Encounters Are Murders
By Bernard D'Mello
14 September, 2009
Inquiries by magistrates into "police encounter" killings in India have mostly corroborated the police version of the situation and reality leading to the deaths. But the Ahmedabad metropolitan magistrate S P Tamang's investigation of the facts and circumstances leading to the deaths of 19-year olds Ishrat Jahan and Javed Sheikh and two others (25-year old Amjad Ali, alias Salim, and 17-year old Jisan Johar, alias Abdul Gani, claimed by the police to be Pakistani citizens, but their identity is yet to be established) in June 2004 are totally at odds with the Ahmedabad police and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Gujarat government's claims. The police officers involved, going by the magistrate's report, had concocted the story that the four were "operatives" of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) on a mission to assassinate the chief minister, Narendra Modi, but were apprehended by the crime branch police, and shot dead in a "real" encounter on the outskirts of the city in the wee hours of the morning on 15 June 2004.
Based mainly on evidence from the forensic and post-mortem reports, Tamang has dismissed the police claim and established that the deaths were "cold-blooded murders" in police custody carried out by a set of crime branch police personnel, headed by the then additional commissioner of police, D G Vanzara, during the day before. The crime branch policemen then brought the bodies near the Kotarpur Water Works on the outskirts of the city in the late night/early morning when there were no witnesses around, planted weapons (AK-56) and ammunition, and thus tried to establish the cause of the deaths. Incidentally, Vanzara, a favourite of chief minister Modi, is presently in jail as the main accused in another murder (a staged encounter on 26 November 2005), that of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, and later on, killing his wife Kausarbi and burning her body to remove all traces of that crime.
"Police encounter" as a term seems to have originated in the Indian subcontinent, used by the Indian police, paramilitary, military and other security forces to explain the death of an individual whom they have killed, deemed by them to be a dreaded criminal, gangster/outlaw, terrorist, and/or Maoist/Naxalite. It is a planned extra-judicial killing not authorised by the law or by a court of law, in most cases, staged by planting weapons alongside the dead body to indicate the reason why the person was killed. A first information report is lodged against the dead person reiterating the police version of events. So it was in the case of Ishrat Jahan, Javed Sheikh and the two others.
Ishrat Jahan was a second-year BSc student of Mumbai's Guru Nanak Khalsa College, and a resident of Mumbra, a distant Mumbai suburb, whose family was in dire straits after her father passed away two years before her own death. She supported the family (she had three sisters and two brothers), now headed by her mother, Shamima, giving tuitions to a batch of 20 school kids at her home. And, to make ends meet, she had additionally taken on the job of a "sales girl" in Javed Sheikh's business. A spirited young woman, she was determined to see her two younger sisters and two younger brothers through school and college. But then, quite inexplicably, according to Tamang's report, on 12 June 2004 she and Javed, her employer, were picked up by the Ahmedabad crime branch cops, illegally detained, taken to Ahmedabad and cold-bloodedly shot dead at close range in police custody (Ishrat between 23:00 and 24:00 hrs, and Javed between 20:30 and 21:00 hrs, on 14 June 2004).
The judiciary in the state of Gujarat has been totally paralysed in the aftermath of the 2002 pogroms against Muslims, but it now seems to be recovering. In this, the Supreme Court has been supportive, but not the Congress-led government at the Centre, which has been largely unconcerned about the plight of the victims of the pogrom. A union home ministry affidavit filed in the Gujarat High Court -- in relation to a writ petition brought by Israt Jahan's mother, Shamina, pleading for a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the facts and circumstances leading to the killings -- agrees with the Gujarat government that the four persons were members of the LeT and sides with it in its stand that no CBI inquiry is warranted in the case. There is no doubt that both the BJP and the Congress continuously vie with each other to prove who is more patriotic; and here, patriotism means who is more anti-Pakistan. Indeed, although the lone terrorist captured in the 26/11 2008 Mumbai attacks, Ajmal Amir Kasab, has admitted his guilt, the powers-that-be have decided to go on with the trial, using it as an anti-Pakistan political platform. We do not know in what context Samuel Johnson said that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel", but my first editor, the late Samar Sen, who edited the Kolkata weekly, Frontier, used to say that a particular assortment of rogues resort to it at the first instance. In the branding of Ishrat Jahan and the three others as "terrorists", what is roguishly being implied is that in the case of terrorists linked to Pakistan it is permissible, indeed necessary, to sidestep the required judicial processes of investigation and trial and punish them by death right away.
To be fair to the BJP-led government in Gujarat, encounters are an all-India phenomenon. Indeed, they happen even in the nation's capital -- for instance, the Batla House encounter on 19 September last year, in which two young men were killed by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police, which claims that the victims were "operatives" of the Indian Mujahedeen, allegedly responsible for the Delhi serial blasts. In this case, the National Human Rights Commission went by the police version, ignoring the independent civil liberties organisations' findings and what the local residents had to say.1
Truly, independent India has not yet made a break from its colonial past. Just as the British colonialists put in place a repressive legal structure to deal with the nationalist struggle for independence and called the latter's militant section terrorist, maintaining all kinds of repressive sections on the statute book to deal with the Non-cooperation, Civil Disobedience and Quit India movements, the present rulers have continued in the same vein as far as the Maoist movement is concerned, as also with respect to the nationalist movements in Kashmir and the northeast. The bulk of the encounter killings are to be found in the districts where the Maoist movement is active and in the areas of nationalist militancy. Recent fake encounter cases come to mind, for instance, in the forest village of Singaram in Dantewada district of Chahattisgarh where on January 8 this year 19 persons were cold-bloodedly murdered by special police officers, the government falsely claiming that it was in an encounter with the Maoists. A more recent case is the "encounter" killing of the unarmed Sanjit Chongkham by the Manipuri Rapid Action Police Force commandos on July 23 in broad daylight in Imphal, 500 metres from the state assembly, captured vividly on camera and published in Tehelka (8 August 2009).
It seems that the Indian state has only become more brutal and ruthless since the dark days of the Emergency period (from 25 June 1975 to 21 March 1977, when the country was ruled by decree and civil liberties were suspended). One recalls with horror the encounter killings in Andhra Pradesh, a few of which were investigated in detail by the committee (set up by Jayaprakash Narayan, as president of the Citizens for Democracy) headed by V M Tarkunde, due mainly to the painstaking work done by K G Kannabiran as member-secretary and a group of committed civil liberties activists. But were the accused who killed young Naxalites/Maoists in cold blood -- claiming falsely that the latter were killed in encounters (that had never taken place) -- ever tried and punished for murder? Was the principle of ministerial responsibility and that of the collective responsibility of the cabinet ever respected? The country is still facing the grim consequences of those serious, to put it in official parlance, omissions and commissions. For then, the old adage, "impunity breeds contempt for the law", began to apply and such scorn for the legal code got into the very lifeblood of the wielders of repressive political power.
There are no reliable statistics on police encounters at the all-India level, but, for the state of Andhra Pradesh, the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC) has recorded roughly 1,800 encounter deaths between 1997 and 2007. In a February 2009 judgment in an APCLC case related to encounter killings, the Andhra High Court emphasised that, in all instances of encounter deaths at the hands of the police, an independent investigation must be conducted, wherein the plea of self-defence must be reserved to be established only at the stage of trial. But the Andhra Pradesh Police Association (APPA) appealed against this in the Supreme Court, which was quick to grant an ex parte stay on the high court order.2 The entire civil liberties movement, represented by organisations like the APCLC, the Delhi-based People's Union for Democratic Rights, and many such state and local area-based leagues are now anxiously awaiting the judgment of the highest court in the land: Will the Supreme Court uphold the APPA's petition, which highlights the great challenge the police claims it faces in combating the "Maoist threat", and thereby make it even more difficult for the civil liberties organisations to legally challenge each case of encounter killing and the version that the police dishes out?3 All the same, the title of the Tarkunde report, Encounters Are Murders, needs reiteration in the present ambience of "cultivated ignorance" in the sphere of "governance" that brushes off extra-judicial killings as mere aberrations. That encounters are murders also needs restating in the context of the pathological, persistent mendacity in public life in India and the absurd claim of po-mos that each "narrative" is as true as the other.
1 Go to petitiononline.com:80/jtsa2009/petition.html for an open letter to the prime minister of India, demanding a judicial probe into the Batla House "encounter".
2 "Position Paper on Encounters", XXIV Ramanadham Memorial Meeting, Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee and People's Union for Democratic Rights, at www.pudr.org.
3 Press Release of the Coordination of Democratic Rights' Organisations on "Encounters" at www.pudr.org.
Bernard D'Mello is deputy editor, Economic & Political Weekly, Mumbai, India.