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Police: our willing executioners

As long as the middle class treats the police force as its assassins of choice, there will be more Gujarats, more murders and more injustice, writes Vir Sanghvi. Write to the author

india Updated: May 10, 2007 13:32 IST

Almost all the decent, well-meaning liberals I know have reacted to the recent revelations about the fake encounters in Gujarat in one of two ways. The first, and more common, response has been to regard the killings as confirmation of the liberal view of Narendra Modi. The victims were Muslims, and they were allegedly murdered by police officers with close links to the chief minister.

The second response has been to argue that even if the link with Modi and his style of governance cannot be sustained, the fact that police officers in any part of India regard it as entirely normal to pull a man off a bus, to murder him in cold blood, and to rape his wife before poisoning her and burning her corpse is shocking.

I agree with both responses. I do not think that it is entirely accidental that the murders took place in Modi’s Gujarat and, yes, of course, it is disgraceful that police officers should behave in this manner.

But here’s my problem: I don’t believe that either response adequately addresses the main issue.

The real problem is not that Modi is a bad man or that the policemen in question behaved badly. It is that the Indian middle class has been content for too long to allow the police force to function as its assassination squad. Few of us have thought through the consequences of our attitude to encounters. If we did, we would recognise that incidents such as the Gujarat murders result inevitably from our readiness to ask our policemen to function as our willing executioners.

Encounters are almost as old as independent India. They began in the 1950s when policemen who were fighting the dacoit menace in the Chambal ravines discovered that the best way to destroy the power of the daku gangs was to murder their leaders. Because dacoits held entire districts in their thrall (a phenomenon celebrated in Hindi cinema from the 1950s to the 1970s), policemen would shoot the outlaws dead and then line up their bodies for villagers to view. Triumphant cops would be photographed with their feet on the heads of dacoits in imitation of pictures of great white hunters and the word would go out: do not be frightened of these thugs; the police will kill them one day.

Though we romanticise the early days of independent India, the truth is that this policy had widespread public sanction even in that era. The political class wanted it known that nobody could escape the power of the Indian state and law-abiding citizens were entirely pleased to see the dacoits shot dead without the inconvenience of the judicial process.

In the 1960s, the same approach was followed in fighting the Naxalites and in combating insurgencies in the Northeast. By the 1970s, police forces in the cow belt regarded it as totally legitimate to shoot mafia leaders dead in bogus encounters. Many will argue that militancy in the Punjab would not have ended without the fake encounters that were the hallmark of the state police’s fight-back against terrorists (the so-called bullet-for-bullet policy) in the 1980s. And by the 1990s, every police force in India was cheerfully bumping off gangsters in cold blood.

Each time the policy of bogus encounters was questioned by human rights activists, the same arguments were trotted out. It was not that the police enjoyed murdering people, we were told. It was that the judicial process was so slow, corrupt and time-consuming that it was almost impossible to bring hardened gangsters to justice. Far easier to just shoot them dead.

Perhaps these arguments were valid when it came to fighting terrorism. But as a means of imposing law and order? Surely, it was not that difficult to persuade judges to deny bail to gangsters? Was it really impossible to find evidence against hardened criminals?

The police claimed that it was. Each time the policy was questioned, they retorted that the inefficiency and corruption of the subordinate judiciary made it impossible to rely on the criminal justice system. Those of us who retorted that the subordinate judiciary was a lot less inefficient and corrupt than the police force itself were drowned in the chorus of middle-class approval. No matter what human rights issues were raised, the middle class remained solidly supportive of the policy of fake encounters.

On the few occasions that there was a public outcry over police murders, it was only about mistaken identity. In the 1990s, the police commissioner of Delhi lost his job after his men shot businessmen dead in a car on Barakhamba Road mistaking them for criminals. The middle class objected to the murder of innocent people. But nobody made the point that any execution on the streets of central Delhi was a travesty of justice. Had the car contained the criminals the police believed it did, then there would have been no problem and no outcry.

Other cases of mistaken identity have rarely caused a stir if the victims have been poor or powerless. A few years ago, the Bombay Police shot a chanawallah dead after mistaking him for a gangster. The papers tried to make a fuss but readers were simply not interested.

Over the last decade, I have written frequently about the dangers posed to society by our tacit encouragement of fake encounters. I have argued that even though the police have the support of the middle class, this policy represents a serious threat to public safety for several reasons.

One: even within various police forces, there is no clarity on the sanctioning of encounters. In Delhi or Calcutta, for instance, it is unlikely that policemen would kill a suspect without informal permission from a very senior officer. But in Bombay, members of a special hit squad (since disbanded) could kill pretty much anyone they wanted without any sanction or accountability. In Bihar and Gujarat, senior officers are unable or unwilling to rein in their trigger-happy juniors.

Can any society afford a policy where any policeman can kill anybody at will and then later claim that the victim was a gangster or a terrorist? And yet, that’s exactly where India is headed.

Two: once you give policemen the licence to kill, you turn them into hitmen for hire. In every single city where encounter specialists have been feted for their murderous skills, these men have gone freelance. Rajbir Singh, the Delhi Police’s encounter specialist, has been accused of working as an enforcer for builders and landlords. (When tenants protested, he threatened to kill them in encounters.)

In Bombay, Dawood Ibrahim has decided that it is cheaper to bribe policemen to kill his rivals than it is to hire gangland hitmen. Senior police officers will tell you about at least two or three IPS officers who were in the pay of the don and murdered his enemies to the rapturous acclaim of a credulous public. Daya Naik, Bombay’s encounter specialist, now faces criminal prosecution over charges that he made millions by renting out his services.

In Gujarat, DG Vanzara, the officer at the centre of the current controversy, has been accused of accepting contracts from dons and some accounts say that he is worth Rs 150 crore, not bad going for a man who was promoted from the ranks.

Three: Narendra Modi’s rivals claim that, in this case, Vanzara was acting at the chief minister’s behest. Even if this is not true — and so far, there is no hard evidence — it is clear that policemen are increasingly functioning as the personal assassins of politicians. In Bombay, for instance, the Shiv Sena government was accused of using the police to wipe out Arun Gawli’s lieutenants when Gawli’s political ambitions posed a threat to the Sena.

Can any democracy tolerate this kind of sanctified political murder?

Four: What worries me the most about the encounter policy is that it is based on class. We, in the middle class, are content to avert our eyes while the police do our dirty work for us — as long as the victims are not people like us. The police recognise this constraint. They know that we will let them do as they wish provided they avoid murdering middle-class people. And so, slum dwellers, poor villagers, landless labourers and those at the fringes of our society live lives that can suddenly be terminated by a police bullet fired at the whim of a sub-inspector. No matter how many of them die unnecessary, unjust deaths, middle class India will refuse to protest or intervene because — and haven’t we heard this many times before? — “there is no alternative to encounters”.

So, while I share the liberal outrage over the Gujarat killings, and I hope that the murderers are brought to justice, I do not believe that this will be enough. As long as the middle class treats the police force as its assassins of choice, there will be more Gujarats, more murders, more rapes and more injustice.

Unless of course we treat this case as a wake-up call, and not as an isolated instance of police excess. Because even if Vanzara did pull the trigger, he acted at our behest. We were the people who gave him his gun — and we gave him his licence to kill.

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