NEW DELHI — One of India’s most troubling rape cases of recent months was brought to a sudden and shocking end on Friday.
Four men who had been accused of raping and killing a young woman near the southern Indian city of Hyderabad were taken under a bridge by police officers and shot dead in the early hours of the morning.
How the events played out is not entirely clear.
The police, who had been under enormous pressure to bring the rapists to justice, said that they had taken the men to the scene of the crime at 3 a.m. and were in the process of watching them re-enact the attack when two of the men tried to grab the officers’ guns, leaving the officers no choice but to shoot the suspects dead.
The officers are being hailed as heroes, and were showered with rose petals by residents who thronged the streets of Hyderabad to celebrate what they saw as an act of swift retribution for a horrific crime. So many people poured into the streets on Friday to celebrate that traffic was brought to a standstill. Firecrackers could be heard exploding across the city. People hugged and passed out sweets.
“The law has done its duty,” said V.C. Sajjanar, a top police official.
But the circumstances behind the killings have invited suspicion. Human rights activists have wondered if the police simply executed the men and fabricated a story to cover their tracks.
“It’s just the outcry that pressured the government to do away with the four men and this is a total and utter violation of human rights,” said Ranjana Kumari, the director of the Center for Social Research, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Ms. Kumari called the killings “a total failure of the criminal justice system.”
“We are moving toward a vigilante justice system,” she added.
This year, according to the police, a popular elected representative from Unnao district in northern India tried to kill a young woman who had accused him of rape, arranging for a truck to smash into her car.
And just this week, a young woman was set on fire as she was making her way to court to testify against men whom she had accused of rape.
The Hyderabad case centers on a young veterinarian who had parked her motor scooter near a toll plaza on the evening of Nov. 27 and came back from an appointment to find that its rear tire was flat. A group of truck drivers offered to help her, the police said, but she suspected that she was in danger. In her last call, to her sister to tell her what she was doing, she sounded scared.
The police said that the men had in fact deflated the tire as part of a plot to kidnap the young woman. The police added that the men had been drinking. They dragged the woman, who the police said was in her mid-20s, to a bushy area nearby and assaulted her. They then suffocated her and burned her body.
Police said they caught the four men — two truck drivers and their assistants — through CCTV footage and witnesses.
The suspects had been in custody for about a week as the young woman’s family, activists, ordinary citizens and powerful politicians called for them to be punished. Pressure was raised further after protests erupted in several cities and outrage over the young woman’s death swept across social media.
On Friday, as the news spread that all the suspects were dead, many people were quick to praise the police.
“I congratulate the Hyderabad police and the leadership that allows the police to act like police,” Rajyavardhan Rathore, a member of Parliament from the governing Bharatiya Janata Party, said in a Twitter post.
The victim’s family also seemed to approve of the men’s deaths.
“Justice has been done,” the victim’s mother said, according to the BBC. “I never thought we would get justice. No other girl should experience what my daughter did.”
Police officials said that two officers had been injured on Friday morning when the suspects tried to escape. When asked why they brought the men to the crime scene in the middle of the night, police officials said it was to protect them from enraged mobs who might have harmed them had the visit taken place in daytime.
Extrajudicial killings are common in India. The term for a police killing here is “encounter” and in recent years the Indian police have killed countless people in such encounters. Many of the killings are later revealed to have been staged or planned.
In Friday’s case, few people are expected to rally to the defense of the dead suspects. If the killings were staged, that might have been part of the calculation.
Amnesty International India said the killings raised “deeply disturbing questions about the state of justice in India.”
Mrs. Kumari, the director of the nonprofit research group, said, “Maybe people are happy today.”
“But tomorrow,” she added, “you can pick up any four people and kill them for any reason.”