Encounters are our killing fields

“Thalappavu” which means turban or headgear signifying status is a 2008 Malayalam film that tells the story of young Naxalite leader Arikkad Verghese, based on the confessions of police constable Ramachandran Nair who was ordered to kill him. When he was shot, Verghese, 31, was already a folk hero among tribals in the forests of Wayanad. He led the Naxalite movement in the area that fought the oppression of adivasi bonded labour by feudal landlords. Nair’s public confession in 1998 that he had shot Verghese on the orders of K.Lakhshmana then a deputy superintendent of police, led to the senior officer’s arrest and a life sentence. The film version of this story empathised with the social and political issues of the Naxalite movement of the 1970s in Kerala, when many of its revolutionaries fell to bullets. Though the police and State establishment moved away from such extra-judicial killings, the “encounters” of the Naxalite era have haunted Kerala since. Notably Verghese.

The inspector or sub inspector-level officers who carried out these killings became known as “encounter specialists” and acquired a frightening lack of accountability, twinned with unlimited resources and privileges unlike their predecessors or counterparts.

Notably also, Kerala had no swashbuckling heroes with holstered guns and crisped uniforms. Like Nair, many were ordinary policemen often just ordered to do the “job”. Some of the ‘chambers’ used to torture suspected Naxalites reverted to normal offices, and the only indication of an unholy past seemed to be the hushed voice of the senior officer as he pointed out to this writer, one of the rooms used for Kerala’s infamous “roller” treatment: “this is where it happened.”

Mumbai has been a different story of a slide. In January 1982, a Bombay crime branch team led by Rajendra Tambat and Isaque Bagwan shot dead Manohar Arjun Surve in an eastern part of the city called Wadala. Widely known as “Manya”, and categorised by the police as a gangster, Surve became the earliest “encounter” case in Bombay. The men who killed Manya Surve were regular sub inspectors assigned to what is called the Detection of Crime Branch.  Though Tambat and Bagwan returned to their routine work, they inadvertently became the first example of an estimated 1,200 killings by the Mumbai police over the next two decades. The people the police killed in encounters were described as “criminals”, the various reasons for this final solution often concluded with “self-defence”. One or more weapon of offence was usually “found” strategically close to the dead “criminal”.

"Police officers turned rogue are infinitely more dangerous than the criminals they pursue daily"

The script had changed though. The Mumbai police officers found quick support and encouragement. The inspector or sub inspector-level officers who carried out these killings became known as “encounter specialists” and acquired a frightening lack of accountability, twinned with unlimited resources and privileges unlike their predecessors or counterparts. Daya Nayak, Praful Bhosale, Ravindranath Angre, Vijay Salaskar (killed in the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai) became celebrated names. Their deeds have been recorded as daredevilry in a number of Hindi films.

At least eight Hindi films, like “Ab Tak Chappan”, said to be on the life of Daya Nayak, closely followed and magnified their images, making them even delusional. “Criminals are filth and I’m the cleaner”, encounter specialist Pradeep Sharma once said. Sharma, an inspector with 312 listed “encounter killings” stopped only when he was suspended for the death of Ram Narayan Gupta or Lakhan Bhaiyya, who was picked up on suspicion of being a member of one of Mumbai’s prominent underworld gangs. A Sessions judge however acquitted Sharma in 2013 while sentencing 13 other policemen involved in the case to life imprisonment.

So why is India surprised when Sachin Vaze, an assistant police inspector, was found camped in a five-star hotel, drove a Mercedes, and could walk into the Police Commissioner’s office at will? He was doing what his counterparts had done: leading extravagant lifestyles bankrolled with dubious, often gangland funds, showing clout that led to the offices of the powerful and using privileges unheard of by police officers of any rank. The lifestyle of Vaze, reinstated after suspension, may have run on with impunity and sans question if he had not recently been accused of parking an SUV laden with gelatin sticks outside Antilia, the residence of Industrialist Mukesh Ambani. The mysterious death of the owner of the SUV Mansukh Hiren, a businessman and friend of Vaze, involved him further.

The detention of Vaze, the transfer of city police commissioner Param Bir Singh (who could not have not known this) and the court ordered enquiry into the corruption charges they levelled against Home Minister Anil Deshmukh are all parts of a worrying picture that has a long history. “Police officers turned rogue are infinitely more dangerous than the criminals they pursue daily. They enjoy the protection of the uniform and consequently become a law unto themselves,” the retired, highly regarded police officer Julio Ribeiro observed after the Vaze-related events unfolded in Mumbai, shocking India.

The detention of Vaze, the transfer of city police commissioner Param Bir Singh (who could not have not known this) and the court ordered enquiry into the corruption charges they levelled against Home Minister Anil Deshmukh are all parts of a worrying picture that has a long history.

And yet, as Ribeiro noted this violent alternative has been thriving on the adulation of the urban middle class which sees raw justice effected on the streets as an alternative to what is sold as a failure of the judicial system. What people have failed to really see is a bunch of uniformed criminals protected by the State, operating with impunity. Or, maybe, Vaze has been an eye opener. The public acceptance of extra-judicial killings by the police or the armed forces, supposedly in self-defence, have led to what are reportedly staged fake encounters to cover-up the killing of suspects when they are either in custody or are unarmed.

At another level the extra-judicial killing has been a contested and divisive police procedure for decades. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), has been raising concerns against this for years. In March 1997, Justice M N Venkatachaliah, NHRC chairperson and former Chief Justice of India said in a letter to all State Chief Ministers: “under our laws the police have not been conferred any right to take away the life of another person”, and “if, by his act, the policeman kills a person, he commits the offence of culpable homicide …” The NHRC records that there have been as many as 1,782 cases of fake encounters registered in India between 2000 and 2017. That Uttar Pradesh accounts for nearly 45 percent (794 cases) of these cases could be a testimony to the “thok doh” policy of CM Yogi Adityanath. The CM said on television "Agar apradh karenge toh thok diye jayenge (if they commit crime, we'll take them out)." He has been untroubled by the hail of criticism especially after the encounter killing of Vikas Dubey last July. Dubey was killed after he was handed over to the UP police who claimed he tried to flee after the SUV carrying him overturned.

The extra-judicial killing has been a contested and divisive police procedure for decades

Challengers of this system are few and they have been ignored.  When investigating cases of staged encounter killings in 2007, a 1992 batch IPS officer named Rajnish Rai, then DIG of the Crime Investigation Department, Gujarat arrested three senior IPS officers (DG Vanzara,  Rajkumar Pandiyan and MN Dinesh) for the alleged fake encounter killings of  gangster, Sohrabuddin Sheikh, and his wife, Kausar Bi two years earlier. He was taken off the investigation and put in a “non-post” as DIG of the State Crime Records Bureau.  

A decade later as Inspector General of Police with the Central Reserve Police Force (North Eastern Sector), Rai in a letter in April 2017 alleged that the killing of two suspected insurgents in March was not an encounter as the security forces involved in the operation had claimed, but “pre-planned murders.” Lucas Narzary and David Islary believed to be from the militant National Democratic Front of Bodoland were shot by two units of the CRPF that reported they were killed in an exchange of fire with a group that attacked them. An enquiry revealed the lie. As Rai notes in his letter. “Instances of custodial killings raise fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the State…. This incident evokes a terrible picture of criminality, cowardice, lack of integrity and a complete erosion of honour.” 

(The writer is the Managing Editor of The Billion Press)

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