Warangal in 2008, when the exact same situation played out – a high profile case of an acid attack on a woman led to the accused being killed by the police after being taken to the scene of the crime and somehow managing to get their hands on a gun.

The Deccan Chronicle on November 30 even reported on the buzz that the police was considering something extrajudicial, in order to assuage public anger and the damage it was doing to their image and that of the Telangana government. “Was the police – which has come in for sharp criticism for the way it dealt with the case –planning “something more than mere arrest” to calm down tempers and be the “heroes” once again in the public eye?”

Moreover, even if the police story is right, does it not display extreme incompetence? How could the police let four men who were in their custody in a high-profile case break free and get their hands on weapons?

How do we know the police did its job right?

There is another big reason to be doubtful of the police’s claims when it comes to extrajudicial killings and quick resolutions to high-profile crimes: Hiding the police’s own failures.

Let us not forget, this case began with the police refusing to file a First Information Report, citing jurisdictional issues and also insisting that something else may have been involved.

“The police spoke to us very rudely, in a disgusting manner. They kept saying she would have gone with someone. I kept saying my daughter is not like that, but they didn’t listen,” the woman’s mother told the NewsMinute.

Her sister also said that the police insisted that the woman had eloped, and did not take the missing person complaint seriously, meaning they did not search the area where she was last seen. If they had, might the woman have been discovered earlier?

In killing the four accused, the police seem to have dispensed justice. But the actions will obscure the fact that the case began with police failures, which may not now get a close examination as people move to declare the authorities heroes.

How do we know the police won’t do this again – to others?

If you look beyond the immediate case, this is the central problem with cheering any extrajudicial actions. Supporting the killing of alleged rapists and murders without due process effectively means letting the police become judge, jury and executioner.

It is well known that Indian police departments are often used as political or even personal tools by those in power. Many are also understaffed, underpaid and under pressure to show “results” and an improvement in law and order statistics.

In Uttar Pradesh, for example, Chief Minister Adityanath has given his police departments a free hand to carry out encounters – leading to a huge number of alleged extrajudicial killings, with those killed by and large being poor Muslims.

Once society gives a free hand and indeed encouragement to the police to do as it wishes, there is nothing stopping authorities from using that freedom for personal, political or other aims. This is the point of a judicial system that has checks and balances and separates the investigating agency, the prosecutor and the judge.

How do we know it deters crimes against women?

Some of the jubilation over the encounter killings comes from the cynical but possibly realistic belief that the judicial system takes years and will provide no solution or even justice in these heinous cases. The frustration may be valid, but politicians and prominent public personalities encouraging this solution beyond the law are playing with fire – not least because this is hardly a solution that delivers justice either.

As Aarefa Johari reports, harsher punishments in rape cases – whether it is castration, death penalty or indeed extrajudicial killings – are unlikely to have any deterring effect on crimes against women. Why? Because society tends to only get worked up in certain kinds of cases.

“The police and courts have not changed their ideas about an ‘ideal’ rape victim – someone who is young, brutally raped by a stranger, and someone who is severely injured or dead,” said lawyer and activist Audrey D’Mello from Majlis, a feminist legal aid organisation in Mumbai.“Those who don’t fall into those categories are viewed as ‘bad victims’, which is why the conviction rate has not changed much.”

And while these categories apply to the Hyderabad case, they are not reflective of crimes against women in general. The vast majority, for example, involve culprits who are known to the women, not strangers. Yet in these cases, women are much less likely to be believed or listened to, with no similar outrage from society or quick action from authorities.

Moreover, extrajudicial killings are disproportionately targeted at vulnerable communities and, as mentioned above, may involve innocent people being falsely framed. In cases of more high-profile accused, such as Bharatiya Janata Party politician Kuldeep Sengar, there is rarely any clamour for action. Indeed, in Sengar’s case, authorities repeatedly refused to act and those making the accusation were instead punished, with the BJP not cutting ties either until the Supreme Court got involved.

What is to be done instead?

As the Justice Verma committee report in the aftermath of the 2012 gangrape-murder in Delhi pointed out, the actual solution to India’s high level of crimes against women involves much more careful work covering everything from education to police reforms to awareness of domestic violence and even electoral reform. The blueprint is there, but it involves the difficult task of confronting society and changing minds. Naturally, most would prefer the shortcut of simply letting the police use their weapons instead, but encouraging that approach will only make us even more unsafe.