News related to encounters is quite common, particularly from conflict prone areas in the country. These often get reported from areas such as Kashmir, Chhattisgarh, Nagaland, Assam and Manipur. Sometimes the news related to encounters become controversial. There is an official version which describes these as ‘genuine encounters’. On the other side, human rights organizations based on certain factual errors of the official version sometimes question it and define it as ‘fake encounters’ or ‘staged encounters’. While the larger sections of the middle class habituated to mainstream media tend to buy the official version, they tend to see the versions provided by human rights groups as anti-state and pro-insurgents.
Large sections of middle class either tend not to accept the reality of ‘fake or staged encounters’ or consider that excesses by armed forces are for tackling terrorism or for the integrity of the nation. The book titled ‘Blood on my Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters’ by Kishalay Bhattarcharjee based on first hand observations through reporting on encounters and discussions with insiders from the armed forces, shows how these are often ‘fake or staged encounters’. Not only so but it also shows how they are also quite organized and a reward system is attached to the same. Hence there is an incentivising for the commitment of excesses.
The book begins at the backdrop of 2004 where a Police officer posted in Assam-Bhutan border is approached by a young army officer for a favour. The favour is for supply of a person who can be killed to complete the quota of killings. The army officer had killed two instead of his actual reportage of three and is seen to describing it as overdraft. The police officer assures that he can collect his advance in the riverside the next day. Advance is nothing but a person who will be supplied to the army officer so that he can be killed. The person may or may not be an actual militant.
The author cautions that a racket of carrying out killings has emerged within the conflict atmosphere and has taken deep roots. In the name of fighting terrorism, the police, paramilitary and armed forces such as the Army, the Border security force (BSF), the Central Reserve Police force (CRPF) and other vigilante groups are given excessive powers and made immune from punishment. They are provided immunity through acts such as Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA), Disturbed Areas Act, National Security Act, Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA), Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), Unlawful Activities prevention Act and such similar acts in States. A reward system has also been put into place. These are encouraging a system of state sanctioned killings usually described as encounters.
The author states that most of the encounters are not genuine. Encounter is only to suggest there was exchange of fire. The official version is only a cover up for ‘fake encounters’, ‘staged encounters’ and ‘extra judicial killings’. Media reportage of such events only tends to be extensions of official versions.
The book cites finer details of an example of Rehman Miah, a Bangladeshi migrant who was in search of a livelihood to India and became a victim of an organised network of killing. This is based on a revelation of an anonymous army officer. Officially, the victim was described as one among the seven Huji terrorists killed. It is pointed that groups such as HUJI and MULTA are creations of Assam police and army.
The author argues that reward system associated with killing is contributing to an environment of state managed killings. The performance of army personal is usually measured through a points system. In this point system, everything has a point right from ensuring surrender to even killings. The personnel aim to achieve those points for getting the necessary monetary and non-monetary benefits. The monetary benefits could be cash and non-monetary benefits awards and promotions. Killings and surrenders are stage managed. In the process innocents become victims. Even where the state talks of a humanitarian approach of winning hearts and minds in conflict zones through projects such as Sadhbhavana, these are linked to the performance of the unit. These again are dependent on fake killings and surrenders. A Mafia also operates which supply armed forces people for either surrender or killing. There is a price tag for the same. State police also play their role in drawing in drawing the list of people who can be killed in encounters, which happens in cooperation with the mafia. The victims may never have held guns throughout their lives. Once killed, they are photographed with guns, arms and foreign currency. The likely victims would be unaccounted persons such as itinerant labourers, beggars, and illegal immigrants. Such picks are considered to be safe. An underworld of agents operates in identifying, listing and supplying such people to armed forces for killings. The state police assist in the process. An underworld of illegal arms dealers flourish in such atmosphere.
The underworld mafia in the borders operate in a manner that all forms of illegal activities prevail. There are instances of Bangladeshi girls looking for better life ending up in Indian brothels. In the underworld activity, everybody is involved. Illegal activities of all sorts prevail such as illegal trafficking, drug money, timber smuggling. All these operate in coordination with state agencies.
The author also provides historical instances of excesses. During the peak of Naxal uprising, lot of anecdotes related to ‘extra judicial’ killings formed part of collective memory in Bengal. Many thousands were found ‘disappeared ‘or ‘missing’. Insurgency prone Punjab witnessed a similar thing in the 1980’s. The killing of an editor of a Newspaper (Saroj Dutta) and sister of a Naxal (Archana Guha) or killing of civilians (Sanjit and Rabina) happen only in this immune free environment. Supreme Court in 2013 ordered an enquiry into 1,528 fake encounters in Manipur. The commission of enquiry in Manipur found many instances of ‘fake and staged encounters’ as that of Orsonjit, Kiranjit, Umakanta, Proyobrata and Nobo. Such killings happen through constructing an image of terrorist for the potential pickout. One such instance was that of Abdur Rehman who was described as Pakistani commander in Lashkar-e-toiba in Kashmir. In reality he was a carpenter and had no linkage with militancy. Sometimes even children become victims as that of a twelve year old Mohammad Azad in Manipur.
In the name of counterinsurgency, the author states that the state may also play one against the other. It may recruit Special police officers (SPOs) from within Adivasi to kill other Adivasi as in Chhattisgarh. It may use surrendered ULFA militants (SULFA) against the ULFA cadres. The surrendered militants are used to eliminate people. The strategy of secret killings is adopted. The state legitimizes the death, and society – which is itself a victim – ostracizes the family of the victim. The personal in the forces rarely suffer consequences of their actions. Once a killing takes place a story is created around the same.
There is social disruption as a result. Cleavages occur within a society and community. An atmosphere of deep distrust and insecurity is created. In the name of counter-insurgency villages get uprooted as had happened in Mizoram, people get pitted one against the other, one militant group against the other, one ethnic group against the other.
Despite the rotten system, the author points that there are exceptions. There have been personal who have followed their conscience. They have not joined the ranks of taking up state sponsored killings. As a result, they have been harassed, demoted, involuntarily transferred for standing against fake encounters.
The book is an essential reading for persons interested in human rights issues. It exposes the reality happening in the name of countering terrorism. It also helps in understanding the situation prevalent in conflict prone regions and the vulnerable situation of the potential victims, who may lose their lives despite being unconnected to militancy.
Name of the Book: Blood on my Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters
Author: Kishalay Bhattacharjee
Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers India
Year of Publication: 2015
T. Navin works with an NGO as a Researcher. He did his M.Phil from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).