The Gujarat government’s admission before the Supreme Court that its police force had killed Soharbuddin Sheikh in a fake encounter in 2005, and that there is no trace of his wife, Kausarbi, who was with him at the time, ought to make us hang our heads in shame. For some time now, human rights activists in the country have been pointing to the instances where the various anti-terrorist squads manage to kill alleged terrorists in lonely locations, always at night, without either suffering any casualties or any eyewitnesses present. The usual excuse trotted out has been that legal processes were too slow or ineffective in dealing with terrorists. That may well be so, but then who decides how they must be dealt with? Surely not police officers.
The serious charges against the Punjab Police for human rights violations, including fake encounters in the 1990s, have been virtually brushed under the carpet. However, in Kashmir, protests by people have brought several such killings to light. The man in the street is unlikely to shed a tear if a terrorist is dealt with in this way, but surely we need to be outraged that many of those killed were completely innocent of any crime, leave alone terrorism. The sanctity of every human life is the hallmark of a civilised society. Its iron pillars are democratic governance and legal due process. In other words, a society where people elect their leaders through free elections and where fair laws and legal processes are in place to deal with criminals and terrorists. The police cannot, under any circumstance, assume the role of an executioner. Under Indian law, the legal right to take a life belongs strictly to the judiciary, and is usually exercised rarely, that too after an exhaustive legal and appeals process. The armed forces, too, are legally empowered to shoot and kill, but only in duly-designated parts of the country, and always in specified circumstances.
Any other person who takes a life is simply a murderer, and must be dealt with as such. He must not be hyped as any kind of a ‘super cop’ or ‘encounter specialist’. The government and civil society need to confront these criminals in uniform frontally, not only in the interests of justice but to cleanse the nation’s collective conscience