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Close encounters

If you live in the national capital, you woke up yesterday to the spine-shuddering possibility that three terrorists were getting set to blow up the city’s popular Dilli Haat, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Apr 28, 2007 05:01 IST

If you live in the national capital, you woke up yesterday to the spine-shuddering possibility that three terrorists were getting set to blow up the city’s popular Dilli Haat or at the very least, were using the food and crafts stalls as a rendezvous for raising hell. As news channels went into overdrive and police officials took their place behind the microphones, some of us were left fighting a familiar, niggling doubt. Had the police really got it right or would this case too unravel with time and scrutiny?

We are all acutely aware that we live in dangerous times and terrorists live right among us — down the road, across the street, on board our local train. Now, bomb blasts regularly rip through our illusion of comfort and well-being. We know we are not safe. So, the ominous sight of the RDX confiscated by the police should have made us count our blessings.

And yet, the cynics among us wondered about the pattern to these arrests and how miraculous it was that each time a terrorist was caught, he always had his passport or identity card on him. Not to forget, the hand-scrawled letter in Urdu faithfully ferried in his back pocket.

No one wants to trivialise the gigantic challenge of battling terrorism or undermine the sacrifice of our soldiers and policemen.

So why is there such a crisis of credibility? Why is it that we don’t automatically believe the men and women we count on to keep us safe?

The problem is that ‘encounters’ have become a military euphemism for murder.

The Delhi arrests have come in the same week that three top cops in Gujarat have been put behind bars for killing an innocent man.

Rewind to two years ago. Officers from the state’s special anti-terrorist squad went on national television to declare that they had killed an operative of the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba in a fierce gun battle. They claimed that Sohrabuddin Sheikh was planning to assassinate the Chief Minister and had been shot dead while trying to escape the city on a motorbike. Journalists obliged by showcasing the story as it was being told to them. But only till the discrepancies started surfacing.

It now turns out that the cops pulled Sheikh off a bus along with his wife, Kausarbi, and a friend of theirs. The couple was locked away in a desolate farmhouse for three days. And then, in an entirely orchestrated drama, Sheikh was dragged to the heart of the city, killed and branded a would-be assassin. Exactly a year later, when investigators got their hands on the case, the sole witness, Tulsiram Prajapati, was also eliminated in an ‘encounter’ for trying to escape police custody.

Now red-faced detectives are digging up graves in the hometown of one of the arrested police officials, to see if Kausarbi’s remains can be hunted down. Government lawyers have informed the Supreme Court that she was probably murdered as well.

Is it any surprise then that police proclamations are now received with instinctive scepticism? From staged killings in Kashmir to manufactured shootouts in our cities (remember Ansal Plaza, 2002?), it’s like the fable about the boy who cried wolf too many times. When the real beast is at your door, you still think someone’s spun a yarn. The tragedy is that this way, security officials only end up discrediting themselves.

But why blame just them? It’s we, as a people, who have an astounding belief that encounters (fabricated or otherwise) are a legitimate way of eliminating the bad guys. We buy the logic that normal rules of law cannot possibly apply when it comes to terrorism and conflict. We endorse the unspoken secret that torture is an inevitable companion to interrogation. We fete our encounter specialists and make Bollywood thrillers based on their lives. And disproportionate punishment doesn’t really bother our conscience: a thief can be treated like a murderer, as long as it’s the rotten apples that are getting sifted out.

Take the now-dead witness in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh case. Tulsiram Prajapati was apparently a minor slumlord who found his way into a local gang and had been doing jail-time for a host of criminal charges. Many people would, therefore, argue that it’s no big loss that he was killed, even if it was in a fake encounter.

But to justify this is to subvert the entire judicial system that our democracy is so boastful of. Prajapati wrote several letters to prison authorities saying he feared for his life. Even his ageing mother has the wisdom to argue that while her son had indeed fallen into bad ways, imprisonment was the appropriate punishment. Instead, he may have been murdered just so the police could get rid of incriminating evidence. Criminal or not, he still deserved the due process of law.

Sadly, those of us who demand this immediately get slotted as fuzzy liberals who don’t understand the rigours of fighting crime and war. But, forget the ethics of it for a moment.

I would argue that encounters are strategically disastrous. Eventually they make the good guys look just as bad (in fact, worse). They make enemies of friends and supporters and only prolong conflict. And they undermine not just the credibility, but also the authority of men in uniform. We have seen the political fallout of such killings in Kashmir. And we only have to look at what American soldiers are doing in Iraq to learn what not to do and what never to accept.

The day’s not far when India may have to confront its own Abu Ghraib. At least the United States was shamed into ordering a public hearing and a transparent inquiry into the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. In India we would just hide behind excuses, justifications and prolonged court trials.

But one of these days, here too, a whistleblower will swing out his mobile phone camera and bring us face to face with the visual horror of what happens, when law enforcers subvert the law they are meant to protect.

And then, finally, we will encounter our own lies.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, ndtv 24x7