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Licence to kill

If we are going to give policemen a license to kill, then shouldn’t we set up some kind of regulation — no matter how secret or informal — to ensure that innocent people are not murdered and society is not lied to, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Oct 05, 2008 16:22 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Around a decade ago, the Delhi police shot dead a car full of innocent businessmen on Barakhamba Road, in the heart of the capital, in broad daylight. The resulting uproar was such that many questions about human rights were raised by an angry media and the police commissioner was transferred.

Some of you may remember the encounter. A police team had received word that a car carrying a wanted criminal was heading towards Barakhamba Road. The cops lay in wait. When a car matching the description they had been given drove by, they opened fire.

Big mistake.

It was the wrong car which, co-incidentally, just happened to fit the description. The men the police had killed were entirely innocent.

Of course, the cops were not going to admit that. So, they planted a gun inside the car. One of the policemen shot himself and the Delhi police argued that its men had acted in self-defence.

It didn't wash. Relatives of the murdered men barged into a press conference that was being addressed by the police commissioner and protested angrily. They went to the media and complained. They were not without influence so, bit by bit, the real story tumbled out.

The policemen who had taken part in the encounter were arrested and charged with murder. They were convicted and I think some are still in jail.

All of us in the media sat back satisfied that justice had finally been done.

I am no supporter of people who kill innocent businessmen and then plant weapons on their bodies but our response to that encounter worried me.

What were we complaining about? Our objections were framed in human rights terms: who gave the police the license to kill? etc.

But few of us asked the obvious questions. Supposing the cops had not got the wrong car. Suppose they had actually shot the criminals they were after.

Would any of us have objected?

I doubt it very much.

By now most of us accept that the police routinely kill suspects. We know also that in many so-called encounters, the victims are killed even before they have a chance to resist. Often, they are shot while surrendering.

None of this worries us too much. We think that it is an unpleasant but unavoidable part of the battle against organised crime or terrorism. We know that the police are lying but we choose to look away.

So were the cops who shot the businessmen guilty of murder? Or were they simply guilty of mistaken identity?

You tell me.

I return, in this column, to the subject of encounters year after year because they constitute the vast grey area in our policing. They are an integral and frequently used component of our battle against terrorism (and now, ordinary crime as well) but we refuse to confront the reality of the killings that are carried out in our name. As long as somebody else gets the job done, we are content to sleep peacefully at night.

As a consequence, there are no rules, no guidelines and no ethics when it comes to encounters. Simply put, the police can kill anybody they want. And as long as the person is not well connected and the encounter takes place far from public view (not in Barakhamba Road, certainly) we really don’t give a damn.

We justify this to ourselves by arguing that there is no alternative. And certainly it is true that encounters have proved to be an effective way of imposing law and order. The Indian state used extra-judicial killings to rid the ravines of Chambal of dacoits and to crush the Naxalite movement in the 1960s. In the 1980s, terrorism in the Punjab collapsed only after the police adopted a bullet for bullet policy and bumped off terror suspects. More recently, the Bombay police used encounters against the organised underworld.

But here’s my question: if encounters are such an important part of the battle against terrorism then should we let them take place, unchecked and unregulated, without any kind of internal supervision at all?

It is a problem, I know. How can any state pass laws or publish a rule book dictating the circumstances under which it is permissible to bump suspects off?

So, any regulation has to be internal. It has to be done within the police force and it has to be supervised by senior officers.

There was a time when this did happen. Though nobody will talk about this openly for fear of prosecution, the Punjab police were said to have a rule. If a terrorist was responsible (in their estimation) for more than three murders, they killed him. Otherwise, they put him in jail.

I know it sounds illiberal, brutal and callous but it is still better than the situation that now prevails. Outwardly, we pay lip service to habeas corpus and conduct television debates on the need for detention laws. But in reality, our policemen bump off who they like — all in the name of the battle against terror.

We now have enough evidence that the whole encounter strategy has gone badly wrong. In Bombay, such encounter specialists as Daya Naik have been accused of amassing crores through extortion and by functioning as hit-men for hire. It is widely accepted that the underworld worked out that rather than hire assassins to bump off rivals, it was easier to just pay off police inspectors. They would kill the gangsters, accept the pay-off and then receive public service medals.

In Delhi, the Rajbir Singh murder is still fresh in everybody’s minds. According to the police’s own account, their most celebrated encounter cop was actually a crook, offering his services to property dealers and using his gun to build up a vast fortune.

Then, there are the encounters themselves. Some years ago, when I was editor of the HT, the Delhi police told us that they had shot two terrorists who were planning to attack Ansal Plaza and kill Diwali shoppers. We thought there was something funny about their story and the deeper we dug, the more inconsistencies we found. It seemed that the police had brought two men to the parking lot of Ansal Plaza and had killed them in cold blood. Perhaps the men were terrorists who were already in custody but what I found offensive was the naked manipulation of public sentiment: the claim that a Hindu festival was going to be disrupted; the bogus fear of a threat to shoppers; and of course, the self-serving claims of gallantry made by the police on their own behalf.

Something similar seems to have happened at Jamia a couple of weeks ago. I mourn the death of Inspector Sharma but the official story of the circumstances leading to his death simply does not add up. Even if you dismiss eye-witness accounts as being biased, there are too many anomalies: why does Inspector Sharma not have the bullet wounds that were supposed to have killed him in pictures taken after the shooting? Why was he shot from the back at close quarters if he died in a gun battle? Where are the bullets that killed him? How did two ‘terrorists’ escape when there was no way for them to have got away? And so on.

The problem is: we will never know. In the case of the Ansal Plaza encounter, all we have are very strong suspicions. And here too, the truth will never emerge. We will just have to guess what really happened.

Worse still, to raise any questions about any encounter is considered ‘anti-national’. The HT was vilified when we questioned the official version of the Ansal Plaza shooting. And already, there is a move to brand anybody who wants to know what happened at Jamia as a ‘terrorist-sympathiser’.

But ask yourselves this: would it have been anti-national to have uncovered the truth of the Barakhamba Road encounter? To have spoken out against Rajbir? To have questioned Daya Naik’s killings?

In an ideal world, I’d like to say that there should be no encounters. But we do not live in an ideal world. And society supports encounters.

But if we are going to give policemen a license to kill, then shouldn’t we set up some kind of regulation — no matter how secret or informal — to ensure that innocent people are not murdered and society is not lied to?

And at the very least, shouldn’t we have the right to ask questions without being called ‘anti-national’?