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Encounters have our sanction too

Conduct a poll and ask people whether policemen should try and build cases against terrorists, should persuade witnesses to testify and then wait six years for the judgement or whether they should just bump them off and a majority of Indians will prefer execution to prosecution, writes Vir Sanghvi.

columns Updated: Sep 13, 2009 03:27 IST

There is something annoying and frustrating about the way in which the Congress and the BJP are playing politics with the encounter that resulted in the death of 19-year-old Ishrat Jahan and three of her companions in Gujarat.

Going by everything we now know, here’s what happened:

The Gujarat Police were informed by central agencies that a team of terrorists was on its way to the state. The police intercepted the three men and the woman the intelligence agencies had described as terrorists and interrogated them in custody for a day.

The following day, they shot all of them in cold blood and placed their bodies in a car. They planted weapons in their lifeless hands and then informed the media. According to the Gujarat Police, they had intercepted the car carrying the terrorists. The terrorists had fired at them. The police party had fired back and all the terrorists had been killed.

<b1>That the encounter was fake cannot be disputed: the forensic evidence is too strong for that. All that can be questioned is the claim — made by the magistrate who investigated the encounter — that the people in the car were not terrorists to begin with.

The Gujarat government says that even the Centre had agreed that they were terrorists. And the Congress which cannot deny the central government’s role in the encounter argues that a) the Centre only repeated what the Gujarat Police had said and b) that whoever called these people terrorists will now be punished.

The point is that we will never know whether they were terrorists. The killings made it impossible for their guilt or innocence to be established in a court of law. All we have is the intelligence evidence and perhaps the information that emerged from the interrogations. None of this is conclusive.

To go on and on about guilt or innocence in these circumstances is worse than silly: it makes for petty politics. And it ignores the real issues raised by the encounter.

First of all, the encounter reminds us of what we already know. When Indian police forces believe that they are dealing with a terrorist, they simply kill him or her without bothering with due process.

Are we prepared to live with the situation where a policeman is prosecutor, judge and executioner?

Second, let’s not pretend that what happened in Gujarat occurred because Narendra Modi is Chief minister. Policemen routinely kill terror suspects in all Indian states. To politicise the killings may win votes but it obscures the reality.

Third, the policy of encounters has broad public support. Conduct a poll and ask people whether policemen should try and build cases against terrorists, should persuade witnesses to testify and then wait six years for the judgement or whether they should just bump them off and a majority of Indians will prefer execution to prosecution.

Fourth, if we give our policemen the power to kill anybody they regard as a terrorist, then are we not compromising the basis of our society? We know now that encounter cops run berserk in India, killing innocent people at will and building up huge fortunes for themselves. In Bombay, such encounter specialists as Daya Nayak have been described as millionaires. In Delhi, encounter ‘hero’ Rajbir Singh was revealed posthumously to have been a crook who extorted money at gun-point.

Fifth, even if we give our policemen a licence to kill, shouldn’t we at least stop them from telling blatant lies in an effort to win medals for themselves? The encounter in which Ishrat was killed was heavily hyped by the media and the cops who staged the incident were lavishly praised for their ‘bravery’ in killing four dangerous terrorists in a gun battle.

There are precedents. Some years ago, the Delhi Police brought two men who were already in custody to Ansal Plaza and shot them in the parking lot. Later they announced that they had foiled an attempt to attack Diwali shoppers in one of Delhi’s busiest malls.

Should we allow matters to get to a stage where not only do the police murder people in cold blood but they also lie to us so that we can compliment them on their bravery?

Sixth: but policemen do have a legitimate position that must be treated with sympathy. Look at it from the point of view of the cops. I accept that many officers tell lies to win medals for themselves. But there are also honest policemen who genuinely believe that a) the best way to fight terrorism is to kill the terrorists and b) that they have society’s sanction to do so.

But the truth is that society is hopelessly hypocritical. We want the encounters to continue. But when we are confronted with the reality of the murders committed on our behalf, we turn sanctimonious.

We demand that the policemen are punished. And we suddenly rediscover human rights and the rule of law.

Why should some policeman who does our dirty work for us be sent to jail only because we don’t have the guts to confront what we have tacitly sanctioned when it emerges in the public domain?

And finally, there’s India’s past experience to consider. Do any of us genuinely believe that we ended the Naxalite revolt in the early 70s without killing Naxalites in cold blood? Do we really think that we finished off the Punjab militancy without resorting to encounters?

The reality is that India has always fought political violence, terrorism and militancy by trusting the police force’s discretion in finding the guilty and them bumping them off quietly.

It’s a shocking position for a liberal society to take. But for better or worse, this has been India’s position for several decades now.

As you can see, the issues are too complex for any simplistic pro-encounter or anti-encounter position to prevail. There are strong arguments on both sides. There are terrible dangers inherent in an encounter policy. But there is also the lack of an alternative approach and the fact that encounters have worked to consider.

Ideally, we should have the guts to look our encounter policy in the eye and to confront the issues head-on so that everybody — policemen, terrorists, lawyers and media — knows exactly where we stand.

But, of course, we do no such thing. We lose ourselves in hypocrisy and doublespeak.

And when the politicians get involved, they only make matters worse by trivialising the issues so that they can win votes.

(The views expressed by the author are personal.)