Hold that trigger

Updated on Oct 23, 2007 10:17 PM IST

The Connaught Place shootout case verdict is a lesson for police hitmen: be cautious and never cherish a pre-determined intention to kill, no matter how hardened the criminal, writes Maxwell Pereira.

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None | ByMaxwell Pereira

Every police department needs hitmen. The Delhi Police is no exception. There may be many arguments against this but I am talking of reality here. However, not everyone can be a hitman. It requires guts, a willingness to live a life where one is afraid of his own shadow.

There is another side to this story: the danger of hitmen becoming trigger-happy, wanting to kill and not capture the offender, and/or becoming criminals themselves by killing for pecuniary gains. They can also start taking part in intimidation and extortion. Initially, these are done as favours for friends, contacts and people with good connections in the department or the government.

When I joined the Delhi Police, criminals from the neighbouring states preferred to surrender to us for fear of being eliminated by trigger-happy gallantry award seeking policemen and officers in their own states. We heard stories how criminals would be tied to a tree and shot dead. Later an encounter record would be prepared, and a citation sent to superiors for awards. However, there was no way for verifying these reports. Soon, I believe, the Delhi policeman, too, learnt to capitalise on ‘surrenders’ by criminals from the neighbouring states. If not to get medals, at least to earn reward money. There would always be a display of a cache of recovered arms and ammunition, a press briefing indicating what a grand catch it was and the miscreants’ criminal history. But rarely was there any mention of their involvement in crimes in the city.

There were genuine encounters too when a raiding party had to fire in self-defence. But terrorism changed the whole scenario. Each time there was an encounter killing, I would feel proud of the newfound confidence in the fire power of the Delhi Police. I believed there was a need to send a strong message to terrorists and criminals even if it meant eliminating the miscreant. More so because of the inability of the criminal justice system to convict and punish offenders. Having said that, what I feel queasy about and object to is the attitudinal change that has glorified encounter killings. I wrote about these fears two years ago, about the growing tendency to eliminate the terrorist/criminal as ‘standard operating procedure’, replacing the earlier norm. I objected to the tacit approval accorded to this by the police brass and the government.

I further objected to the entrapping of an alleged terrorist on the basis of inputs provided by intelligence agencies, of pumping bullets into him without giving him an iota of a chance, and then getting awarded with a gallantry medal. I wrote about the enactment of an alleged terrorist plan to strike the capital when there was none, each time a national day or commemorative event approaches, only to build up hype or claim kudos for killing a terrorist.

Over the years, I have become paranoid over the inevitable fallout when good police officers become ‘dadas’, whose unbridled power and licence to kill is exploited by the mafia. I couldn’t help but voice my concern how it would be a sad day for the Delhi Police if what was being reported in the media about its most famous ‘hit-man’ became true. I wrote this also because I, along with my colleagues, played a substantial role in grooming the career graph of this particular officer. In hindsight, the devil dealt its blow much before the concerns were voiced. In 1997, a crime branch team led by Assistant Commissioner of Police Satbir Rathi, who had climbed the ladder with out-of-turn promotions for such encounters, shot two innocent people in the capital’s busy Connaught Place area. The team claimed that they mistook the two businessmen for criminals they were targetting. The police brass of the time, including me as an observer, believed them.

But there was more to the story. The team’s plans to cover their tracks and their pre-determined intention to kill the criminal proved to be their nemesis. The Central Bureau of Investigation proved the team’s claim of being fired at first to be false. The investigators also proved that the rusty weapon that was found in the car of the deceased was not used. This made them believe that it was planted in the car. Ten years later, the police officers have been held guilty. In the verdict lies a lesson for all hitmen: be cautious. Do not become trigger happy, never cherish a pre-determined intention to kill, no matter how hardened the terrorist or criminal is or whatsoever threat they face.

Maxwell Pereira is former Joint Commissioner, Delhi Police.

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