Even by the standards of modern-day villainy, there is something particularly heinous about the murder for which three senior police officers from Gujarat and Rajasthan have now been arrested. On November 22, 2005, a bus travelling from Hyderabad to Sangli in Maharashtra was stopped by the police in the dead of night and a couple Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kausar Bano taken into custody along with a third man. Four days later, the Gujarat police announced that Sohrabuddin had been shot dead in an "encounter" and that information in their possession led them to believe he was part of a Lashkar-e-Taiba plot to assassinate Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Ms. Bano has not been seen or heard from since the night she was arrested. It can only be presumed that she too was murdered while in police custody. The third man, believed to be a police informer named Tulsiram Prajapati, was killed in a subsequent encounter with the police, presumably because he could not be trusted to remain silent about his knowledge of the manner in which the Sheikhs had been eliminated.

This horrendous episode has come to light because Sheikh's family refused to accept police claims about the original encounter and moved a habeas corpus petition. Acting on that petition, the Supreme Court asked the Gujarat government for the facts. A subsequent inquiry by a conscientious officer, Geetha Johri, established not just the fake nature of the encounter in which Sheikh was killed but also the sinister and meticulous planning that went into the entire operation hatched by the police officers who now stand indicted. While the law must now take its course, it is essential that we reflect on the wider political and law enforcement culture in Gujarat and the rest of India that allows such brazen crimes to be committed in the name of combating terrorism. Communal and divisive regimes thrive on the climate of insecurity, fear, and suspicion that sensational assassination and terrorism plots produce. However, the problem of police impunity runs much deeper as citizens in Kashmir, the North-East, and other parts of India know only too well. While pursuing the case of the Sheikhs, the apex court must try and come up with a judicial remedy for the victims of fake encounters and disappearances all over the country. In Gujarat, the killing of the Sheikhs is not the only suspicious case to come to light. There have been at least two dozen encounter killings in the State in the past few years and every one of them must be subjected to an independent probe.