Fake Encounters and Farcical Probes

Manisha Sethi

Few words have the propensity of slipping so easily, unquestioned, into public consciousness as the term ‘encounter’. Part of public discourse now, it has come to mean elimination of gangsters, mafia, insurgents, naxals, terrorists, by the police and security forces. Celebrated in popular culture and media as the only—if extra judicial—means available to the security forces to combat crime and anti-nationals in a largely uneven fight. Public debates over such extra judicial killings then tend to polarise over whether the encounter was ‘fake’ or genuine—the genuineness of the encounter being proved by the ‘guilt’ of the killed party. If it can be safely established that the person killed belonged to any of the categories mentioned above, the killers in uniform are worthy of gallantry awards and merit promotions. Increasingly, the ‘guilt’ is self-evidentiary. Kashmiris, Muslims, tribals, adivasis, peoples of the Northeast are all eminently ‘encounterable’ in that their guilt can be proven beyond doubt by referring to their racial/ religious/ regional/ demographic profile alone.  
Two cases exemplify this perfectly. Take the most recent case of the murder of Sanjit and a pregnant woman in broad daylight in the heart of Imphal, barely metres away from the Manipur State Assembly by the Manipur Police Commandoes. The brutal and unprovoked killing fuelled mass anger in the state and the state government responded by crackdown and arrests of agitators demanding judicial enquiry. Chief Minister Ibobi stated that Sanjit was a member of the PLA (whereas he had retired several years ago and had been given a clean chit by the court), and that in fact he was killed in a shootout. His lies were however nailed by the publication of photographic evidence appearing in Tehelka which clearly showed how the youth was unarmed and shot in cold blood by the MPC. It is to be noted that the killings occurred in West Imphal, where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is currently not in operation. However, the protracted presence of a brutal law, which endorses killing on mere suspicion, and grants legal immunity to armed forces has created a climate where killings are condoned, even accepted, and has emboldened police commandoes, who function outside the ambit of AFSPA.
Prior to this, a team of the Special Cell of the Delhi Police raided a flat in a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood of Batla House, killed two students, Atif Ameen and Md. Sajid, and declared them to be dreaded Indian Mujahideen ‘masterminds’. The local residents and civil rights activists pulled holes in the police theory, took to the streets, petitioned the National Human Rights Commission to ensure that its guidelines of encounter killings were followed, demanded a judicial enquiry—but all attempts for a fair and independent enquiry were stalled by the UPA government.
The manner in which the Indian State and the mainstream political parties have responded to the encounters in Manipur and Batla House was in striking contrast to the reaction to the shooting down of a young man in Dehradun last month. While the ‘secular’ Congress put its weight behind the mass anger in Uttarakhand, joining the peoples’ demand for fair probe and crying foul over human rights violation, the BJP not to be left behind in the Human Rights race sent its emissary in the form of BJP President’s and Ghaziabad MP’s son to the family of the slain youth to reassure them that the probe into the encounter would be fair and independent, without the involvement of the accused Dehradun Police. A CB-CID enquiry was promptly ordered and all police men involved in the shootout charged for murder.
In Manipur, the Chief Minister continued to peddle fabricated reports casting aspersions on the slain youth, while not a single member of the legislative assembly, not even from the opposition, chose to voice solidarity with the demand for judicial enquiry into Sanjit’s killing. Recall also the jingoist hysteria created by Congress and BJP alike, aided by a section of pliant media, in which all calls for independent and impartial enquiry in the Batla House encounter were branded as unpatriotic and downright insulting of the bravery of Special Cell cops.  The Congress, which today preens on the retrieval of its minority vote, persistently bulldozed all demands for a probe into the Batla House ‘encounter’. So much so, that even the simple, procedural requirement for a magisterial enquiry was subverted through the Lieutenant Governor, who refused to grant permission for an enquiry on flimsy grounds.
And what of the NHRC, which was conceived as an independent custodian of the human rights of this country’s citizens? Knowing full well from the start that the Delhi Police was flagrantly violating its guidelines on encounter killings by refusing to register cases against the members of the police party that raided the Batla House flat, familiar with the non cooperation of the Delhi Police in submitting reports to the NHRC, cognizant of the doubts being raised by civil rights groups over the police account of the encounter, the NHRC still chose not to initiate an independent enquiry on its own, till pushed to do so by the High Court. But its blatantly partisan conclusions, pronouncing the Delhi Police of any foul play have only served to sully its image as a propaganda arm of the Indian State. The NHRC’s investigations into the police action on 19th September are based on evidences provided by those accused of encounter alone.  The Commission’s enquiry is based on the responses of the following officers of the Delhi Police:
1) R.P. Upadhayay, Additional Commissioner of Police, Vigilance;
2) Satish Chandra, Special Commissioner of Police (Vigilance), Delhi;
3) Neeraj Thakur, DCP (Crime & Rly.), Delhi;
4) Karnail Singh, Joint Commissioner of Police, Special Cell, Delhi.
As it appears from the Report, the Commission did not even bother to pay a visit to the Batla House locality and Flat No. 108, L-18, the site of the said encounter. There has been no attempt to collect the versions of the eyewitnesses, neighbours or relatives of those killed. The Fact-finding reports of various civil rights groups including the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association, JTSA’s Encounter at Batla House: Unanswered Questions, a damning indictment of the police version with corroborative evidence has been given no cognizance. Applications filed by individuals from Azamgarh wishing to depose before the Commission were ignored and not even acknowledged.
The Commission also cites the post mortem reports of the deceased, which have thus far been treated as state secrets. While wounds suffered by the slain police officer has been provided with great detail such as the places in the body where bullet injuries were found, their impact, ‘entry and exit points’ etc. Even the injury suffered in the arm by injured Constable Balwant Singh carries all this information but the same treatment is curiously absent in the case of Atif and Sajid, the slain ‘terrorists’. It mentions the injuries and bullet entry wounds on Atif’s and Sajid’s bodies but refuses to consider the fact that Sajid had several bullet wounds on his forehead and head regions, which suggests that he was shot while made to crouch or squat.
Further, in both Atif and Sajid’s case, the postmortem report mentions ‘several ante-mortem injuries including firearm wounds’. This only suggests that there were at least a few ‘non-firearm wound’. In what circumstances were these caused? The enquiry team provides us with no explanation. In the absence of any description, the suspicion that they could have been tortured before being encountered gets strengthened.
In the police’s defence, it cites the serological report which says that the blood group matching that of Atif, Sajid and Balwant Singh (the police man who was injured in the 19th September operation) was found on the floor, gate, drawing room, walls, gate and furniture of the flat No. L-18. So what does this prove or disprove? Except that two people were killed and another injured. But most interestingly, it does not mention at all whether the blood matching the blood group of Inspector Sharma was found in the flat.
This is glaring as the Commission’s report in the very next few paragraphs confidently corroborates the police version that a “volley of bullets was fired on the police team as soon as it entered Flat no 108, L-18 through the side gate. …” If Balwant Singh was “also with Inspector Sharma” and sustained bullet injuries leading to the spilling of blood mentioned in the serological report, how is the serological report completely silent on the blood of Inspector Sharma?
The weapons which killed Inspector Sharma, W/2 and W/3, according the Commission, belonged to no one in the police party, and were therefore quite obviously it concludes, the possessions of the slain youth, Atif and Sajid. The NHRC here places an implicit faith in the Delhi Police, and chooses to ignore what the civil rights activists have been saying from day one, that no panchnama or seizure list was prepared in the presence of any independent witnesses, as is procedurally required.
It also refuses to comment on questions being raised on the police claim that two alleged terrorists escaped during the operation, declaring it to be beyond the scope of its enquiry. In fact, it seems to be accepting the police version that ‘each flat has two doors and a crowd had gathered outside at the time when the exchange of fire was on’. Going by the police version the NHRC concludes, ‘in the melee it was possible for some persons to escape’. But the contradiction in the police report itself is not taken note wherein it is claimed that while Inspector Sharma led a few staff inside the building, the rest of the team members were guarding the ground floor. Now, had the NHRC team visited the site, it would have noticed that even if the flats have two gates, but the entry gate to the building is only one, on the ground floor and that was being manned by the police party. The residents of the other flats had been told to stay inside, but this again could be gathered only if the NHRC team had recorded the eyewitness accounts. How could it be possible for the two alleged ‘terrorists’ to flee?
The NHRC has conveniently skirted all uncomfortable questions in its urgent rush to declare the innocence of the Delhi Police. Coming as it does, in the wake of the botched-up enquiry into the Shopian rape and murder case, raises serious doubts over the credibility of enquiry commissions and bodies such as the NHRC. 
Earlier this year, the Andhra Pradesh High Court passed what would have been a landmark judgment with wide reaching implications. A five-judge bench headed by Chief Justice A.R. Dave, refusing to comment on the genuineness of encounters held that all policemen involved in any encounter be booked for culpable homicide and their details be made public. The bench adjudged that an encounter should swiftly be followed by the filing of a First Investigation Report against the policemen involved, and investigations should be launched to establish the genuineness of the claims that the encounter was an act in self defence. This was primarily a reiteration of the NHRC guidelines which are flouted routinely. However, even before the civil rights activists could celebrate this victory, the Supreme Court, responding to a petition by the AP Police Officers’ Association, ordered a stay on the judgment. Harish Salve, the counsel for the Police Officers’ Association argued that fixing culpability of individual officers would prevent the police officers from countering terrorist or subversive elements—implying that extra judicial killings be sanctioned and legitimised.

The real question however remains, can a democracy afford to condone such killings and to fete killers, even in the name of fighting terrorism or insurgency; can a State, which will soon celebrate 60 years of turning a Republic, be allowed to turn predatory upon large sections of its own citizenry, without trial and due processes of law?

Protest Day Demanding Freedom from Encounter Killings

Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association, All India Students’ Association (AISA), and Campaign for Peace and Democracy, Manipur (CPDM) called for a National Day of Protest on 14 August 2009, on the eve of Independence Day, calling for freedom from the continuing trend of ‘encounter’ killings by state forces in the name of ‘national security’ and ‘war against terror’.

Demanding Freedom from Fake Encounters on the Eve of Independence Day

Protestors assembled at the ITO crossing and marched to the Delhi Police Headquarters carrying an arthi (bier) of state terrorism.