Fake encounters have become common but India needs to get back to rule of law, however weak and slow it may be.
In her 22 minute televised press conference attacking the UPA government’s decision to revise the home ministry’s affidavit to the Gujarat high court on the Ishrat Jahan encounter killing, Union Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman hurled not one but two accusations against the Congress. The first was that it had ‘created a charade’, of an innocent girl being killed in cold blood by a brutalised police, when it knew from its own intelligence inputs that she had been a member of the Lashkar-e Taiba cell that had been sent from Pakistan to kill chief minister Narendra Modi. As my article in The Wire showed last week this was pure political jousting.
But in the furore that followed Sitharaman’s second, more serious, allegation slipped into peoples’ minds through the cracks created by the first. This was that by unleashing the CBI on the case, and allowing it to interrogate officers and men of the Gujarat police endlessly in their search for evidence with which to discredit the Modi government, the UPA had divided and demoralised the police and security agencies, and harmed the country’s security.
To make this accusation Sitharaman glossed over the fact that the CBI had had to be brought in because the reaction of the Gujarat government to affidavits presented to the Gujarat High Court by two ‘whistleblowers’ in the government, S.P. Tamang, chief metropolitan magistrate of Ahmedabad, and Satish Verma, member of the Special Investigation Team set up by the Gujarat high court after it received Tamang’s report, showed that it had no intention of indicting its own police personnel.
Both had presented evidence to the court that the four had been killed in cold blood at least six hours earlier, and that whatever the other three might have been, Ishrat Jahan could not possibly have been a Lashkar terrorist.
Debate on faked encounters
When Gandhinagar took no action it left the Centre with two choices: turn a blind eye, or turn the case over to the CBI. It started out to do the former but in 2009, with faked encounters in Punjab, Assam and Kashmir already a subject of anguished debate in the country and media empowered by satellite TV and internet, this option was closed. Embarrassing Modi was a bonus.
Why did Gandhinagar make itself complicit in the killings? The short answer is that by 2009 faked encounters had become a part of India’s unwritten code of criminal justice. When the Ahmedabad CBI court dismissed the CBI’s charges against former home minister Amit Shah, he did not say “God and our courts are just, I have been vindicated”. He said , “these accusations were politically motivated. There have been far more encounters in other states. Gujarat has had the fewest encounters, and also has one of the best records in maintaining peace.” Why, he asked in short, were we singled out?
However repugnant one may find his reasoning, it would be less than just to dismiss it out of hand, because ‘encounters’ have been the Indian State’s way of dealing with dangerous criminals and insurgents since well before independence. In the 1920s Sultana Daku was caught and hanged by the British under due process of law, but large numbers of others simply disappeared. After independence, in its half century long bid to clear the Chambal ravines the Madhya Pradesh Police killed more than 500 dacoits. A majority, police sources told me then, were killed after being captured. It was to avoid this fate that others surrendered.
In 1980 and 1981, during the chief ministership of V.P. Singh, the UP police killed more than 2,000 dacoits in Uttar Pradesh. The newspapers of the time were rife with accusations of fake encounters and the deaths of innocents. But that campaign did curb the menace of dacoity in the state and open the way for its development.
Integral part of counter insurgency
In more recent years fake encounters have become an integral part of counter insurgency operations in Punjab, Kashmir and the North-East. In Punjab, in particular, this policy was forced upon the police by the acute shortcomings of the criminal justice system, and by the insurgents practice of killing judges, and the families of high profile policemen to paralyse the this criminal justice system.
The insurgencies have all but ended, but the practice of letting the police be the judges and executioners of persons considered too dangerous to allow back onto the streets, has taken on a life of its own. Today, dozens of bodies are being recovered from the state’s irrigation canals every week. According to Inderjit Singh Jaijee, the human rights activist who brought this to light, many are farmers who have committed suicide, but the majority are what he terms ‘missing people’. At a time when Punjab is being overwhelmed by drug smugglers with powerful political patrons, the possibility that many of these are captured drug smugglers cannot be ruled out.
Initially Kashmir suffered less from the disease of fake encounters than Punjab. But, contrary to what Kashmiris had expected, fake encounters, extortion and other crimes committed by the police multiplied after 1996, when the elected government shifted the responsibility of ‘mopping up’ the remaining ‘terrorists’ from the security forces to the police. Today it is their frequent misuse of power in the rural areas, and continuation of the bestial practice, also adopted in Punjab, of awarding prize money to those who bring in the heads of alleged terrorists, that is mainly responsible for the resurgence of terrorism in South Kashmir.
In Gujarat, the growing disquiet in civil society was not stoked, much less manufactured, by the Congress. It became the focus of civil society’s disquiet because none of the conditions that had made people condone the shortcuts employed by other state governments existed there. Gujarat did not face an insurrection, and the handful of home grown and imported terrorists who came there after the 2002 riots had not even tried to kill judges or policemen’s family members.
Turf wars between smugglers
It had a large and variegated Muslim population with a prosperous middle class component. The communal riots that it had experienced every few years since 1969 had been triggered by turf wars between rival gangs of smugglers and illicit liquor vendors, and not religious passion. Had the riots of 2002 not taken place the state would in all probability, have remained entirely free of terrorism and encounters, whether genuine or fake.
The Godhra train burning and the riots that followed changed everything for they were the very first to be covered by television. Previously people had only read circumscribed reports. This time millions actually saw the burnt bogey of the Sabarmati express and the corpses being carried out from it. Nearly 2,000 people died in the riots that followed, and for the first time the killing was fanned by pure communal hatred.
Without waiting for an enquiry Modi and his cabinet jumped to the conclusion that the Godhra train burning was the work of Muslim terrorists and adopted a pro-active policy of prevention in anticipation of terrorist reprisals.
The custodial killings that occurred between 2002 and 2005 ,for which 32 police officers and men await trial today, were the outcome of that policy. They were therefore not only morally indefensible, but actually increased the threat of a future communal insurrection by showing Muslim youth how casually their fundamental right to life could be taken away from them.
Nirmala Sitharaman is right when she says that the controversy over the Gujarat encounter killings has demoralised the security apparatus of the country and seriously weakened it’s security. But curiously enough, the officers and men indicted for them blame the Modi government, and not the Congress for their plight.
Their monumental sense of betrayal was captured by D.G. Vanzara, director-general of Gujarat’s anti-terrorism force and widely known as its ‘encounter specialist’, in the letter of resignation from the India Police Service, that he wrote from jail on September 1 2013. Forfeiting all his post-retirement benefits Vanzara wrote:
“To the best of my knowledge, nowhere in any part of the country, such a big number of police officers were/are arrested and continuously being kept in the jails for such a long period of time except in the state of Gujarat. The most notable part of the whole episode is that they are made to suffer in the jails, inspite of the fact that they had been, and are, loyal soldiers of this government who fought incessant war against Pakistan inspired terrorism with complete honesty, integrity and sincerity without falling prey to any of the mundane temptations….
With the passage of time, I realized that this government was not only not interested in protecting us but it also has been clandestinely making all efforts to keep me and my officers in the jail so as to save its own skin from CBI on one hand and gain political benefits on the other…..
‘I, therefore, would like to categorically state in the most unequivocal words that the officers and men of Crime Branch, ATS and Border Range, during the period of years between 2002 to 2007, simply acted and performed their duties in compliance of the conscious policy of this government … we have simply implemented the conscious policy of this government which was inspiring, guiding and monitoring our actions from the very close quarters.”
Vanzara’s letter contains no tinge of remorse, but also none of communal rancour:
“A monstrous episode of Godhra train burning and equally horrible post-Godhra riots in Gujarat provided a pretext to Pakistan based terrorist outfits like Let, JeM and D gang under the direct supervision of ISI, to “convert Gujarat into another Kashmir” by exploiting the sentiments of the muslims all over the world.”
Listing 14 bomb blasts, five assassination attempts and two fidayeen attacks on the Rath Yatra and the Swaminarayan temple at Akshardham, he concludes: “I can say with pride that my officers and men not only successfully prevent(ed) Gujarat from becoming another Kashmir, but were also instrumental in providing a solid atmosphere of durable peace and security in the state”.
The bulk of the letter is a violent diatribe against the Modi government, and Amit Shah in particular, for having abandoned his police force when it most needed their support.
“This government suddenly became vibrant and displayed a spur of sincere activities only when Shri Amitbhai Shah, former MOS, Home, was arrested by CBI. It (engaged) Shri Ram Jethmalani, the most learned, senior most and highest paid advocate of India … and got him released on regular bail within (the) record time of 3 months of his imprisonment.
In contrast, when I, along with Rajkumar Pandian and Dinesh M.N, was arrested by the CID Crime, forget about providing the legal services, nobody from the government bothered even to provide a lip service to us or to our family members. (The) Gujarat police … used to be one of the finest … in the country till the coronation of this government in Gandhinagar. Today the same proud police … stands totally shattered and demoralized (by)….. the continuous betrayal of jailed police officers since last six years”.
Gujarat is not the only state in which the police feel betrayed. Within weeks of the end of the Khalistan insurgency in 1993 the Punjab police was assailed by a spate of indictments for carrying out fake encounters. The feeling of betrayal this generated in the police was highlighted when a senior superintendent of Police, A.S Sandhu, threw himself in front of a train to express his protest.
Re-instating indicted policemen
Today the Modi government is frantically trying to make amends by bailing out and re-instating indicted police officers. P.P. Pandey, police commissioner of Ahmedabad in 2004, was not merely released but is now the director general of police in Gujarat. Former assistant commissioner of police ( crime) in Ahmedabad, N.K. Amin, has been made the superintendent of Police for Mahisagar district.
Vanzara, who was released on bail in December 2014 on condition that he did not enter Gujarat, has been allowed to do so . He was greeted with flowers on his return to his village by no less eminent a person that DGP P.P Pandey, and is now being wooed by the BJP to join politics, while still being indicted for murder.
Modi does not seem to realise that the further the government goes down this road the more will India become a country that is not only without law, but one that flaunts its disregard for the very concept of law. When this realisation sinks in abroad, India will become not only an economic but also a political pariah.
This must not happen. The first requirement for containing and repairing the damage that has already been done is for all political parties to admit their culpability and jointly resolve never again to allow anyone in police custody to be killed, or punished in any other way, than through the due process of the law. Existing laws, like the National Security Act, allow incarceration for long periods. Prisoners deemed to be too dangerous to be incarcerated in their home state can be sent to jails in distant parts of the country. If it is deemed necessary to protect judges and witnesses, trials can also be held in these locations, and conducted in camera.
None of this involves rocket science. If it hasn’t been done so far—if government after government has continued to take the easy route of killing inconvenient prisoners, it is because clever lawyers have made a fine art out of subverting justice by raising procedural issues that make trials last forever. As Pakistan is showing with its 21st constitutional amendment and military tribunals, this too can be got around, although at some cost in terms of fairness and equity. But some legal process, however restricted, is a huge improvement over sanctioned, extra-judicial murder.