Why Vikas Dubey killing marks a watershed in history of encounters

Updated on Jul 10, 2020 08:26 PM IST

The killing of Vikas Dubey marks the brazenness of a compromised political and police establishment.

People stand next to an overturned vehicle which was carrying Vikas Dubey, accused of ordering the killing of eight policemen, near Kanpur, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.(REUTERS)
People stand next to an overturned vehicle which was carrying Vikas Dubey, accused of ordering the killing of eight policemen, near Kanpur, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.(REUTERS)

Much of the commentary surrounding the killing of gangster Vikas Dubey conflates two separate issues. The first is the whole business of encounters, in which policemen kill suspects in custody and then pretend that they were shot while being apprehended or while escaping.

The second is the killing of Dubey and what it tells us about the state of law and order in India, the brazen nature of custodial deaths in today’s India and the nexus between politicians and gangsters.

Of the two issues, the problem of so-called encounter killings has already been much discussed. No person who believes in the principles of the Indian Constitution can support murder by policemen. The Constitution provides for due process and protects the right of the citizen to be regarded as innocent till proven guilty.

The problem is that the vast majority of middle class Indians, even if they don’t actively support encounters, are willing to turn a blind eye. Among politicians, bureaucrats and policemen, the proportion of those who strongly support encounters is even higher.

The argument that used to be offered for the popularity of encounters focussed on the inadequacy of the legal system. Cases take years to come to trial. In the interim gangsters are given bail and resume their criminal activities. Even Dawood Ibrahim, it is often pointed out, was out on bail when he fled the country for Dubai.

Moreover, most cases rely on witnesses. In India, the police lack the resources to protect witnesses so by the time the case comes to trial, the witnesses have been intimidated into changing their testimony.

In many countries this would be seen as an argument for reforming the judicial system, or building more courts and speeding up trials. In India, however, this is seen as an argument for bypassing the judicial system entirely and letting policemen play judge, jury and executioner.

As far back as the late 1960s, encounters were used to finish off the Naxalite movement. In the 1980s they were used during the Punjab insurgency. And it is now taken for granted that if there is an insurgency against the Indian state, the judicial system will be replaced by a policeman’s gun.

The use of encounters in normal policing used to be controversial but it has gradually been accepted as a matter of course. In the 1980s the Mumbai police killed gangsters at will to free the city from the grip of the underworld. In many cities, police officers are earmarked for execution duties and even romanticised in popular media.

In recent years public support for these killings has grown, partly as a result of encouragement on social media and on news TV. Anyone who raises doubts about the execution of a gangster is attacked for being on the side of the bad guys or for failing to support ‘our men in uniform’.

The danger with this let’s-just-kill-them-all hysteria is that the police now have carte blanche in many states to kill who they like, when they like and how they like.

If there is a case that arouses public anger, they don’t really need to find the culprit. It is easy enough to round up some random suspect and then declare that he was “killed while trying to escape”.

Those of us who have questioned this pro-encounter frenzy have tried to point out that even those who regard encounters as pragmatic and expedient must worry about the effect they have on the police and therefore on law and order in general.

The killing of Vikas Dubey in police custody vindicates every doubt and every reservation that has been expressed about our willingness to turn the police into executioners.

From what the police themselves have told the media, Dubey was a gangster with political links and patronage and had ties to the police department. These ties allowed him to flourish for years and to ignore the many cases (for such offences as murder) that were registered against him.

In early July, a police party that went to arrest him was ambushed and eight policemen lost their lives. The UP police said then that Dubey had been tipped off by one of its men.

In the week that followed, the UP Police seemed strangely unable to apprehend him. Various Dubey associates were caught and killed (on grounds of “trying to escape from custody” etc.) Eventually, Dubey was arrested in Ujjain on Thursday. There is still some doubt about whether he was apprehended by the Madhya Pradesh police or whether he arranged to give himself up in a very public place to ensure that he was not shot “while trying to evade capture.”

During the arrest process, he was eager to establish his identity, shouting his name out so that every bystander (many of whom were filming the arrest on their mobile phones) knew that he had been taken alive.

Till that point, it had been widely speculated that the UP police would kill him because he knew far too much about the policemen he paid off and the politicians who had kept him in business.

But once he was captured alive and on camera, that became difficult to do.

Or did it?

Because the UP police killed him anyway.

They shot him while transporting him from Ujjain to Kanpur, offering the usual story that he had been shot while trying to escape.

Journalists have pointed out many holes in the police version. The police claimed that the car Dubey was in had overturned. In fact, video footage shows that Dubey was in another car. More tellingly, there were journalists following the police convoy. They were stopped before the “encounter” so that they could not see what actually happened. One group of journalists had to hand over their car keys to the police after they were stopped.

Besides, why would Dubey, who had gone to such lengths to ensure that he was taken alive in a public place, suddenly change his mind and attempt an escape thus providing the UP police with the perfect opportunity to kill him?

None of this makes much sense. But what makes the least sense is this: how brazen do the UP police have to be to go ahead and kill a man who everyone said they would bump off?

Their cock and bull story about the circumstances of the shooting is so weak that it suggests that they didn’t even bother to make up a convincing explanation. They were going to shut him up and didn’t care what anyone would say.

We have now reached the situation that the legitimisation of encounters inevitably leads us to. The police can kill anybody, even when it is obvious that they have a clear motive: the man could divulge information that would harm the political and law enforcement establishments. And they can do it in the most brazen manner possible when everyone has already warned that they will bump him off.

Excuses will be made. The usual questions will be asked: Who do you trust? A gangster or the police? Are you sorry that this loathsome character is no longer among us? And so on.

But the killing of Dubey marks a watershed in the history of encounters in India. Till now, the debate was about the ethicality of encounters .

Now, it has gone beyond that.

The issue that matters is: have we become a country where politicians can patronise gangsters and then, when things get awkward, ask the police to bump them off even as the whole country is watching?

The killing of Vikas Dubey suggests that the answer is a resounding yes.

(The views expressed are personal.)


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