DG Vanzara and the Culture of Fake Encounters: A Rapid Appraisal
K. S. Subramanian
[The writer, a former IPS officer, was a member of the Concerned Citizens’ Tribunal on Gujarat, 2002. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “Political Violence and the Police in India” (Sage, 2007).]
While the Constitution of India has erected an impressive edifice of fundamental rights and directive principles of state policy, the existence of colonial repressive legislations and oppressive police structures have prevented the Indian people from asserting their basic right to social justice. Custodial killings and extrajudicial executions emerge as easily available alternatives to the painstaking investigation and prosecution of cases by the police, who are empowered by lawless laws such as POTA and TADA. Human rights agencies perceive extrajudicial executions as virtually a part of state policy in India. The number of such executions in Andhra Pradesh is said to go into hundreds. Other states such as Gujarat and Jammu &Kashmir, not to speak of the northeastern region and the central tribal belt are not far behind.
The 2002 genocide in Gujarat witnessed massive violation of human rights by the state police who participated and facilitated the violence. ‘We have no orders to save you’, were the words used by many police officers when beseeched for help by the victims of violence. The Concerned Citizens’ Tribunal on Gujarat 2002 led by the former Supreme Court judge VR Krishna Iyer, documented the violence prodigiously and submitted a three volume report titled ‘Crime against Humanity”. The central and state governments were unmoved. The orders of the Supreme Court of India were required to compel the Gujarat government to reopen and investigate thousands of closed cases and arrest hundreds of culprits. However, the mysterious murder of Haren Pandya, a prominent minister in the Modi cabinet who had dared to depose before the Concerned Citizens Tribunal, remained unsolved.
The impunity and lack of accountability of the Indian police in dealing with political violence in the country today has become a major public policy issue as revealed by the VG Vanzara case in Gujarat and the earlier case of the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 in which the higher judiciary had come down heavily on the role of the police.
The dramatic revelations about the fake encounter killings led by super cop DG Vanzara must come as a confirmation of what has always been known about the happenings in Modi-dominated Gujarat, which are not yet fully documented. Vanzara is said to have carried out several earlier fake encounters as well. The remarkable feature in the present case is that the government of Gujarat itself has been compelled to admit before the Supreme Court the encounter killing of Sohrabuddin and the murder of his wife Kauser Bi. Consequently, super cop, DG Vanzara, and his associates Rajkumar Pandian and Dinesh Kumar have had to be placed under arrest much to the embarrassment of the Modi government. Geeta Johri, IG of police and Rajneesh Rai another officer of the same rank, seem to have done a commendable job. Maybe a fight between good cops and bad cops is already under way in the state police structure. Chief minister Narendra Modi and his deputy Amit Shah are said to be involved in a belated cover up operation.
The ‘anti-terrorist’ squad (ATS) of the state police led by DG Vanzara meticulously planned and carried out the fake encounter. The chilling details are now in the public domain. There are also hints linking the killings with a mafia of marble merchants in Rajasthan and the payment of huge sums of money for the services rendered. The Supreme Court of India has come into the picture thanks to a public interest litigation filed by the prime victim Sohrabuddin’s brother. Public interest litigation on 21 other fake encounter killings in Gujarat is also said to be before the Supreme Court. A strong case for an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is made out because any enquiry by a state police agency is bound to remain suspect and is liable to manipulation, especially in the context of allegations of involvement of top political authorities.
Other important features of the case are as follows. On a Supreme Court directive of January 2006, PC Pande, the Gujarat DG of police (who in his previous ‘avatar’ as Commissioner of Police, Ahmedabad, had remained famously inactive during the carnage of 2002), ordered, in mid-June 2006, a state CID probe to be conducted by Geeta Johri, IG. Sensing trouble, super cop Vanzara, assisted by his friends, hurried to eliminate Tulsiram Prajapati, associate of Sohrabuddin, still in police custody, in another fake encounter in conducted on December 28, 2006.
Further, it appears that while the order of the Court was dated January 21, 2006, Pande passed on the matter for enquiry to Geeta Johri only on June 7, 2006. The delay indicates scant regard for the highest court in the land on the part of the highest police authority in the state. Johri’s report to Pande, confirming the fake encounter, was dated December 7, 2006. Apparently, Pande did not report back to the Supreme Court. A letter from the Solicitor General, New Delhi, addressed to his counterpart in Gujarat, was needed to obtain a copy of the report from Pande, which was then submitted to the Supreme Court. On December 18 2006, a projected journey by Geeta Johri and some of officers to Hyderabad in connection with the enquiry was stopped. The papers relating to the case were taken away by her boss.
Earlier on January 30 2006, Amit Shah, home minister working under Narendra Modi, reportedly called a meeting of the DGP and other officers connected with the enquiry including Geeta Johri, to impress upon them that Kausar Bi was not a legally wedded wife of Sohrabuddin and had escaped to Pakistan, being a Pakistani national. Later, the Additional DGP (CID) asked the IG (CID) not to register an FIR in the case without his permission. The supervision of the case was transferred to another Additional DGP. This officer entrusted the case to Rajneesh Rai who ordered the arrest of Vanzara and his associates.
The Supreme Court has ruled out a CBI enquiry, deeming the CID enquiry to be adequate.
It is interesting that super cop Vanzara should cite ‘deshbhakti’ (‘devotion to the nation’) as his reason for eliminating people like Sohrabuddin allegedly linked to the Pakistani ISI and a terrorist outfits across the border. This is reminiscent of Davinder Singh, Deputy Superintendent of the Special Task Force (STF) of the J&K police, admitting on TV that the he had tortured Mohammed Afzal, prime accused in the Parliament attack case of 2001, that torture is the remedy for terrorism and that he had tortured Afzal and others for the sake of the ‘nation’. Such ‘nationalist’ sentiments are quite widespread in the police forces. Perhaps popular cinema has contributed to such sentiments! Perhaps love of money, sex, promotions and medals also motivate some men in the police force. Super cop Vanzara’s palatial residence, photographed by the press, tells its own tale!
A perverse form of devotion to the ‘nation’ also appears to motivates many policemen to justify the killing of so called ‘Naxalites’ in fake encounters, most of whom are poor peasants and agricultural laborers from the dalit and adivasi communities! Since the Naxalites do not believe in rule of law, the police also do not need to follow rule of law norms, argue many policemen during training interactions. Government approval for such killings often comes in the shape of the awards of medals to ‘meritorious’ policemen who eliminate the Naxalite threat to the Indian nation. During a training session on ‘social tensions’ at a rural development training institute, some ‘surrendered Naxalites’ had been invited to participate. One of them began by narrating experiences of police torture in graphic detail. The atmosphere in the training hall became tense. Suddenly, a woman IPS officer in uniform, a participant from an adjoining police training organization, burst out and shouted at the Naxalites: “when I hear you people talk like this, I wish I had brought my revolver”! Later, when questioned by me, the officer said that she was serving the ‘nation’ and it annoyed her to hear Naxalite ‘anti-nationals’ attacking the ‘nation’ in the name of police torture! This seems to be a fairly representative view not only in the police organization but also in the larger society. Look at the support super cop Vanzara is getting from some sections of the civil society as well from policemen! Such nationalism often merges these days with the Islamophobia practiced by some Western countries.
Official reports often tend to under-estimate the number of ‘Naxalites’ killed in fake encounters. In a major incident of violence in a south Indian state, the number of those killed was said to be 12 by state and central intelligence agencies while field investigations revealed a much larger number. The police officer responsible for the killings was later recommended by the state government for the award of a gallantry medal by the president of India! In another case in a north Indian state, the number of those killed in a series of incidents of violent encounter was said by be 12 by both state and central intelligence agencies but the Chief Secretary of the state when summoned to the Union Home Ministry, revealed that over 60 persons had been killed and that none of them had been a Naxalite!
The British had had no illusions about the Indian police when they set about recreating a police structure after the uprising of 1857. They clearly stated: “The police in India are all but useless for the prevention of crime, sadly inefficient in its detection and are authoritarian in the exercise of the power vested in them. They have, moreover, a generalized reputation for corruption and oppression’. This description fully fits the present day Indian police. The institution of the District Magistrate (DM), set up by the British, who controlled the police mechanism by overseeing criminal justice administration in the district, has now ceased to exist. The DM today is mainly concerned with development administration. The colonial Indian police, modeled on the Irish colonial paramilitary police, with its undemocratic political-organizational features have continued. The rulers of independent India have done no more than follow their predecessors in maintaining the present system of maintenance of ‘order with or without law’ and collection of political intelligence against their opponents, neglecting the investigation, detection and prosecution of cases.