Encounters and Impunity: India’s Undeclared War

The death of Cherishterfield Thangkhiew in Shillong in an 'encounter' and the so-called 'zero tolerance' policy once again raise troubling questions about state killings.

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I live far from Shillong, where an alleged staged ‘encounter’ has recently singed the city with arson, protests resulting in political resignations, curfew, and the obvious Internet ban, India’s antidote to civil society anger.

I used to live in Shillong once, where violence was a way of life till the 90s – except you won’t find any official records. It is merely anecdotal. The violence was largely against non-tribal residents who were eventually evicted. There is no record of that displacement either. By the mid-90s, the tribal–non-tribal violence gave way to an insurgent wave that lived its natural cycle and waned like most insurgencies in the region. Until two low-intensity blasts were reported in the past two months. The police claimed they had “clinching evidence” of insurgent revival and launched an operation in which Cherishterfield Thangkhiew, a former militant and co-founder of the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) was killed. Hundreds of people mourned his extra-judicial death not because they sympathised with a forgotten armed extortionist outfit, but they were registering their protest against what they thought was an inept and high-handed government.

Meghalaya’s capital Shillong wears a deserted look after curfew was imposed to clamp down on unrest that broke in the aftermath of Cherishterfield Thangkhiew killing. Photo: Twitter/@Prin2pin.

In neighbouring Assam, political developments since the formation of the new assembly have been even more strident. Just as BJP chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma took charge on May 10, he declared war on cattle smugglers, rapists, murderers, drug peddlers and dacoits. Until mid August, 23 people were shot by the police while in custody. Five died. In counterinsurgency operations, another 10 encounters were reported in the last 2 months. The chief minister was blatant. He told the Assam assembly, “My clear instruction (to police) is do not break the law, but within the law… you take extreme action, and the Assam government is going to protect you.”

Assam, however, has a sinister past with ‘encounter killings’, state-sponsored violence that reached its apogee after devastating effects of state killings in Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, West Bengal, and Punjab. According to confidential government reports in the last 12 years in lower and central Assam, more than 550 alleged “undergrounds” have been killed with only five casualties on the side of security forces. Officers involved in these operations claim that most of the killings could have been avoided.

But this recent trend of “zero tolerance” as good governance was the flagship project of a Hindu monk who is the chief minister of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh.

Also Read: A Chronicle of the Crime Fiction That is Adityanath’s Encounter Raj

According to reports 139 ‘criminals’ have been killed and 3,196 injured in encounters with the Uttar Pradesh Police since 2017. More than 6,000 encounters were recorded. The state even passed a Gangster Act under which more than 13,700 cases have been registered and 43,000 people have been arrested in the past four years. Land and property worth hundreds of crores have been seized. Crime very often in this country is linked to land grabbing.

Though Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra have led the numbers in state encounters, one of the most controversial legislative provisions in India which facilitates encounter killings in the state’s forces and shields them from justice for their criminal misdeeds, is the armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA) applicable in Kashmir and several states of India’s northeast.

In May 2017, I wrote about a curious case of a police officer who blew the whistle on an encounter. In a letter dated April 17, 2017 Rajnish Rai – who was the then inspector general of police with the Central Reserve Police Force (Northeastern Sector) – alleged that the killing of two suspected insurgents in March was not an encounter, as the security forces involved in the operation claimed, but “pre-planned murders.” In a joint operation conducted in the early hours of March 30, in Simlaguri in the district of Chirang, the CRPF along with the Assam Police, the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), and the Sikh Light Infantry of the Indian army ‘eliminated’ two men.

In 2007, Rai, a 1992 batch officer from the Indian Police Service had arrested three senior IPS officers – D.G. Vanzara, Rajkumar Pandiyan, and M.N. Dinesh – for the fake encounters of a gangster, Sohrabuddin Sheikh, and his wife, Kausar Bi, in November 2005. His letter on the Simlaguri killing should have raised adequate alarm but the authorities managed to bury the matter. He was moved out.

Gujarat IPS officer Rajnish Rai.

Since then, there were two inquiries (Court of Inquiry) conducted by the Indian Army on the 7th Sikh Light Infantry, the unit involved in the alleged murder. Confidential reports of the Army’s inconsistent ‘sitreps’ indicate something was amiss. The initial sitrep dated March 30, 2017 claimed a successful operation in which 26 rounds of ammunition were spent. Based on that, the unit was awarded a citation. Following Rajnish Rai’s letter, the ‘sitrep’ was amended on July 11, 2017 calling it ‘wrong reporting’, and the commanding officer was ‘counseled’ for ‘procedural inadequacies’ by GoC 21 Mountain Division. The awards, however, were never withdrawn and a second court of inquiry report was ordered with the change of command in Eastern HQ. The findings held the unit responsible for misreporting and only “procedural anomalies” were “observed”. Incidentally, the then Eastern Army commander is the present Chief of Army Staff (COAS) and the unit involved in the alleged murder is his unit.

In August 2018, the Supreme Court admitted a PIL by E.A.S. Sarma against three incidents of alleged fake encounters including Simlaguri. With the revelation of the army’s admission, the court may wish to take cognizance of the same.

Professor Kishalay Bhattacharjee is executive dean of Jindal School of Journalism and Communication and author of Blood on My Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters.