Fake encounters & the nation
The current wave of outrage in the country over the horrific murders by the men in khaki in Gujarat is likely to be transient, a passing squall. The dust that it has raised will rapidly settle, and we will forget, in the same way as we have expelled from memory so many similar inequities of the recent past: the women who stripped themselves naked in anguish in Manipur to protest the violations of security forces, the staged killings of innocents as militants in Kashmir, the mass cremations of thousands of young men who were abducted by the police and later dubbed Khalistani extremists in Punjab in the troubled 80s, counterfeit encounter killings of alleged Naxalite sympathisers in backwaters of rural ferment and oppression for decades in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Chhattisgarh, and bogus encounters of alleged terrorists in the country’s capital, to name just a few.
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), in 1996, submitted a report to the Supreme Court that established that in just three crematoriums of Amritsar, as many as 2,097 illegal cremations were carried out by security forces between 1984 and 1995. An independent human rights investigation established that illegal disposal of bodies by security forces were not confined to the three crematoriums of Amritsar. Disappearances occurred in all the districts of Punjab. In nearly 60 per cent of the cases, the persons who ‘disappeared’ were subsequently reported to have died in police ‘encounters’. The victims included doctors, lawyers, journalists, students, businessmen, even government civil and police employees. In over 25 per cent of the cases, the police not only took away the victim, but also destroyed, damaged or confiscated the family property. In an equal number, police abducted and killed more than one member of the same family. The police routinely refused to inform the victims’ families, and extorted money from them.
The Supreme Court referred the matter to the National Human Rights Commission, and did nothing when the Commission took a minimalist interpretation of its ambit. After around 10 years of tortuous proceedings, pursued resolutely by brave and devastated families of the victims and supported by dedicated human rights defenders like Indira Jaising, Ram Narayan Kumar and Ashok Agrwaal, the Commission refused in the end to hold any officer or agency accountable for the violations, and declined to investigate disappearances, extra-judicial executions, custodial deaths and illegal cremations throughout Punjab.
In Andhra Pradesh, again for a decade, a committee of concerned citizens convened by SR Sankaran has tirelessly pressed for the deployment of moral, democratic and legal instruments to stem the unending brutal spiral of violence that has seized many impoverished districts of Telengana.
But there are not many people who heed these voices of humanity. In Gujarat, in response to a question from a member of the assembly, as many as 21 encounter killings by the state police were reported between 2003 and 2006. But the list submitted by the Gujarat government did not include the names of Sohrabuddin and Kauserbi, which is a grave breach of privilege. A deliberate murky cloud of official secrecy continues to hide the numbers and circumstances of encounter deaths by the Gujarat state police.
However, even this limited official report again raises disturbing questions. Six of those killed were already in police custody, and it is incredible that they could possess firearms in custody to warrant killing by the police in self defence. In one case, the police claim that two policemen fired six rounds to kill a man with a dummy revolver. There was no post-mortem, or the statutory magisterial enquiry in any of the cases. There is no material to even subsequently justify the inference that they were terrorists or grave offenders. All these facts were brought to the notice of the Supreme Court in a petition earlier this year by BG Verghese and lawyer Nitya Ramakrishnan, but the court did not find enough basis to order an enquiry into the encounter killings.
Each nation must strike a fine ethical and political balance between protecting its security and the rights of its people. In India, the choice of the Executive, and even the Judiciary, have tilted mostly in favour of permitting the uniformed forces to break the law of the land with impunity, even to kill, especially in times of perceived threats to national integrity — cheered along by most segments of the middle classes. Policemen often claim that they are motivated by a higher love for the nation. Many of them are, but not those who kill unarmed people in defiance of the law of the land. KPS Gill, who led the security forces in Punjab in the decisive ‘bullet for bullet’ bloody combat against militancy in the late 1980s, describes his forces as men who ‘fight and die for India’ and ‘who risked their lives in defence of the State’. The disgraced Gujarat police officer DG Vanzara also fashions his encounter killings as deshbhakti (patriotism), and claims that with his arrest, ‘the battlelines are drawn’, presumably in his war against the Muslim community, which is of course viciously demonised as terrorists implacably unfaithful to their motherland. LK Advani, as the union home minister in 2001, announced in Punjab that his government was ‘contemplating steps to provide legal protection and relief to the personnel of the security forces facing prosecution for alleged excesses during anti-insurgency operations’ in Punjab, Kashmir and the north-east.
A fake killing is not an aberration of a few runaway miscreant police officers; it is an integral if shadowy element of the system itself, one in which the state eliminates people outside the process of the law, as an instrument to tame civic dissent. These bullets indeed crush with state terror and lawlessness, the weakest and most disenfranchised of our people, particularly if they are restive, religious and ethnic minorities, Dalits and tribal people, agricultural workers and slum dwellers. These are the very people who are excluded from that ‘nation’ which the trigger-happy police forces claim to defend.
We may forget and move on, but for those whose loved ones were felled by furtive bullets fired by agents of a democratic state that functions lawlessly, there will be no closure or healing. It is only truth, however ugly, told with unflinching honesty, which would heal their unassuaged agony. For this to happen, the leaders, the courts and the people of this land need to stand tall on the side of justice. No state is genuinely secure on foundations of injustice.
(The writer is founder member of Aman Biradri, a social organisation)