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Close encounters

A nation aspiring to greatness can’t condone police executions. Beyond the BJP’s outrage and the Congress’ outraged innocence, there is a moral crisis that India must address. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Jul 28, 2010 23:35 IST
Samar Halarnkar

When the powerful fall, they never go quietly.

And so it is as Gujarat Minister of State for Home Amit Shah enjoys his home-cooked khichdi in Sabarmati Central Jail, where a certain Mahatma Gandhi was once incarcerated. Outside, Shah’s BJP noisily accuses the government of being, at best, partisan; at worst, unpatriotic.

Let’s address the allegation of partisanship first.

If history is any indication, the BJP is not far off the mark. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has displayed enough servility to fit the BJP’s derisive abbreviation — Congress Bureau of Investigation.

This time, the CBI’s officers are reporting to the Supreme Court, and their 30,000-page chargesheet against Shah reveals a sordid world of corrupt builders, rich marble traders, rogue police officers, shadowy politicians and extortionists — each dependent on the other in an intricate dance of greed and power. In the coming days, we will know if cellphone records, depositions from Shah’s imprisoned former police associates, and a sting video of builders planning to fix evidence prove the CBI’s allegations.

Let’s take a look at the BJP’s other argument: that Sohrabuddin Sheikh, the extortionist-who-grew-too-big-for-his-boots and was allegedly bumped off by the police on Shah’s orders, was a ‘terrorist’. Sheikh was Muslim, and there appears to be no evidence he was anything more than a criminal. The BJP makes no such allegation about Sheikh’s partner, Tulsiram Prajapati, also allegedly slain by the police.

In any case, the BJP line continues, is the life of an extortionist and ‘terrorist’ more important than the careers of ‘patriotic’ police officers, some of them decorated, and a minister?

Asked BJP president Nitin Gadkari: “What kind of a nation have we become?”

Indeed, what kind of a nation have we become?

We are now a nation sliding inexorably towards becoming a police State, where torture and extra-judicial killings are virtually accepted as crime-fighting techniques and to settle private scores. The Amit Shah affair is an unholy mix of these imperatives.

The Indian euphemism for police executions is the gentler ‘encounter killings’. When I was in college, I was so ignorant of such executions — despite a father in the police — that I always pictured a criminal wildly firing at brave officers, who reluctantly returned fire. I did wonder at the precision with which such criminals were taken down, usually with no injury to the police. But my blind faith in the police as an institution helped obscure such questions.

It is a blindness that threatens Indian democracy. As most police officers — even the honest ones, and there are many — will tell you, we may feel horror at torture and extra-judicial killings, but if my home has been burgled, or my son killed, I want the suspect to pay, never mind if he’s hung upside down and administered electric shocks or burned with cigarette butts. We want justice; we just don’t want to see how it’s achieved.

It is a blindness that impedes emerging India’s forays into the first world. No nation that aspires to greatness can continue with a criminal justice edifice built on torture and execution.

Too often have we seen ‘encounter specialists’, as usually feted and decorated officers who specialise in executions are called, sink so deep into a quicksand of immorality that there is no hope of extrication.

In March this year, eight officers of the Special Task Force (STF) of the Haryana Police were arrested and the STF disbanded after some of them were caught on a closed circuit camera robbing a Panipat jewellery store. The Haryana officers were particularly brazen, but their downfall followed a now-familiar pattern.

Handpicked for their intelligence and bravery under fire, such officers usually get the freedom to create specialised units, in which case they become ‘encounter specialists’, or are amalgamated into STFs or ATSs (Anti-Terror Squads). In most cases, they are, unofficially, sanctioned to go beyond the law.

Sometimes, India has benefited from the twilight zone. Punjab rid itself of terrorism in the 1990s largely because a systemic, often brutal, police action against terrorists and their families. Mumbai freed itself from the underworld’s grip this decade because of the terror spread by its ‘encounter specialists’, officers immortalised in movies with titles like Ab Tak Chhappan (Until now, 56).

But most officers who ran such campaigns of executions soon crossed the thin, grey line into extortion and contract killings.

Nearly all of Mumbai’s ‘encounter specialists’ have been dismissed or arrested. Delhi’s Assistant Commissioner Rajbir Singh, once a public hero for killing criminals, was killed in suspicious circumstances in a property dealer’s office. Gujarat’s ATS, headed by Deputy Inspector General D.G. Vanzara, the man who allegedly shot Sheikh and his wife Kauserbi (and burnt her body), supposedly did it to earn promotions, bestowed by minister Amit Shah, who the CBI says was using Sheikh to extort money before it all went bad. Local cesspools of official criminality are one reason the Maoist insurgency has become what it is today.

If India is to break such chain-links of criminal behaviour created by its law-enforcers, it might want to follow the examples set by many Latin American countries that were once dictatorships. Peru, Brazil, Chile and Argentina were once notorious for extra-judicial killings. As they became democracies and prospered, they realised they could not truly enter the civilised world and retain their police states. India — save for the shameful two years of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency — has always been a democracy. It must now arrest its slide towards a police State.