The probe into the murders of Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kausar Bi near Ahmedabad in late 2005 has again focused public attention on extra-judicial killings — what the police call “encounters”.
An explanation for the prevalence of extra-judicial killings in this country could lie in a confidential letter written over 15 years ago by the head of the Intelligence Bureau (IB). This letter, of which Hindustan Times has a copy, served as a de facto blueprint for police forces nationwide on how to carry out extra-judicial killings while avoiding public attention.
The letter was written by VG Vaidya, director, IB, to then Punjab DGP KPS Gill on December 30, 1991. It dealt with the subject of some police officers revealing to Western journalists how they had killed terrorists without legal sanction. One officer even gave the journalists access to a militant who had been illegally detained and was later shot.
“Their professional compulsions in executive action should not get reflected in their public utterances, which should be correct and responsible,” Vaidya wrote in the letter. In effect, he was condoning the killings, and objecting only to these being frankly revealed to journalists.
The killings in Gujarat have opened old wounds, as HT correspondents who fanned out across India, found. Starting today, a series of stories will show how families are demanding fresh probes into encounters that are not acknowledged as extra-judicial killings but are still on police files.
As many countries formerly run by military juntas begin scrapping amnesties and investigating thousands of extra-judicial killings and disappearances dating as far back as 1968, it could be time for democratic India to do the same, said security experts and former police officers.
“This (exposure of fake killings) has to be done. It must be done for the country’s sake, but I can assure you it’ll create a lot of problems,” said EN Rammohan, former DG, BSF. “We must exorcise the past.”
Rammohan said extra-judicial killings were now so widespread they involved entire security forces. “In Kashmir, only a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (of the sort South Africa set up after apartheid ended) will enable India to make peace with the Kashmiri people,” he said.
There is no accurate count, but police units have killed hundreds nationwide since Vaidya wrote his letter. In Gujarat alone, over the past decade, there have been 17 alleged police encounters.
Encounter killings have become part of an unwritten but widely condoned state policy, officers acknowledged. Started initially to cripple militancy, encounters have since been used to even do away with petty thieves and extortionists, which is what Sohrabuddin Sheikh appears to have been, as shown by police records.
“Extra-judicial killings are akin to murder,” said former Punjab and Mumbai police chief Julio Rebeiro. “There is now a glimmer of hope from the judiciary.”
Another senior police officer who served in Kashmir said the force there had a policy — if one soldier or BSF official was killed by terrorists, five young men were executed in retaliation.
Former police officer Arvind Verma — now teaching criminal justice at Indiana University in the US — said even politicians would not succeed in making the police more accountable.
“The only outcome that can result when political pressure is applied is to make the police even more brutal and unaccountable,” said Verma in his 2005 book The Indian Police, a Critical Evaluation.
“When VP Singh sent the message that dacoity would be eliminated from Uttar Pradesh, the only outcome was the ‘encounter’ deaths of hundreds of suspects. Similar pressures in Bengal, in Andhra Pradesh and Bihar against left wing extremists or Naxalites have also resulted in killings and police terror in the so called ‘disturbed areas’... The spate of crimes — specially kidnappings — in Delhi put the police under pressure to ‘do something’.
The Delhi police did something: it shot dead two business persons in Connaught Place (in 1997), in open daylight supposedly on mistaken identity,” the book has noted.
VK Jain, former special secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs, said the Centre must accept the National Police Commission reports on police reform — the first was submitted in 1901, the last in 1977. But none have ever been implemented. Jain said the Supreme Court had accepted these recommendations, but states balked at implementing them.
The 1991 IB letter gives away the kind of transparency that once existed about extra-judicial killings. Vaidya refers to an April 1991 story in The Guardian, based on an interview with Sanjeev Gupta, then senior superintendent of police (SSP) of Amritsar.
“In this interview, Gupta had in good faith tried to justify the killings of terrorists by the police in simulated encounters in the absence of any better option,” Vaidya wrote in his letter to KPS Gill.
“In consultation with the External Publicity Division, it was thought to get the story contradicted through our High Commission in London but the exercise was abandoned when it was later learnt that not only three foreign press correspondents were present during the SSP’s briefing, but that they had also clandestinely recorded the interview.”