Chennai witnesses the largest number of fatalities in a single operation

After a lull in 2011, the first case of death in police encounter returned with a bang on Thursday with the Chennai Police gunning down five men suspected to be involved in two bank robberies.

Suspects getting killed in encounters at the hands of the Tamil Nadu police is not uncommon and there have been many in recent years, including those involving the death of dreaded forest brigand Veerappan in 2004, Al-Umma activist Imam Ali and his associates in Bangalore and some Maoist cadres.

Though human rights activists raise a hue and cry in every such case and there have been judicial enquiries, statistics reveal an average of four encounter deaths each year since 2006. Thursday's case is unique as it is the largest encounter in terms of the number of people killed.

“No man in uniform has a right to decide who is to live or die. However, opening fire is inevitable when the life of a policeman or civilian is in danger. Unless there is a genuine reason to believe that any delay might endanger the life of an innocent person, shooting should only be a last resort,” D.R. Kaarthikeyan, former Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) who led the Special Investigation Team in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case said.

A few human rights organisations reacted on Thursday. Henri Tiphagne, Executive Director of People's Watch, said it was unfortunate that police did not come out with their version till noon on Thursday. The fact that the media was not allowed to witness the scene of encounter indicated that the police had something to hide.

“I hope the long silence of the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) in the last six years in encounter killings and custodial deaths will be broken at least now. Our petition seeking investigation by a Special Investigation Team under the direct supervision of the High Court, like in Gujarat, into encounter killings is pending in the Madras High Court,” he said.

Pointing out that there was ample opportunity for the police to apprehend the suspected bank robbers alive, A. Kathir, Executive Director of ‘Evidence', demanded that a murder case be registered against police personnel involved in the operation. The Chief Justice of the Madras High Court should take suo motu cognizance of the incident and order a probe. A team of doctors should conduct post-mortem examination on the five bodies and the process should be videographed, he said.

Representatives of the People Union for Human Rights, Tamil Nadu Chapter and the Federation for Peoples' Rights, Puduchery also demanded a probe by a sitting High Court judge. Till such time it was proved that the police opened fire only in self-defence, the case should be investigated as a murder, they said in a statement.

Former Director General of Police R. Nataraj was of the view that police were not ornamental pieces and trained to act in times of crisis to uphold the rule of law. “In the instant case, a north Indian gang armed with weapons committed two bank robberies. Such crimes affect the community as a whole and police are under tremendous pressure to detect the cases. When a dangerous criminal opens fire indiscriminately what can you do…retaliating fire in self-defence is well justified,” he said.

The story has been corrected for an error.