The fresh controversies surrounding the killings of Ishrat Jahan and three others on suspicion that they were terrorists out to get the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi run the risk of shifting the focus away from the main issue of fake encounter deaths, reports of which have been distressingly frequent.
From 2009-10 to February 2013, the National Human Rights Commission registered 555 cases of alleged fake encounters. UP topped the list (138), followed by Manipur (62). Given the extent of the Maoist insurgency, the number has surely gone up. Look at Gujarat, where the Ishrat case took place. In October 2002, Samir Khan Pathan was killed by the Ahmedabad crime branch, which had held that he was a terrorist trained by the Jaish-e-Mohammed. In the Sohrabuddin Sheikh case, the Gujarat government admitted before the Supreme Court that it had been a ‘staged’ killing.
Allegations of staged encounter killings increase whenever there is instability in political conditions. When the State feels threatened owing to insurgencies or rebellions, it gives a free hand to the police, which then find staged encounters a useful tool to restore calm and secure brownie points with political masters. Mainstream political parties find it inconvenient to take a position on this, because they know that cannot eschew it totally when in power.
It is a fair surmise that in India, such incidents have gone up since the 1980s. In Punjab, at the height of the Khalistan movement, reports of police torture, fake encounters and custodial deaths were legion. Throughout the nineties this was a common practice in Kashmir. Both in Punjab as well as Kashmir, mass graves have been found. In West Bengal too, during the Naxalite days, the police are alleged to have taken such measures to cow down the rebels. It is difficult to believe the provincial armed constabulary did not indiscriminately kill people in Meerut, 1987.
In the view of the police, encounter killings are a way to serve instant justice since the legal processes are slow. Also, they are a deterrent to crime. This is a fallacious position. The cardinal principle of jurisprudence is that no person can be deprived of life and liberty except in accordance with the procedure established by law. We cannot afford to forget this.