New Delhi: Ever since Adityanath took over the chief minister’s post in Uttar Pradesh in March 2017, police have shot dead 190 persons in incidents of alleged exchange of fire that the state terms as “encounters”. During the same period – March 2017 to September 2023—the police in UP also shot and injured 5,591 persons in these incidents.
The high number of people shot by the police reflects the normalisation of the phenomenon.
Releasing the above figures at the Police Smriti Diwas (Police Commemoration Day) event in Lucknow, Adityanath said the “highest priority” of his government was to strengthen law and order in the state, create a sense of security among the public and instil “the fear of the law in criminals”.
While the government flaunts these “encounter” killings and shootings as a hallmark of its “zero tolerance policy” against crime, human rights activists have regularly questioned these operations and called them staged killings rather than spontaneous shootouts. The police claim they shoot people only in retaliatory self-defence, a theory that is often under the scanner due to the similarities in the sequence of events and doubtful details of the alleged encounters.
In Lucknow, Adityanath also said that since March 2017, 16 police personnel had been killed while 1,478 were injured in these operations.
The BJP government has also in an unrestrained manner used the provisions of The Uttar Pradesh Gangsters and Anti-Social Activities (Prevention) Act, 1986 against alleged criminals. The law, which allows the administration to designate people as gangsters and seize their property, has been at the heart of the Adityanath government’s policing tactics even though the Allahabad high court has on a few occasions expressed concerns that the state was misusing the Act. Opposition parties and activists have often accused the government of using the law to settle political scores, intimidate opponents and harass ordinary citizens. The BJP government has regularly invoked it against not just people designated as “mafia” but also opposition party MLAs and leaders.
The numbers speak for themselves.
On Saturday, Adityanath announced that ever since he came to power, the administration had slapped the Gangsters Act against 69,332 persons and the National Security Act against 887 persons.
The UP Gangsters Act, as it is better known, defines a gangster as a member or leader or organiser of a gang and includes any person who abets or assists in the activities of a gang. According to the Act, a gang is a group of persons who act either individually or collectively by violence or threat or show of violence or intimidation or coercion with the object of disturbing order or gaining any undue temporal, pecuniary, material or other advantage for himself or any other person. Section 14 of the contentious Act empowers the district magistrate to attach properties of alleged gangsters.
Adityanath said that his government had taken action against 68 such “mafia” criminals and seized, demolished or freed property from illegal encroachment worth Rs 3,650 crore. He claimed that at present there were no organised criminal gangs operating in the state outside jail. “These criminals have either been sent to jail or have been killed in police action during self-defence,” he said, adding that the police action had increased the sense of security among girls, women, weaker sections and traders.
Social activist Rajeev Yadav, however, questions the government’s tall claims on solving its law and order problem through the use of encounters. “If they are saying that crime is being controlled through ‘encounters’, then why are they lodging an unprecedented number of cases under the Gangsters Act and Goonda Act and having to use bulldozers to demolish property even now?” Yadav asked.
Yadav, who has tracked the issue of extra-judicial killings in UP, says that while Adityanath’s claims on finishing off organised crime may be debatable, what is certain is that there is “more state organised crime now”. By this he means the normalisation of ‘encounter’ shootings with impunity and for even the pettiest of crimes where the accused could be easily apprehended. For instance, Yadav said, in September police in Ambedkar Nagar shot two men on charges of causing the death of a 16-year-old girl who was run over by a motorcycle after they pulled her dupatta.
So entrenched have ‘encounter’ shootings and seizure of property become in day-to-day law and order tactics that every day the UP police DGP headquarters releases a bulletin listing these “commendable” actions. A rough calculation of the official figures shows that since March 2017, police have on average shot and injured 2.4 persons daily and shot dead 2.4 persons on average every month.
On October 21, police in Hamirpur shot a rape accused and recovered a country-made weapon from him. The same day, police and administration in Kaushambi seized moveable and immovable property worth Rs 19.30 crore belonging to two associates of the late MP Atiq Ahmad, who was assassinated in full public view in police custody earlier this year, in one of the worst breaches of security in recent years caught on camera. The action against Mohammad Saud and Mohammad Faiz was taken on the basis of 16 FIRs lodged against them, said police. These included cases of extortion, attempt to murder, murder and illegally occupying land. “We have seized their residences, shops, plots and more than 10 vehicles under the Gangsters Act,” said Superintendent of Police Kaushambi, Brijesh Kumar Srivastava.
Activist Rajeev Yadav says that while in Adityanath’s first tenure, ‘encounters’ were used to send a political message, gradually with time they have become the preferred tactic of the police to show that it was tackling law and order problems. “Now, the police want to maintain law and order through ‘encounters’ and even the public in some cases are now equating them with justice. Police are carrying out ‘encounters’ even in cases of ordinary crimes,” said Yadav. He justifies his argument by referring to the recent killings of six persons over a land dispute in Deoria district where the lone survivor of one family had demanded that the police kill the accused from the other side in ‘encounters’.
The scripts of the alleged encounters have an uncannily identical sequence of events, where police intercept the accused or accused persons or suspects in isolated locations, generally near a highway, a farm or a canal, or at checkpoints. The suspect, almost always riding a motorbike, finding himself surrounded, shoots at the police team, who fire back in self-defence and injure him with their bullet(s). In almost all cases, police recover a country-made pistol from the person, most commonly one that is 315 bore.
The four ‘encounter’ shootings that took place in the state on October 20 follow this pattern. On the night of October 19, police shot a person in Bulandshahr and recovered stolen jewellery from him. On October 20, police shot two persons in Maharajganj and recovered Rs 55 lakh and gold (275 grams) and silver (1.50kg) worth Rs 12 lakh from them. The items were stolen by the accused in a loot on October 10, police claimed.
In Kushinagar, police force from five police stations along with the crime branch intercepted a wanted person near a canal and shot him after he allegedly fired at the police. In another incident in Bulandshahr on the same day, police intercepted a suspect near a flyover and shot him in an alleged exchange of fire. Police said they recovered a 315 bore pistol, a stolen motorcycle and Rs 8,700 in cash that he had stolen.
As reported by The Wire in August, four times more people were killed in ‘police action’ during Adityanath’s first tenure from 2017 to 2022 in comparison with the government of the Samajwadi Party led by Akhilesh Yadav (2012-2017). From the period 2017-18 to 2021-2022, 162 persons were killed in “police action” while 41 persons were killed from 2012 to 2017.