Fake encounters and the Indian state


There is little legitimacy for the kind of killings police and other security forces have been resorting to lately

All the gory details of the calculated murders of Sohrabbudin Sheikh, his wife Kausarbi and a police informer late last year in a fake encounter near Ahmedabad by a police party, comprising, among others, three IPS officers, are now in the public domain. While the shock and outrage felt by a concerned civil society at the gruesome event is understandable, the extent of support and approbation that Vanzara and his co-accused have received from several quarters, including some politicians, is somewhat difficult to readily accept.

Not that it is an altogether new development. Only a few years ago, similar approbatory affirmations greeted the Punjab police for their brutal handling of Sikh militancy. Indeed the Punjab police could not have employed the shockingly repressive measures in the centrally-ruled State unless its leadership was sure of full state backing.

A large segment of Indian society too approved of its tactics, despite its deeply tainted operational record of kidnappings, disappearances, extortions and brutal killings, which left thousands of Sikhs traumatised and disabled for life.

In fact, the Punjab police are believed to have refined the art and science of fake encounters to near perfection, right up to ferrying alleged terrorists from far off places in vehicles with fictitious number plates to home ground and then bumping them off.

If Vanzara and other such encounter specialists are found to have accumulated assets worth several crores, one has only to look around Chandigarh and its satellite towns to marvel at the mansions, farmhouses and holiday resorts that cropped up in the aftermath of Punjab militancy. Yet those nightmarish happenings in Punjab remain shrouded in a conspiracy of silence for obvious reasons, although they have become a veritable model for anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism strategies, spawning a culture of state terrorism and hard policing all over the country.

Dangerous trend

This is obviously a deeply flawed and dangerous trend. For, Indian law does not sanction the use of deadly force against alleged criminals of whatever category except when a member of the public is under an imminent threat of loss of life or serious injury from a criminal act and there is no other means available to the police to save his life.

This right of private defence is also available to a member of a police or security organisation, placed in a similar situation. Even then the law requires that adequate warning is given before using deadly force to neutralise the threat. There is thus little legitimacy or justification for the kind of encounter killings the police and other security forces have been resorting to lately all over the country.

Even then, cold-blooded acts of murder to deal with dacoit gangs, crime mafias, extremists and terrorists and faking the misdeeds as encounters have lately become a much-favoured strategy with South Asian police forces as our legal and judicial architecture remains rooted in mid-nineteenth century concepts and enactments and is frequently found wanting in delivering quick and effectual justice to cope with the current upsurge in militant and extremist violence.

What is more, South Asian political and bureaucratic establishments are not averse to promoting the belief that encounters, fake or otherwise, are an acceptable mode of combating terrorism, militancy, mafia crimes and other such organised and ruthless criminal activity. Encounter killings have, thus, not only acquired substantial acceptability among many otherwise fairly discerning members of our civil society, the so-called encounter experts are also greatly lionised in films and other media.

Most military and security top brass openly and many politicians secretly prescribe the same treatment for the growing Maoist insurgency. In the face of such demonstrated state support for extra judicial killings, is it any wonder that more and more policemen, including IPS officers, are inclined to short-circuit the due process and win medals and accolades in the bargain?

Unless substantive and sustainable corrective measures are taken urgently, the ability of our police to meet the myriad emerging challenges in a lawful manner will continue to deteriorate, leading soon to a collapse of the rule of law and civilised governance that form the bedrock of a modern, democratic and responsive polity. Are we prepared for that to happen?

( The writer is a former Director General of Police, Punjab)

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