The official handling – or failure to do so – of a phenomenon known in India as “encounter killings” by police has been condemned by the country’s media as a “failure of the justice system.”
According to Wikipedia, the term has been “used in India and Pakistan since the late 20th century to describe killings by the police or the armed forces, allegedly in self-defense, when they encounter suspected gangsters or terrorists.”
Recently the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state, Yogi Adityanath, reacted to criticism over encounter killings by threatening that those who believed in the language of the gun should be answered in the same manner.
“Two members of the Gaitonde gang had been shot to death in an encounter with the Flying Squad in Bhayander. The police had acted on received intelligence and intercepted the two as they proceeded to a factory office in that locality; the two extortionists had been hailed and told to surrender, but they had instantly fired at the squad, who then retaliated.” This story, as narrated in Vikram Chandra’s 2006 book Sacred Games, is much like those offered by police whenever a fake “encounter” takes place in India.
On February 3, Jitendra Kumar Yadav, a 25-year-old gym trainer, was going home with three friends after attending a wedding in Ghaziabad, near New Delhi, when he was asked to stop his car and was shot at by a police sub-inspector. The officer was arrested and suspended along with three other police personnel.
On February 6, the Delhi High Court sentenced seven suspended Uttarakhand policemen to life in prison for killing a 22-year-old student in a fake encounter in Dehradun in 2009.
Another alleged “encounter” in 1991 led to the 2016 sentencing of 47 policemen to life imprisonment for the slaying of 11 Sikh pilgrims in the Pilibhit district of Uttar Pradesh.
Since Yogi Adityanath became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, 34 alleged criminals, mostly Muslims, have been gunned down in 1,142 encounters. But it’s not just that state; India as a whole is notorious for extrajudicial killings.
The country’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has reported that 555 cases of alleged fake encounters occurred from 2009-2013 in India. According to the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), there were 591 custodial deaths reported across the country between 2010 and 2015.
The police often claim to have acted in self-defense when they encounter suspected gangsters or terrorists and gun them down.
Encounter killing gained popularity in the 1990s and mid-2000s when the Mumbai Police indulged in them to wipe out the city’s underworld. Bollywood movies like Encounter: The Killing (2003), Ab Tak Chappan (Till Now, 56 Killings, 2004), and Shootout at Lokhandwala (2007) justified the gruesome murders in the name of ending crime by intimidating criminals, and several police inspectors were hailed as brave soldiers.
In his 2004 book In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India, Edward Luce explores the encounter phenomenon and describes meeting one police officer in Mumbai who claimed to have been involved in “about 50” encounters, and another officer who had been involved in 80 such killings.
The police often claim to have acted in self-defense when they encounter suspected gangsters or terrorists and gun them down
From the so-called “Bhagalpur blindings“in 1979-1980 in which police in Bihar state blinded 31 people facing trial by pouring acid into their eyes, to the 1987 Hashimpura massacre during the Hindu-Muslim riots in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, when 19 personnel of the Provincial Armed Constabulary rounded up 42 Muslim youths, shot all of them in cold blood and dumped their bodies in canals, to the killing of 20 woodcutters in Andhra Pradesh state in 2015, India has a dubious encounter killings record.
D G Vanzara, the former police deputy inspector general for Gujarat who was indicted in six major encounters, served a jail term from 2007 to 2015. Upon his resignation in 2013, he said: “The CID/CBI arrested my officers and me, holding us responsible for carrying out allegedly fake encounters. If that is true, then the CBI investigating officers for all four cases have to arrest the policy formulators too, as we, being field officers, have simply implemented the policy of this government, which was inspiring, guiding and monitoring our actions from very close quarters.”
Another state that has suffered is Jammu and Kashmir, where encounter killing is an almost daily affair. “Buried Evidence: Unknown, Unmarked, and Mass Graves in Indian-administered Kashmir,” a 104-page report released in 2009 by the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir, recorded cases of more than 50 people allegedly killed by the Indian Army, paramilitary forces and state police after being branded as “terrorists” but who were later found to be innocent civilians.
Although the report says the Indian Army held 58 courts martial, punishment was ordered in only two cases, while other cases were dismissed as minor aberrations. In November 2014, the army sentenced five soldiers to life imprisonment for killing three Kashmiri civilians in fake encounters in Kupwara district in 2010.
On March 20, 2000, 36 Sikhs were gunned down at Chattisinghpora village in Kashmir, and in reaction, the state police, acting in league with the army, killed five innocent civilians. Days before, these five men went missing under mysterious circumstances and then surfaced in what was called the Pathribal encounter. The irony was that these five men were announced as being responsible for the Chattisinghpora massacre. The police burned the bodies beyond recognition and later buried them separately.
In 2012, the CBI filed its final report in the Pathribal case and described the killings as fake encounters and cold-blooded murders. The case was closed in January 2014 since the evidence did not establish a prima facie case against any of the accused.
In May 2003, the Committee for Coordination on Disappearances in Punjab (CCDP) released the first volume of its final report, titled “Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab.” This 634-page volume contains extensive documentation and analysis of hundreds of cases of enforced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killing by the security forces in Punjab during the political unrest of the 1980s and early 1990s.
Fake encounters, in the name of fighting cross-border terrorism, have been the usual mode of killing innocent civilians in Kashmir. And adding insult to injury, lackadaisical investigations, fabricated evidence, corrupt officials, and a failed justice system provide impunity for the perpetrators under the cloak of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA). This draconian law gives immense power to the security agencies in Kashmir and the northeastern states, whereby they indulge in encounter killings.
During the “war on terror,” innocent people, mostly Muslims, have been the victims of state terror. Encounter killing is the easiest way of dispensing justice – the ruthless justice of the medieval period.