On May 21, the Supreme Court-appointed commission headed by Justice V.S. Sirpurkar concluded that the encounter of the four persons accused in the Disha rape case was staged by the police.
The Commission found that the four accused were deliberately fired upon by the police with the intention to kill them during the encounter. Telangana’s Cyberabad police led by Commissioner V.C. Sajjanar had accompanied the accused to crime scene on December 6, 2020 when two of the accused snatched their weapons and began firing. Police claimed that despite warnings from the police to surrender, the accused refused and continued firing, resulting in their deaths.
However, the Commission refuted the police’s version and recommended that the 10 police personnel involved in the encounter be prosecuted for murder. It also held the Telangana police guilty of destroying and/or withholding evidence. The Supreme Court has now transferred the entire case to the Telangana High Court for appropriate action.
The findings of this inquiry raises the questions of how many such encounters have been staged in India through the years; whether police personnel have been held accountable for such cases; and what the judicial remedy has been in such cases.
Police encounter killings in India
As per the National Human Rights Commission’s (NHRC) annual report for 2018-19, there were 164 deaths due to police encounters that year. In the five years from 2013-14 to 2018-19, the number of yearly encounter deaths were 137, 188, 179, 169 and 164 respectively.
As per the report, the highest number of police encounter deaths were reported in Uttar Pradesh (23), followed by Assam (23), Maharashtra (11), Meghalaya (7), and Manipur (5). While 158 cases were registered over alleged police encounter deaths, only 98 were deemed as encounters after the NHRC’s investigations. Moreover, the NHRC has recommended disciplinary action against police personnel in only 25 cases of human rights violation (including encounter deaths) and no prosecutions of any personnel.
Similarly, in 2020, only three cases were registered against police personnel for encounter killings, according to the annual National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report. In these cases, only two policemen have been arrested, but none charge-sheeted. The report also reveals that seven cases of custodial deaths were registered in which four policemen were arrested and three charge-sheeted. There were three reported custodial deaths of under-trial prisoners while escaping from jail—one each in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Rajasthan.
The report also highlights the gaping difference between the number of cases registered against policemen and the consequent number of those convicted. As per NCRB, 20 cases were registered against policemen for human rights violation in 2020. However, only eight policemen were charges-sheeted across India and no one has been convicted.
Recent encounters & court judgements
Ishrat Jahan encounter
In June 2004, the Gujarat police Crime Branch had fired upon and killed 19-year-old Ishrat Jahan, Javed Shaikh (alias Pranesh Pillai), Amjadali Akbarali Rana and Zeeshan Johar as they were allegedly linked to Pakistan terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and had planned to assassinate the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi. The Gujarat government had refused sanction to prosecute the accused police personnel under Section 197 of CrPC, which requires State government’s approval for prosecuting judges and officials on duty.
The CBI had registered a case against the Gujarat police officials after a High Court-appointed Special Investigation Team had concluded that the encounter was fake. However, the six accused police officials were discharged from the case after the State government held that the officials did their official duty.
The Special CBI court discharged D.G. Vanzara and N.K. Amin from the case in May 2019, while former Gujarat Police Chief P.P. Pandey had been discharged from the case in 2018. Two years later, the discharge of the remaining three police officials — G.L. Singhal, Tarun Barot and Anaju Chaudhary — was approved the CBI court.
D.G. Vanzara who had retired from service on May 31, 2014 was granted promotion by the Gujarat government, with retrospective effect, in 2020.
Vikas Dubey encounter
In July 2020, Uttar Pradesh police and gangster Vikas Dubey were involved in a firing incident as the team approached to arrest him. The gangster — who had 60 cases registered against him — fled the scene with his aides, after killing eight policemen. After almost a week-long search operation, Dubey was apprehended by Madhya Pradesh police at the Mahakaleshwar temple in Ujjain. He was later handed over to the Uttar Pradesh Special Task Force (STF) to whom he allegedly confessed that he held a grudge against one of the slain policemen.
However, while Dubey was being transferred to Kanpur by U.P. STF, the gangster was gunned down as he allegedly attempted to flee. The police claimed that the government vehicle ferrying him met with an accident, after which Dubey snatched a firearm from an injured policeman and fired at them. The police claimed that Dubey was shot in an act of self-defence and died on the way to a hospital.
Moreover many media crews who were following the police vehicles were stopped as they entered Kanpur at 6.30 a.m. At multiple points, media personnel were stopped and their identities were verified by police before being let into the city. However, when the media crews caught up with the police , they found that it had overturned and Dubey had been gunned down.
After Dubey’s family moved the Supreme Court over the encounter, a 3-member judicial commission headed by Justice B.S. Chauhan was tasked to probe the encounter.
In April 2021, the Commission gave a clean chit to the police, stating that no evidence has been found against the police force. Moreover, no eyewitness appeared in the case to negate the U.P. Police’s version of events in Dubey’s encounter.
Batla House encounter
On September 19, 2008, Delhi police carried out an armed raid at Batla House after receiving intelligence that Indian Mujahideen operatives responsible for the September 13, 2008 serial bomb blasts in Delhi, which killed 30 and injured over 100, were hiding at that location. As the police team led by Inspector Mohan Chand Sharma approached the location the five residents began firing at him, resulting in a 20-minute encounter between the two sides.
Two Batla House occupants — Mohammad Sajid and Atif Amin — were killed in the encounter, while Shahzad Ahmed and Ariz Khan (a.k.a. Junaid) escaped, and Mohammad Saif was arrested. Inspector Sharma was killed while head constables Balwinder and Rajbir Singh were injured.
In 2013, Shahzad Ahmed was arrested and was sentenced to life imprisonment by a trial court. In 2018, Ariz Khan was arrested by Delhi Police’s Special Cell from Nepal; and in March 2021, he was sentenced to death by a Delhi court for killing Inspector Sharma and injuring Balwant Singh and Rajbir Singh during the encounter.
Disha gang-rape & encounter
A 27-year-old veterinarian doctor was gang-raped by four — Mohammed Arif, Jollu Shiva, Jollu Naveen, Chintakunta Chennakeshavulu— who later burnt her body under a culvert in Hyderabad’s Mahbubnagar on November 27, 2019. Amid massive public ire, the four accused who were housed in Chanchalguda Central Jail were gunned down in a police encounter on December 6, 2019. A 10-member police team had accompanied the accused to recreate the crime scene in the early morning on that day. Police claimed that two of the accused snatched their weapons and opened fire at the police but were gunned down in counter fire.
Later, the Supreme Court constituted a three-member panel headed by Justice V.S. Sirpurkar to probe the encounter. On May 21, 2022, the panel dismissed Telangana police’s claims and recommended charging all 10 police personnel with the murder of the four accused in the ‘fake encounter’.