CHENNAI, India — India’s democracy is being increasingly tarnished by its police force, which uses brutally illegal methods to deal with crime. Some officers are staging incidents to murder people who have been arrested on suspicion of committing particularly heinous offenses.

A suspect might be taken to a lonely spot by the police and shot dead. Sometimes, one of the accompanying cops is shot in the arm or leg to make the whole sordid episode appear as as if the suspect tried to escape.

Recently one such killing, which in India is termed “encounter death,” happened in the southern city of Coimbatore, close to Chennai. Cabdriver Mohana Krishnan was killed by police as he was reportedly trying to flee from a van that was taking him to the scene of the crime.

Krishnan, 23, had allegedly kidnapped two young children, raped one of them and drowned both in a canal in what appeared to be a case of kidnapping for ransom. Krishnan and his plan went horribly wrong — or presumably so.

We will never know what turned him and an accomplice now in jail into monsters. Was it the lure of consumerism, whose hard-to-resist temptations are now wreaking havoc in Indian society, where most people are poor?

The divide between the haves and the have-nots is getting steeper and wider. What makes the situation grimmer is the brazen manner in which the new rich flaunt their wealth. Weddings are getting more lavish, cars larger and gold ornaments heavier and flashier.

This is not to justify what Krishnan and his accomplice are alleged to have done, but at the same time, the guardians of society have not been aboveboard. They have begun to use kangaroo court methods to mete out their warped sense of justice. This year there have been nine encounter deaths in the state of Tamil Nadu alone. Coimbatore is a part of this state.

One reason for this highhanded police behavior is societal pressure and political compulsions. The people want instant justice, fed up as they are with the snail-paced judicial system where corruption and power rule.

Money can win an accused or convicted person his or her freedom, and lawyers are perfectly willing to play the devil’s advocate for fancy fees. Some of them don’t care whether men who are dangerous to the community are allowed to roam free.

Political polls also play a role. Governments pressure the police to solve crimes quickly, fearing a backlash from opposition parties that are always ready to raise the specter of a collapse of law and order. The federal administration in New Delhi is well within its rights to dismiss a state ministry if law and order deteriorates beyond a certain point.

Aiding and abetting such extra- constitutional steps is cinema. A recent Tamil film, “Naan Mahaan Alla” (I Am No Saint), sent out a highly questionable message. The hero takes the law into his hands and turns killer. Worse, he walks away with no remorse or reprimand!

In another movie, shot both in Tamil and Hindi, “A Wednesday,” an ordinary citizen kills a group of convicted terrorists after forcing the police to free them from jail. The citizen saunters away with the police chief looking on.

Despite India’s reputation as a stable democracy, human rights violations are rising alarmingly. Some months ago, the reported killing of Suhrabudheen Sheik, a young Muslim, and his wife in the central Indian state of Gujarat by the police shocked the nation. Sheikh was suspected of having links to terrorists, although the police gave no opportunity to to the courts to prove or disprove this.

A report in the Hindustan Times lays the prevalence of extra-judicial or encounter killings to a confidential letter written two decades ago by the head of the Intelligence Bureau. The letter, written by the bureau director at the time, V.G. Vaidya, to then Director General of Police K.P.S. Gill on Dec. 30, 1991, serves as a de facto blueprint for police forces on how to carry out such killings and avoid public attention.

The report further says: “It dealt with the subject of some police officers’ revealing to Western journalists how they had killed terrorists without legal sanction. One officer even gave the journalists access to a militant who had been illegally detained and was later shot.”

The extra-constitutional powers of the police were set into motion a long time ago. In West Bengal, many educated, intelligent young men and women were killed by the police because they had chosen the path of Naxalism. In 1979-80, 31 undertrial prisoners in Bhagalpur Jail in the central Indian state of Bihar were blinded by policemen who poured acid into their eyes!

If these practices receive tacit support by authorities, how can India call itself the land of Mahatma Gandhi?

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai, India- based author and journalist.

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