The demand from the Opposition and many in civil society for the courts to monitor the probe into the killing of eight suspected activists of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) in an alleged encounter with the police in Bhopal is valid as the entire turn of events raises far too many questions. As usual, this has become a political slugfest, but there must be a transparent inquiry into this as there seem to have been several lapses which led up to the killings.
For a start, it would appear that the suspects were armed with only knives and stones, though there are reports that they acquired country-made guns after their escape. Either way, could they not have been overpowered by a police force with its vastly superior firepower? Those who escaped were considered high-security prisoners, yet there are reports that there was only one guard for them. They were also, prima facie, able to communicate with each other and coordinate their escape over a 20-foot wall using a makeshift ladder.
The police claim that those who had escaped opened fire on them is yet to be verified. This raises the issue of encounter killings. The police and security forces taking the law into their own hands is not a rare occurrence when the suspect is allegedly a criminal or a terrorist.
Extra-judicial killings were the norm in Punjab during the Khalistan movement and in Mumbai when the police took on the underworld. There were policemen who were feted as “encounter specialists”, thus giving legitimacy to this illegal manner of dispensing justice. This practice of encounter killings would suggest a lack of faith in the judicial process to which everyone is entitled and a serious violation of human rights. Such encounters have been continuing because few errant policemen are ever convicted for extra-judicial killings. The police are reluctant to file cases against other policemen accused of encounter killings.
There is no independent body in India, as there is in Britain and South Africa, which can go into the issue of human rights violations by the police. The National Human Rights Commission in India does not have the powers to conduct an active investigation. It relies on the local police. From 2006 to 2015, only 58 policemen from Chhattisgarh were convicted, 233 from Delhi and four in other parts of the country. This was despite thousands of cases of human rights violations by the police, many of which were extra-judicial killings. It is too early to make any categorical assertion on the Bhopal killings but a free and fair probe overseen by the courts would help greatly in clearing the air, which is thick with allegations and counter-allegations.