Even the slain have conscientious supporters. The blatant and unmistakable signs of cold-blooded murder of unarmed people in broad daylight in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana immediately led to vehement protests. Some activists have refuted the theories put forward by the police, and several leading voices of the legal fraternity have cried foul about the official version that has been trotted out.
On 7 April, 25 people were killed in two ‘encounters’ involving alleged terrorists and red sandalwood smugglers and the State apparatus. The lawyers and family members of those killed in Warangal district of Telangana have argued that there was already a threat to the lives of their children and they had written to the court about it, requesting for their transfer from Warangal jail to some other jail in Telangana. Viqar Ahmed, who was accused of killing two policemen, had made his request to the court just two days before he was killed. An encounter right after these pleas indeed raises some tough questions for the Telangana Police. In 2012, Viqar’s father Mohammad Ahmed had also written to the Chief Justice of the High Court of Andhra Pradesh and sent a copy to the president of the Andhra Pradesh Human Rights Commission. Tehelka has a copy of that letter. Moreover, Mohammad asserts that his son’s name was Viqar Ahmed and not Viqaruddin — the name being flashed all over the media.
According to the police narrative, Viqar and four other ‘terrorists’ were being taken to a court in Hyderabad from Warangal, a distance of almost 150 km, when he requested his handcuffs to be removed so that he could attend to “nature’s call”. But the moment the handcuffs were taken off, he tried to snatch the arms of the policemen, and so did the other men in the police van, even though they still had their handcuffs on. Subsequently, the police had to open fire leading to their death. This narrative, however, is being widely challenged by those who are calling it “cold-blooded murder”.
Manisha Sethi of the Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association, who is also the author of Kafkaland: Prejudice, Law and Counterterrorism in India and had published a report, Framed, Damned and Acquitted: Dossiers of a ‘Very’ Special Cell, called the police narrative “laughable” and full of loopholes, which makes no more realistic than a “a fairy tale”.
“The photographic and video evidence from the police van in which the killings took place strongly suggests that it is a case of cold-blooded execution of undertrials in custody. The weapons on the five bodies, with their hands chained to the seats, appear to have been clearly planted in order to dress the site up as if an exchange of fire had taken place there. Is it mere coincidence that the verdicts in the cases of the slain men were to be pronounced soon?” asks Sethi. “No sane person would believe that the 17 armed policemen who were present in the vehicle could not subdue five handcuffed men.”
The Hyderabad-based Civil Liberties Monitoring Committee (CLMC), which is demanding a judicial probe into the incident, has termed the killings as yet another attack on the liberal-democratic principles of the Indian Constitution. A statement released by the committee reads: “The story planted by the top brass of the police is nothing but a bundle of lies and it seems that high-level police officers had already planned the killing of the five youth to send a message to the Muslim community that their lives depend on the mercy of the police. It is a clear act of suppression. In this killing a particular mindset is at work and the Telangana Police are completely under the influence of a fascist mindset.”
An anguished Lateef Mohammad Khan, general secretary of the CLMC, tells Tehelka, “The recent custodial murders in the name of encounters in Nizamabad, Miryalaguda (Nalgonda district), Ranga Reddy and Sangareddy (Medak district), cordon-and-search operations and rampant illegal detentions clearly indicate that the formation of Telangana state has done little to rein in police atrocities. On the contrary, human rights violations have peaked. Telangana has become a police state, with Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao and Deputy Chief Minister T Rajaiah playing a subordinate role vis-à-vis the police. During the movement for statehood, Rao had assured the Muslims of safety and security, but now he seems to have gone back on his promises.”
Viqar’s father recalls meeting him a few weeks ago in jail. “I had never seen my son so anxious,” he says. “The expression on his face revealed something unusual. As if he knew what lay ahead. But he hesitated to share anything with me. The fear in his eyes, though, was clearly visible. I had been apprehensive ever since that meeting and my fears turned out to be true on the morning of 7 April.”
The others who were killed along with Viqar were Md Hanif Khan, Syed Amjad Ali, Md Zakir and Md Izhar Khan. All of them were undertrials.
Viqar’s lawyer MA Azeem says his client would have been freed soon had he not been killed. The prosecution had examined most of the witnesses in his case and the only ones left to be examined were the investigating officers. The court had already quashed one of the four cases of robbery slapped on him.
Viqar was arrested in 2010 and charged under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for suspected involvement in the murder of two police constables. Later, he was implicated in several other cases, including one under Section 307 (attempt to murder) and four under Section 390 (robbery).
Hanif’s advocate Muzaffarullah Khan tells Tehelka, “Hanif would have been a free man had he not been killed. The court had already examined 30 witnesses in the case and nothing substantial came out of it. Only the investigating officers were yet to be examined. The case was under Section 120-B, for being a part of the conspiracy to kill the police constables. He was also accused of helping Viqar rent a flat in Ahmedabad.”
Meanwhile, the Telangana government has decided to constitute a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to look into the matter.
On the same day that Viqar and the four other undertrials were gunned down in Telangana, the Special Task Force (STF) of the Andhra Pradesh Police killed 20 woodcutters in the Seshachalam hill ranges near Tirupati in Chittoor district. The woodcutters were allegedly cutting down red sandalwood trees for a smuggling ring. The Andhra Pradesh government and the STF have claimed that the police personnel had to fire in self-defence as the woodcutters were pelting stones at them.
However, the human rights groups that probed the incident have debunked this narrative and presented a different story. People’s Watch, a Tamil Nadu-based rights group, which has recorded the statements of three witnesses, claims that it was clearly a staged encounter. On 13 April, two of them deposed before the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in New Delhi and repeated what they had told People’s Watch.
Sekar, a daily wage labourer and resident of Pudur Kollamedu village in Tiruvannamalai district, said that on 6 April, after hearing from his relative and neighbour Mahendran about a job opportunity in the construction sector in Chennai, he left for the city with Mahendran and two others — Murthy and Munusamy. After their bus crossed Arcot bus stand at around 2.30 pm, a thick-mustachioed man of medium height, who seemed to be around 30 years old and sported cropped hair, boarded the bus and asked Mahendran to get down. When asked about his identity, the man pulled Mahendran by his shirt and dragged him out of the bus. After a while, Sekar discretely looked back and noticed that Murthy and Munusamy were also missing from the bus. A scared Sekar got off the bus and managed to make his way back home.
The next day at 7.30 pm, some policemen came to his village, showed him Mahendran’s photograph and told him that he had been shot dead in an encounter. Later, he learnt that Murthy and Munusamy, too, were among the 20 people killed by the STF.
The NHRC could not record the statement of the third witness, Illangovan, who could not travel to New Delhi as he did not possess any identity card. But his statement made to People’s Watch corroborates Sekar’s narrative. On 6 April, Illangovan was on his way to find masonry work outside his village along with a fellow villager Paneerselvam. Some policemen picked up the two and threw them into a lorry that was carrying 30-odd people. The vehicle was taken to the Forest Ranger’s office in Kezthirupathy. Ilangovan somehow managed to run away from there and reached his village. Later at night he saw
Pannerselvam’s body being brought to his village.
As we go to press, the witnesses are in the custody of People’s Watch. They have alleged that they are being threatened not to record their statements, but seem determined to bring the truth out. The fact-finding team of People’s Watch comprises Justice (retd) Suresh Hosbet, former NHRC member Satyabrata Pal and former BSF director general EN Rammohan. The rights group will submit its final report to the NHRC during its hearing on 23 April in Hyderabad.
After hearing the two witnesses, the NHRC came down heavily on the Andhra government and said that Section 176-1A of the CrPC makes an inquiry by a judicial magistrate mandatory in all cases of custodial death. It asked the government to reveal the names of all the police and forest personnel involved in the encounter; seize the weapons used and keep them in safe custody; ensure that the documents, log books and police records related to the incident are not destroyed or tampered with; and make sure that the postmortem of the bodies is carried out in accordance with NHRC guidelines.
It also directed the Tamil Nadu Police to provide protection to all three witnesses, their families and the panchayat heads of the two villages they come from.
Another fact-finding team, constituted by Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisations (CDRO) — a collective of around 20 rights groups from across the country — maintained that the official narrative had several inconsistencies. There were no visible signs of conflict at the encounter site. The bodies were found close to each other, with less than 10 feet separating one body from another, and no blood marks were found elsewhere.
Advocate Raghunath of the Andhra-based Civil Liberties Committee (CLC; formerly APCLC), one of the constituents of CDRO, pointed out that the alleged encounter was carried out in a manner that flies in the face of the legal procedures laid down for such operations. “Section 46 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) defines the conditions under which the police can resort to firing. You cannot open fire on people pelting stones at you,” he says.
Hearing a writ petition filed by the CLC, a division bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court comprising Chief Justice Kalyan Jyoti Sengupta and Justice PV Sanjay Kumar asked the state’s additional advocate general to explain why a case of unnatural death has not been registered so far. Moreover, efforts by Andhra government officials to justify the encounter in the media raised the hackles of the bench, which noted: “We will take it as serious exception and we desire that the police shall not divulge information to the press as the matter is subjudice and we shall restrain the police from revealing the information.”
The Chittoor killings have also drawn the ire of political leaders from Tamil Naduas 12 of the 20 killed were Tamils. “While it is possible that these people might have been engaged in illegal
activities, the occurrence of such casualty in the operation raises concerns over whether the Andhra Pradesh Task Force personnel acted with adequate restraint,” wrote Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O Panneerselvam in a letter to his Andhra counterpart N Chandrababu Naidu. MDMK chief Vaiko said, “Big smuggling sharks escape and it is the poor who are killed.”
Fake encounters are not new to Andhra Pradesh. In the past, various government-appointed commissions and independent rights groups have documented numerous cases of poor labourers, forest-dwellers and political activists being murdered in cold blood and then accused of being Naxalites or Maoists. In Kafkaland, Sethi presents a brief summary of many of these killings.
In 1977, right after the Emergency, Jayaprakash Narayan constituted an inquiry commission headed by VM Tarkunde to inquire into 77 killings by the police. All these killings had taken place in Andhra Pradesh and those killed were alleged to be Naxalites. In its interim report released a month after it was constituted, the committee revealed the facts about three ‘encounters’ it had managed to investigate by then. Eight people had been killed in these ‘encounters’, which were said to have taken place in the forests of Giraipally and Chilakala Gutta hills.
♦ Never before were the battle lines so sharply drawn between Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The developments of last week, when the AP Police killed 20 Tamil smuggler-woodcutters in the Seshachalam forests of Chittoor district, led to large-scale violence in Tamil Nadu against Andhra-based businesses.
♦ A series of attacks against a supermarket in Chennai owned by AP Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu’s family sent a strong message to AP that the anger was in effect targeted against the Naidu government.
♦ The Tamil Nadu government announced a compensation of Rs 3 lakh to the families of the deceased. Private donations, too, poured in.
♦ Even before the anger in Tamil Nadu due to the killings had subsided, the AP Police followed it up by arresting 61 more smuggler-woodcutters from the forests of the adjoining district of Nellore, hinting that it was not willing to bow down to the syndicated poaching of red sandalwood by smugglers from across the border. The police also seized red sandalwood worth Rs 2 crore.
♦ The AP Police lost no time in saying that the killings on 7 April had taken place when the smuggler-woodcutters tried to escape from the encounter site. It also insisted that the state has been losing natural resources and huge revenues to the forest mafia.
The committee concluded that the encounters “never took place”. “There were witnesses who saw them [those killed] being taken away by the police from their homes; witnesses who saw them being tortured brutally in police custody; witnesses, in the second encounter case, who saw them being driven away in a police vehicle covered with tarpaulin, while the men inside screamed and pleaded that they were being taken away to be killed; and finally, in the first encounter, even a witness, who saw them being shot in cold blood by the police, less than 50 feet away, as he stood hidden in the darkness of the Giraipally forest,” writes Sethi.
There was ample circumstantial evidence to cast doubt on the official reports about the third encounter of two “unidentified Naxalites”, one of whom later turned out to be Neelam Ramachandriah, a former member of the Andhra Pradesh Legislative Council.
The Tarkunde committee had drawn attention to political patronage and government complicity in the encounters and demanded the formation of an independent commission of inquiry. The shocking findings forced the Janata Party government to form the Justice Bhargava Commission. However, lack of cooperation from the state government scuttled any chances of the commission being able to deliver justice.
Late human rights activist K Balagopal’s reports from the ground through the 1980s indicate that the lifting of Emergency did little to stop killings by the police. “If anything, the scale and severity only increased,” writes Sethi. “Where Vengal Rao, home minister during the Congress regime, had preened about his government ‘wiping out Naxalites’, Vasant Nageswar Rao, home minister in the NT Rama Rao government, described encounters as a ‘routine affair’.”
NTR had formed the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in 1982 and became chief minster the next year. Thirty-two years later, the same script is being played out yet again under another TDP chief minister.