The world’s largest democracy witnessed its police force killing 25 of its citizens in two encounters in Andhra Pradesh. “Encounters”, for the uninitiated, are a euphemism for killing unarmed civilians in staged gun battles. The police version of both the alleged encounters is such that it could be laughed-off had they not been about the deaths of civilians.
The police version of the first encounter is that newly formed Red-sanders Anti-Smuggling Task Force spotted footprints of the “smugglers” and came across around 100 of them felling trees in the Seshachalam Forest at the foot of the Tirumala Hills. Members of the Task Force challenged them to surrender, but the woodcutters responded by pelting stones. The Task Force in turn responded to the raining stones by firing randomly at the woodcutters, which led to death of 20 of them; the rest ran away. “We fired random shots in self-defence”, a taskforce member told the national daily The Hindu on condition of anonymity.
Yes, you have read it right. A “random firing” in response to stone pelting has resulted in the death of 20 woodcutters. One wonders what could have been the toll had the Force targeted the woodcutters in self-defense. Let us forget how disproportionate it is to use bullets for stones, even if the stones were “raining” down. The alleged encounter took place in a jungle after all and trees could have given ample protection till the Task Force was able to gather itself. But then, Indian law enforcers are used to responding to stones with bullets, for instance in Kashmir in 2010, where 112 people were killed. This included many teenagers and an 11-year-old boy. An uncanny question about this encounter is why the Task Force did not arrest a single person from amongst the remaining 80 or so smugglers. So, not even “dead or alive”, the motto seems to have been “dead or nothing” or “take no prisoners”.
If one finds this one strange, wait till you catch up on the details of the second encounter. This one took place in a jail van, where 17 security force members were taking 5 undertrials from Warangal Jail to a Hyderabad court 150 km away. Yes, you read this right too. This encounter happened inside a jail van with all of the undertrials killed, while unarmed and handcuffed to their seats. The police claims, as per a news channel NDTV that Vikaruddin Ahmed, one of the undertrials, asked to be released in order for him to answer nature’s call. Upon his return he tried to snatch a weapon. The police opened fire when other undertrials allegedly tried to snatch weapons too and this led to all of them getting killed!
How could Vikaruddin Ahmed attempt to snatch a weapon from the security personnel, as undertrials are never let-off alone, not even to use the toilet? As standard operating procedure, security personnel always escort undertrials. Furthermore, even if he did attempt to snatch weaponry, how come a 17-member security force failed to overpower him without firing? Were not remaining four, as per their own claims, still handcuffed and unarmed? Finally, while it is impossible to believe this uncanny and highly improbable story, why exactly did the police need to kill the other four undertrials?
The answers to all these questions are rather simple. The victims in the first case were poor tribal youth caught not only in between lucrative offers of easy money but also interstate (and interlingua) rivalries between the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. That they were not real smugglers but merely coolies for the smuggling mafia that enjoys state patronage on both sides of the border is something immaterial for the police, which could shoot them with impunity but will never dare to touch real smugglers. What should be really bothersome, however, is the way almost all of the Indian media carried the story, parroting the police version, including calling those dead smugglers. Most media houses did not bat an eyelid to ask the obvious: why fire on people pelting stones and how come the Force could not arrest a single person.
Victims of the second encounter came from another persecuted minority of India. They were accused of being members of a local terror outfit Tehreek-Ghalba-e-Islam and were suspected of various attacks on the police in Hyderabad, as well as plotting the murder of Narendra Modi, now Prime Minister of India. They were in jail since 2010. In this case too, the media did the same. A few of reports went to the extent of claiming that the gunning down had foiled a terror plot against Mr. Modi. Only later did the skeletons come tumbling out of the closet. The pictures showing the “terrorists” slain while still being handcuffed to their seats make it nearly impossible for the media to keep parroting the police version.
Security forces eliminating people in custody or with impunity in “encounters” is one of the worst kept secrets of India. The Supreme Court, in its order in Criminal Appeal No.1255 OF 1999, has called such killings nothing less than “state sponsored terrorism”. The Court had done so despite recognising the fact that policemen are indeed required to “take to take drastic action against criminals to protect life and property of the people and to protect themselves against attack.” And yet, it set stringent guidelines to be followed as standard operating procedure in cases of encounters. The guidelines begin from the point of a tip off that can lead to such encounters to video-graphing the post-mortem of individuals that happen to die in the process of police work.
What, however, is a Supreme Court order worth that carries no weight for the police. Let us forget the second encounter, as it is simply too frivolous to be true, and check the facts of the first one. Did the Task Force record the tip-off in any diary? Did it file the mandatory FIR following the encounter and forward it to the court under Section 157 of the Code without any delay? Were any of the guidelines fulfilled so that an independent inquiry could reveal facts about the deaths? One of the guidelines requires an investigation by the Crime Investigation Department or a different police station by an officer at least one rank above the involved officer does not make much sense as officers from whatever stations but same police force investigating an encounter is like asking the accused to investigate himself.
The efficacy of a magisterial inquiry, another guideline set by the Court order, is exposed by the one that was conducted in the custodial killing of Thangjam Manorama, a Manipuri village girl, in 2004. The report of the judicial inquiry commission, led by C. Upendra Singh, retired District and Sessions Judge, Manipur, was submitted in December the same year and was never made public until November 2014. The report indicted personnel of 17 Assam Rifles for “brutal and merciless torture” of Ms. Manorama. Yet this has not resulted in the prosecution of any of the accused and the compensation to the family of the victim. Going by the evidence available, the fate of magisterial enquiries, even those that have fulfilled their mandate, cannot be drastically different in other such cases.
This begets another question: are Indian citizens cursed to live with the danger of getting killed by someone obligated to protect their person and property? They may fear more if they come from vulnerable sections of the society. But should they fear less even if they do not?
Till someone takes the responsibility of reforming the criminal justice system of the country all Indians are in danger. A cruel, violent, and unjust system harbouring criminals in uniform will hurt one and all. The Executive is not interested in any such reform as this system serves its interests well. Will the Judiciary take onus to enforce its orders? And, will the civil society of India understand that having good laws and court orders is not real protection for the marginalized or even the mainstream population in such a criminal justice system?
The author is a Programme Coordinator, Right to Food, AHRC, Hong Kong.