The ‘encounter’, October 31, 11 a.m. It’s a sleepy vigil for Ram Kumar Soni, the lone security guard manning a construction site on the outskirts of Acharpura village near Bhopal. The odd conversation with a construction worker taking a break, or an indulgent chase of a deer or rabbit that would sprint past him on occasion — that, in sum, has been his ‘eventful’ life for the past year.
On October 31, however, when half-a-dozen policemen approached his shanty around 7 a.m., Soni knew something was amiss. The men in khaki alerted him about > eight operatives of the banned Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) who had allegedly escaped from Bhopal Central Jail the previous night. They left him their numbers while leaving, just in case.
Soni had almost forgotten about the police visit until around 9.30 a.m. when, while loitering around on a hill close to his shanty, he heard some villagers shout about the presence of the SIMI men on a rock nearby. Soni sprinted back towards his shanty. “My mobile phone was not working, so I picked up my motorcycle and rode towards Acharpura (about a kilometre away) in the hope of spotting the policemen. Thankfully, I did not have to travel far,” he says.
Eager for local help in negotiating the lay of the land and its rocky terrain, the policemen asked Soni to hop on to their vehicle and show the way. They drove till the point the rocks allowed them before launching their pursuit on foot till they spotted the SIMI undertrials standing atop a rock right on the edge of the hill.
Mohan Singh Meena and Suraj Singh Meena, residents of Khejra Dev village that is located around two kilometres down the hill that was the ‘encounter’ spot, claim credit for spotting the SIMI men first and alerting the police. Mohan, the village sarpanch, had received WhatsApp messages about the escape from the police at 6 a.m. and had circulated it among the villagers before venturing out with his brother on a motorcycle in search of the fugitives. “We were informed that the undertrials could have chosen our village or nearby areas as their hideout,” he says.
The Meenas claim to have spotted two strangers washing their faces as they rode past a stream in their village around 8.30 a.m. “They were speaking an unknown language which aroused our suspicion. Within minutes, they were joined by six other men. We were then certain they were the escaped prisoners,” claims Suraj.
The brothers immediately called the police, quickly formed a group of villagers, and began following the undertrials, albeit from a safe distance. “We did not want to alert them but as more villagers (from the Manikhedi Kot village nearby) joined us, they realised they were being followed. They began abusing and threatening to attack us even as they hurried towards the hill at the end of the village,” recalls Suraj. Soon, the police joined the villagers. How the group of eight made the steep vertical climb of 60 feet, with villagers and the police in hot pursuit, remains unexplained.
The group could progress no further from the rock on which they had assembled. “While dozens of policemen stood with guns pointed at them from below the hill, many more had surrounded them from all sides on top,” says Pappu Meena, a farmer of Acharpura village. Hundreds of people from at least half-a-dozen nearby villages had by then gathered all around the hill, effectively blocking any escape.
“We stayed at the base of the hill because the undertrials were occasionally throwing stones at us. Later, they even fired a few shots in our direction, forcing the police to fire several rounds in the air,” claims Suraj.
Barring Suraj and Mohan, however, none of the > dozens of eyewitnesses The Hindu spoke to recall seeing the SIMI undertrials armed with guns. “I could see the police fire several rounds at the undertrials. I think I heard some shots being fired from the other side too, but I am unsure if it was by the SIMI undertrials or the policemen who had taken position on the other side,” says Pappu. Manoj Meena, a resident of Manikhedi Kot, also says he saw only the police shoot at the SIMI undertrials. “There was no gunfire from the undertrials. They pelted a lot of stones, but did not fire. Even after they were killed, I did not spot any pistols next to their bodies. I only saw a knife and a heap of stones lying next to them,” he says. Halkori Lal, who works as a chowkidar, says curiosity drew him to the ‘encounter’ spot. “I think all the eight men were already dead when I was allowed to go closer to the spot around 11.30 a.m. People were shouting slogans like ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ and ‘Police Prashasan Zindabad’. The police were trying to stop the sloganeering, but it did not have any impact,” he says.
A large number of villagers also recorded the ‘encounter’ on their mobile phones. “The policemen initially tried to stop them, but gave up as there were way too many people capturing the incident,” says Soni. Some locals even claimed that the cops took away their mobile phones and returned them only after deleting the videos.
But soon after, unsourced videos and audio made its way on social > media platforms providing a glimpse into what appears to be a calculated decision to kill all eight. In one, voices can be heard giving instructions to surround and kill the men, some of whom were waving their hands at the police.
The police, however, claimed that they recovered four countrymade pistols from the dead undertrials. Yogesh Choudhary, Inspector General (Bhopal Range), told the media that three of his men had sustained injuries inflicted with sharp weapons. This, despite locals not witnessing any physical contact between the runaways and the police.
While most of the villagers believe that whether in self-defence or not, the police were right in gunning down the undertrials, they say it was possible to keep at least a few of them alive. “Those men were in a death trap. They were surrounded from three sides and could not have jumped from the rock as that would have meant a certain death. Some of them could have been spared,” says Ashok Chowkse, a resident of Manikhedi Kot village. “The bodies lay there for at least two hours after the encounter,” he claims. Lalit, a farmer who claims to be among the first to reach the ‘encounter’ spot, says had the police not arrived, the villagers would have cornered the men into surrendering. “We would have lynched a few of them and handed them over the rest to the police for interrogation. It did not seem really difficult to contain a group of eight men.”
The jailbreak, October 31, 1 a.m. The spot where the encounter took place is around 10-12 kilometres by road from the Bhopal Central Jail from where the undertrials allegedly escaped after killing a guard and tying up another. Once a prisoner manages to scale the outermost wall of the jail, he or she has to walk around eight kilometres through agricultural fields before reaching the place where the eight were first spotted.
The jail officials’ account of the prison layout hardly presents a secure picture. The eight men were part of a bunch of 21 SIMI undertrials lodged in a “high-risk” ward that is divided into two blocks. Each of these prisoners was allotted one cell. Jail officials said these undertrials could meet each other only for a few minutes every day, mainly while taking bath or washing clothes or when they had their meals.
Makrand Deuskar, Inspector General (Law and Order), says the decision to keep all these SIMI undertrials in the same ward was taken for better security management and easy arrangement of video-conferencing for their trials. But they were guarded by a total of only four men, two each in the two blocks.
M.R. Patel, the Deputy Inspector General of Prisons, offers a theory of how the eight escaped:“The escape operation began with two or three of these eight men opening their cell locks using keys they had carved out of their plastic tooth brushes.” Once two-three of these prisoners escaped their cells after midnight on October 31, goes Patel’s version, they slit the throat of Ramashankar Yadav, one of the guards, before tying up another guard. Aluminium plates and spoons provided to prisoners were allegedly sharpened to serve as weapons used in their escape. “They then snatched the keys to the other cells and freed their associates,” claims Patel.
The prisoners then had to scale a 10-feet-high wall located immediately outside their cells. This, Patel says, they did by forming human pyramids to help each other mount the wall — the presence of iron spikes on the wall making their job easier. They then faced a 35-feet-high wall, their only obstacle to freedom from there. “They found some wooden logs near the wall, placed them parallel to each other and tied bed sheets at regular intervals to make a ladder,” says Patel. The outermost wall of 35 feet is, however, joined by a shorter 20-feet-high wall that divides the two blocks of the high-risk ward. The prisoners allegedly used a combination of a human pyramid and their makeshift ladder to first scale the shorter wall and then climb onto the higher wall. Thereafter, they apparently tied several bed sheets together to slide down the wall.
This entire > operation would not have taken them less than 45 minutes , say jail authorities, but all through, the prisoners were not spotted by the guards. Those tasked with patrolling the area between the two walls scaled by the inmates did not happen to make a round of that area, says Patel. Security personnel deployed on top of watchtowers did not spot the group of eight men even once, and no patrolling takes place outside the precincts of the maximum-security prison.
The main gate of the prison is located less than 50 metres from the outermost wall. It is guarded by three security men at all times, but none of them heard any sound that night. “We did not sense anything suspicious… (In any case) we have no instructions to patrol the periphery of the jail wall,” says Umrav Singh, one of the three guards on duty that night.
With no obstruction whatsoever after scaling the outermost wall, the prisoners could simply walk across the road into the fields. By the time the jail officials learnt of the prison guard’s murder and the escape around an hour later, the eight men would have been far away.
The police, however, are bewildered how the prisoners could travel only such a short distance in the eight hours before they were tracked down. “Any person would generally walk at a speed of five kilometres per hour. At that rate, these men should have covered at least 30 kilometres. We will need to probe this,” says Deuskar.
Eight deaths and funerals, Nov. 1-2 For the family of these killed men, the > entire ‘encounter’ story’ is an “elaborately planned operation” ordered by the government.
Two of the funerals took place in faraway Sholapur, Maharashtra — that of Khalid Ahmed — and Juhapura, Ahmedabad, of Mujeeb Sheikh. It was at Khandwa, however, where the tension was most palpable — five out of the eight killed hailed from here. The administration marked a separate route for the funeral processions of Jakir Hussain, Sheikh Mahbub, Amjad Khan, Akil Khilji and Mohammed Salik, whose bodies were first brought to Gulmohar colony in front of Akil’s home for a prayer meeting. “I had a tough time controlling the crowd as tempers ran high at the sight of the five bodies,” says advocate Javed Chouhan, who was representing all five SIMI men from Khandwa in court.
Chouhan claims that other than Akil, the other seven had no connections with the SIMI. “Even Akil was associated with the SIMI when it was not a banned organisation (i.e. before 2001),” he says, accusing the Madhya Pradesh Police of killing the eight men in a “fake encounter”.
Not surprisingly, the family members of the deceased men concur. “It is impossible to run away from a high-security prison like Bhopal Central Jail. Most of them were on the verge of being acquitted soon, which may have been one of the reasons they were killed in cold blood. It’s visible in the videos of the encounter circulated on social media,” claims Chouhan’s brother Khalil, who was kept with the others in Bhopal Central Jail but released last year. “Amjad was not a terrorist. The entire locality can testify for him. Even ATS (Anti-Terrorism Squad) men termed him a good man,” says Firoz, his brother-in-law. Badrul Husain is worried for his other sons after losing his eldest son Jakir. “No court had proved that my son had any links with the SIMI. He used to sell vegetables for a living,” he says.
There was only his grandfather, Kallan Sheikh, to receive Mahbub’s body; his mother is lodged in a Rourkela jail also for alleged SIMI links and his father, a beggar, died a few years ago. “Mahbub told me during my last visit to him 10 days ago that all eight of them were being kept in the same lock-up until midnight. Is it not suspicious?” alleges Kallan.
The same day as in Khandwa, Mahidpur in Ujjain accorded a martyr’s burial to Abdul Majeed. The 38-year-old Majeed had surrendered in a court in 2013 after the police accused him of carrying explosives. “So many CCTV cameras stared at us each time we visited my brother in jail. The jail guards would point them out to us each time. How come none of those cameras was working on that day,” questions Zulekha Bee, his sister. She claims Majeed had been telling her that he would be killed in a “fake encounter”. “As soon as I saw the news of his escape, I knew he was going to be gunned down in a staged encounter.”
The town, located around 250 kilometres from Bhopal and with a population of around 50,000, is also gripped with fear about the future — apart from Majeed, four other Muslim men from Mahidpur are currently in the Bhopal jail on charges of being SIMI operatives. Working as drivers, masons, electricians and farmers, these barely literate men were either arrested or surrendered in court in late 2013/early 2014 after being accused of being involved in terror operations. They are lodged in the same ward where Majeed was kept.
The family of Sajid Hussain, a 36-year-old tempo driver who surrendered in January 2014, says he has been repeatedly mentioning about being killed in jail. “Whenever I go to meet him in jail, some ATS officers confront me outside and warn me against making frequent visits. They threaten to get my brother killed in jail,” alleges Sajid’s brother Wajid.
Mahidpur town is gearing up for a long battle. The locals here are an angry lot, but they have vowed to fight for “justice” the legal way. “The truth about the staged encounter is emerging one by one. The police have done most of our work,” says Abdul Raheem, Majeed’s elder brother.
with Pavan Dahat and Mahesh Langa.