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Licence to kill

The police’s reaction to the conviction of the accused in a false encounter case shows their complete disregard for human life, writes Seema Goswami.

india Updated: Oct 17, 2007 22:23 IST

If you listen to the explanations being offered for the Barakhamba Road encounter by the police — on the record from retired officers and in private from serving cops — you get some sense of the state of policing in India.

The facts of the encounter are clear enough. On March 31, 1997, a police party surrounded a Maruti Esteem on busy Barakhamba Road, near Connaught Place, in the centre of Delhi. Two men inside the vehicle were killed in a hail of gunfire while a third survived, though he had been hit by at least six bullets.

As the bodies were dragged out of the car, Assistant Commissioner of Police SS Rathi told the press that a police party had intercepted 'dreaded gangster' Mohammad Yaseen. The gangster and his accomplices had 'fired' at the police who had returned the fire in self-defence and killed 'Yaseen' and 'one of his accomplices'.

There were several problems with this story. The first was that no eyewitness — and the incident took place in broad daylight — recalled seeing any shots being fired from inside the car. Forensic tests on the car's windows would later confirm that not a single shot had been fired from inside the car.

No matter. The police produced a gun and ammunition and said that these had been recovered from 'Yaseen'. This led to a second set of doubts.

Why would three 'dreaded gangsters' share a single pistol between them? But worse was to follow. It transpired that the man the police had killed was not Yaseen at all but an innocent person called Jagjit Singh who (or so the police later claimed) looked like Yaseen. Also killed was a businessman, Pradeep Goyal. The injured person was a harmless youth called Tarunpreet Singh.

An uproar ensued. The Police Commissioner of Delhi was transferred. ACP Rathi was suspended and the CBI took over the case. Ten years later, a sessions court has held Rathi and his officers guilty of murder. The defence offered by the police in the aftermath of the judgment goes something like this: it was not Rathi's fault. An informer misidentified Yaseen. The police genuinely thought that they were killing a gangster. So, if Rathi and his men were guilty of anything, it is criminal negligence, not murder.

The most worrying thing about this explanation is that if it had, in fact, been Yaseen in the car, then the police would have been perfectly entitled to have murdered him in cold blood. Forget about the rule of law, due process and all that civil liberties stuff. The police are, in effect, saying that the way we function is by killing criminals whenever we can find them.

I am prepared to concede that horrifying as this may seem, there is a certain social sanction for this kind of extra-judicial killing.

But the Barakhamba Road murders (which is what they really are) should remind us of the dangers of giving policemen the licence to kill.

There is always the danger that trigger-happy police hitmen (or 'encounter specialists', as they are approvingly dubbed) will go around killing innocent people. The Barakhamba Road case attracted attention because the victims were middle-class and their families fought for justice. But hundreds of poor people have been routinely bumped off by India's policemen. And because they have no voice and no influence, the cases rarely come to public attention.

There's also the danger that once you do away with the principle of the right to life, then the rules of evidence seem like a minor inconvenience in comparison. It is now clear that not only did the police fully intend to kill 'Yaseen' that day (even if he had meekly surrendered) but that they had actually gone to the spot with a pistol and bullets which they were going to plant in the car.

Next, there's the danger of sanctioning police cover-ups. Even after the Delhi Police realised that they had made a mistake and murdered innocent people, they stuck to the obviously false story that Yaseen/Jagjit Singh had fired at them first and, therefore, they had acted in self-defence. One policeman apparently even shot himself in the hand to prove that the cops had been fired on. A doctor was made to extract the bullet later but neither the police nor the CBI bothered to question him.

Worse still, the notorious Roop Singh, former Principal Scientific Officer at the Central Forensic Science Laboratory, provided the so-called scientific evidence that appeared to support what we now know to be a lie — the claim that the police were fired on. This is the same Roop Singh who manufactured the two-bullet theory in the Jessica Lall case and thus helped get Manu Sharma off in his first trial.

Judging by this 'encounter', forensic scientists are routinely made to lie to cover up for murders committed by the police.

Why are we surprised, then, that they are as willing to lie and manufacture fake evidence to cover up the murders committed by sons of the rich and the powerful?

But the most worrying of all is the police's attitude to the Rathi judgment. Even as Indian society is shocked by what the court concluded had really happened, the police are remarkably unaffected. In their view, the only thing that went wrong was that Rathi shot the wrong man. And IPS officers can even afford to be snobbish about the case — after all, they say, Rathi is not a cadre officer but a promotee.

If this is how India is going to be policed, if innocent men can be shot dead in cold blood in broad daylight in the heart of the nation's capital, then what hope is there for the rule of law?