The political reality of fake encounters

Punishing six Guj IPS officers scarcely makes up for the systematic institutionalising of an extra-judicial killing machine

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Ajay Singh | June 10, 2010



If Bollywood mirrors popular culture, trigger-happy cops backed by an insidious state have always been portrayed as saviours. Consider the plot of any movie like ‘Ab Tak Chhappan’ or ‘Wednesday’: a meticulous conspiracy to promote violence is not only regarded as an effective antidote to rising criminality or extremism but also finds approval of the state and society. The message is quite simple: you need to bypass the legal system to get even with the criminals or terrorists.

In that case, what’s so special about the killings of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife Kauser Bi and friend Tulsi Prajapati in fake encounters by the Gujarat police? At least six IPS officers are in jail on the charge of conspiring for the crime. There are indications that the CBI will be shortly closing in on the state’s home minister Amit Shah for complicity in these murders. Going by the police records, Sohrabuddin figured in several criminal cases that ranged from murder to extortion.

There are stories about Sohrabuddin having worked as an extortionist for top officials of Gujarat police. There are also stories about a powerful marble lobby having paid  hefty sums of money to the IPS officers in Gujarat and Rajasthan to get Sohrabuddin eliminated. The killing of his wife and friend Tulsi Prajapati is believed to be just a “collateral damage” in a bid on part of the officers to cover up their tracks after Sohrabuddin’s encounter. Is that a new story?

“The disadvantage of men not knowing the past is that they do not know the present.”

G K Chesterton

Sohrabuddin’s case bears this out. The CBI’s dogged pursuit of the killers of Sohrabuddin, Kauser Bi and Tulsi Prjapati is unlikely to cloak the hideous face of the state that has consistently encouraged and even legitmised “fake encounters” to contain crime and criminals. Sohrabuddin’s case is just a sequel to a series of extra-judicial executions carried out by the state on the pretext of containing crime. And there is a long history of the state’s overt patronisation of extra-judicial executions which may have caused a brief political outcry but subsided in due course of time.

Not many would now recall the cold-blooded murder of Sunder, a dreaded gangster of west Uttar Pradesh, by the Delhi police during the emergency. The then commissioner of police, PS Bhinder, a close ally of Sanjay Gandhi, shot Sunder dead near ITO allegedly at the instance of a coterie around Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. This was among the allegations probed by the Shah commission while investigating the excesses of the emergency. After the emergency, the Janata Party regime pursued the case for political reasons but later gave it a quiet burial. Bhinder’s wife was even rewarded thereafter, with a Lok Sabha seat and a ministerial berth in the PV Narasimha Rao government.

Sunder’s was the first high-profile case of a killing in ‘encounter’ with the police which was highly politicised during the emergency.  Indeed, it marked the beginning of the “encounter regime” where politicians tacitly allowed the police to give institutional legitimacy to extra-judicial executions. During his stint as the UP chief minister in the early 1980s, VP Singh gave the go-ahead to police officers to kill or capture brigands in the Chambal ravines. The police was so emboldened that even political activists such as Mulayam Singh Yadav had to go into hiding to protect themselves from the trigger-happy police. On the pretext of containing dacoits in the ravines, the police gunned down hundreds of innocent emerging political activists, mostly from the other backward classes (OBCs).

It was indeed ironical that the Mandal messiah of later years did not bat an eyelid while giving a free rein to the trigger-happy policemen in carrying out execution of suspects without even a semblance of a trial. Persistent protests by a feeble Opposition were ignored by Indira Gandhi. VP Singh’s legacy has continued in the state through successive regimes irrespective of party affiliations. In many cases, IPS officials have been used as henchmen by political leaders to eliminate rivals. The killing of Mahendra Fauji, a Gujjar criminal in Bulandshahar, caused a rift in the SP-BSP coalition and ultimately led to the fall of the government. Fauji was regarded by Mayawati as her own while Yadav found him politically too inconvenient to be allowed to live. Obviously politicians tend to protect or eliminate criminals as per their own assessment of the latter’s political utility.

During the 1980s and 1990s, politicians of all hues not only promoted violence but also legitimised it as an effective instrument of the state in curbing terrorism and criminality. In 1987, an IPS officer in Meerut rounded up 40 Muslims from the riot-torn areas of Hashimpura and Maliana and shot them in cold blood. A few of them jumped into the Hindon river and survived to tell the gory tale. An inquiry was ordered, but only to hush up the issue. The same officer ordered killing of 13 Sikh pilgrims in Pilibhit on July 13, 1990 after branding them terrorists. A CBI probe ordered by the Supreme Court exonerated all senior officials and launched prosecution against 50-odd junior policemen whose crime was to obey their boss’  illegal commands. All senior officers were, however, let off by the CBI for want of evidence.

In Delhi, the infamous Connaught Place encounter claimed the lives of two innocent businessmen who were tipped off as “terrorists” to the police by an informer. Though the ACP and his team went to jail, the then police commissioner Nikhil Kumar was rewarded with a Lok Sabha seat. Nikhil Kumar is now a prominent leader of the Congress from Bihar. In fact, the most admired police officer of our time is KPS Gill whose claim to fame has nothing to do with “ethical policing” but with having turned Punjab police into a killing machine to curb terrorism. He is regarded as a hero who single-handedly exterminated Punjab terrorism.

There is no denying the fact that the so-called encounter experts became poster-boys among the urban middle-class. Be it Delhi, Mumbai, Patna, Lucknow, Jaipur, Bhopal or Ahmedabad, there emerged a new breed of trigger-happy officials who were instantly eulogised as saviours for delivering justice like fast food. Since these officials are seen as agents of the state, their illegitimate means were not only ignored but also encouraged by the state. That is why no IPS officer has ever been booked for a fake encounter in UP where the police has been on a relentless killing spree for years. And there is hardly a case of encounter where the CBI has ever reached the political bosses.

Herein lies the difference. This is the first time that the heat has been turned on the political executive in Gujarat. And there is no denying the fact that more often than not, the political establishment had encouraged the trigger-happy instincts of the police. In UP and Bihar, there are serious allegations against top police officers for playing executioner at the behest of their political masters. There is no reason to believe that the killings in fake encounters in Gujarat would be different. But will the CBI go so far as to hold the political executive accountable? If it does so, it will be a welcome change. Let this opportunity be utilised to trigger a full-blown debate on the state’s not-so benign facet which insidiously promotes violence against hapless citizens. But this debate should by no means be confined to Gujarat. Is it not widely known that extra-judicial executions are brazenly resorted to by the security personnel in Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast on the pretext of curbing insurgency?

Violence has become so intrinsic to statecraft that the state has been exhibiting its machoism by launching operations against socially and economically marginalised tribals and rural poor in the name of curbing Maoism. In such a political scenario, it would be naive to believe that the CBI has been working with a noble intention to  expose the hideous face of the state. Any possibility that the CBI is acting as a mere tool for the Congress to put the Narendra Modi government in the dock is fraught with grave social and political consequences. A serious examination of the state’s role in promoting violence and the complicity of the political executive is likely to be overwhelmed by vitriolic political communal rhetoric. That will certainly be a travesty of justice.

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