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#Sundayreading – Offhand Police Encounters

Offhand encounters


The purpose of police firing is to disperse crowds, not to kill.

The scene at Seshachalam forest after the shootout.Photo: AFP

The scene at Seshachalam forest after the shootout.Photo: AFP

‘Encounter’ killings not only corrupt and brutalise the police force but also strip people of their basic democratic protections and compromise our collective conscience.

India’s vigorous and pulsating democracy also hides an ugly underbelly: unpunished crimes by state officials against its people. Some very troubling instances of this are what are described in both police and popular idiom as ‘encounters’. Coincidentally, on the same bloody Tuesday in early April, 25 men were gunned down in ‘encounters’ by men in uniform in two separate incidents in the neighbouring states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Twenty of these were charged to be red sandalwood smugglers, and five Islamist terrorists.

The law, of course, does not permit the murder of even most feared and dangerous criminals except by due process of law. After all, the most fundamental of all rights in a democracy is the right to life, and this endures even for those charged with monstrous crimes. But the claim after every ‘encounter’ killing is that policepersons shot in legitimate self-defence; that — if they had not killed the criminal — lives of policepersons and innocent persons would be endangered. It matters little that in the majority of ‘encounter’ killings, such as those of April 7, this story is very thin.

The official version of the shooting in Seshachalam forest near Tirupati is that these were dangerous red sandalwood smugglers who mortally threatened police and forest officers with stones, axes and sickles. The imperilled policemen were therefore left with no option but to fire at the criminal mob.

What the police version does not explain, first, is that if there was such imminent danger to the police and forest officials from the mob, why are there no injuries or casualties reported from the police. Firing into a mob is prescribed as the course of last resort by the police, but there is no evidence that the police tried less lethal methods such as cane charges or tear gas to first repel the allegedly violent crowd. It is telling that the bullet injuries suffered by most of the dead men are on the upper body. The law and police manuals demand restraint by the police when shooting at mobs: the purpose of police firing is to disperse crowds, not to kill. No police bullets were found in the surrounding tree-trunks and foliage as may be reasonably expected if police is firing to disperse a threatening mob. The police are also unable to explain why most bullets pierced right through the bodies, possible only in close-range killings and not distant firing.

The official story of the killing of five men charged with (but not convicted of) terror crimes in Warangal is equally implausible. The five men were chained to a police van, and guarded by 17 policemen. Police claim that the handcuffs of one were unlocked because he wanted to urinate but, after he relieved himself, he snatched the weapons of his guard, and so did the remaining four chained men. The guard, therefore, had no option except to kill all five in close-range machine-gun fire. But the police photograph shows one hand of the first dead man still cuffed to the bus seat, and both hands of the other four men were all cuffed. It is then entirely far-fetched to suggest that the men could have snatched the weapon together and that therefore it was necessary to kill all five.

The actual facts of what took the lives of these men are unlikely to emerge even from the mandatory magisterial enquiries into the killings, given past record of hundreds of such ‘encounter’ executions in past decades. Almost every investigation ultimately confirms the police version, however implausible this maybe.

The NHRC reports 1,788 encounter killings between 2002 and 2013. The last four years alone have seen 555 such cases. Men felled by police are alleged to be Maoist, separatist or Islamist insurgents, or members of criminal mafia or smuggling gangs. Policemen who pull the trigger are almost never punished. As Chaman Lal, a retired police officer passionately committed to human rights, explains, “Fake encounters are considered an operational necessity, legally impermissible, but morally justified by most police personnel.” Police, magistrates and ordinary people widely feel police are justified in breaking the law to secure what they regard to be wider justice. Impatient with a protracted judicial process, and unable or unwilling to undertake scientific investigation to build robust criminal cases that will withstand court scrutiny, police take recourse to murderous shortcuts, acting as investigator, prosecutor, judge and executioner, all in one.

However, extensive political and social sanction to extra-judicial killing of persons charged with — but not convicted of — grave crimes ultimately both corrupts and brutalises the police force. It strips people of their basic democratic protections, culpably compromises our collective conscience, and leaves democracy enfeebled.

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