‘These are not encounters or mutbhaed, but pre-meditated killings’ is the chorus as the families call for an independent probe.

“People are being murdered in an organised manner and on a large scale on the orders of the Uttar Pradesh chief minister (Yogi Adityanath),” senior Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan told the media on Tuesday. He was speaking at a gathering where the families of those killed by the state police had come to testify.

The press conference was organised by human rights forum Citizens Against Hate (CAH) – a forum that has over a year documented 16 incidents of alleged extra-judicial killings or “fake encounters” in UP and 12 in Haryana, involving mostly Muslim victims.

“The encounters that have taken place in Uttar Pradesh over the last eight months are not encounters but cold-blooded murder,” Bhushan said.

On Monday, some of the victims’ families approached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) seeking an independent probe into the killings.

“The police told us that Gurmeet was involved in an accident. Humen ye nahin bataya ki use goli maar di (they didn’t tell us that he was shot at). When he was hospitalised, villagers asked for the bullet in his back to be taken out first, but the police refused. He was shot at in the back and left leg,” Gurmeet’s sister Mamata says.

Gurmeet, Sompal and Mahendri’s son, used to work in a paper mill in Saharanpur. He died on April 22, 2017, in a city government hospital, where he had been admitted after a shootout with the police.

“The bullet in his back was taken out 3-4 days laterOperation hone ke baad uski dawaiyon main kami kar di (after the operation, his medicines were cut down.) Gurmeet would say they don’t even give him water. We would barely be allowed to meet him and never alone. Do policewale hamesha saath main hote the (two police personnel would always be with us),” Mamata adds.

According to Gurmeet’s family, on the evening of April 21, he was given an injection in his leg. “We were told ‘infection ho gaya hai, operation dobara hoga (there’s an infection, he will be operated upon again). Gurmeet was screaming ‘mummy mujhe bacha lo (mummy save me)’,” Mamata recounts, adding: “We don’t know how he died.”

Police version versus family testimony

The FIR in the case states the Deoband police were informed that “three men standing near a motorcycle close to Bhayala phatak were criminals who were about to commit a crime”. When the police called out to the men to surrender, they were fired at. Following this, the criminals tried to “escape” and one was shot at in the process. This was Gurmeet. Of the other two, Kalu and Susheel, the latter was arrested the next morning.

The family’s account of events is quite different.

They say that Kala alias Kalu, a police informer, had visited their house on the evening of March 30, 2017, on a motorcycle, and had asked Gurmeet to accompany him.

“Gurmeet did not return till night and the family later got to know that Kala had kept him near his tubewell on the farms, and had informed the police,” CAH-produced report ‘Countering the Silence’ states, recounting the family’s testimony.

“Next day, on March 31, 2017, Gurmeet was fired at by the police near Bhayala phatak. A crowd had gathered near the place… after hearing the sound of gunshots. Susheel (s/o Satish) was also present at the spot and saw Gurmeet (becoming) unconscious after being injured by the bullets and the police seemed scared because of the crowd which had gathered,” the report states.

Gurmeet remained critical in hospital and died 22 days later.

The wife of another victim, Shamshaad, has a similar tale to tell. The 35-year-old was shot at in Saharanpur on September 11 last year.

Dressed in a burqa, Saliha sits between Gurmeet’s mother and sister, awaiting her turn to speak. For most of the conference, she keeps staring at the ground, and often wipes her nose, as if overwhelmed with everything. Or it could be because of the humidity inside the overcrowded room in Delhi’s Press Club.

When Saliha finally speaks, her voice is so low that she is almost inaudible. Speaking about her husband’s death, she says: “Chot thi, gale pe nishan tha (there were injuries, marks on the neck)” – indicating that Shamshaad was beaten up.

This is corroborated by his autopsy report, accessed by CAH. The report’s findings say: “PMR (postmortem report) records the time of the postmortem as 4.55 PM on 11.9.2017. The PMR, however, states the body is 1-4 days old. PMR records that the 7th, 8th and 9th rib on left side was fractured. The PMR states the following bullet wounds – 3 bullets on the front left side of the chest, one bullet on right knee.”

This differs with the police version recorded in the FIR lodged in the case, which does not state any scuffle that could have led to broken ribs.

The police’s version, as per the report, states:

“HO Nanota with 3 Police officers (PO), SO Sadar Bazaar with 5 PO, SWAT team with 8 officers and team from Intelligence Wing with 6 PO were looking for Shamshaad and his accomplice who were on a bike, and had fired at SHO Nanota and his team at a check post. Motorcycle was spotted, asked to stop, they tried to run away, chased by police. Criminals fired at the police. Surrounded by all 24 officers at ITC Gate. Bike slipped, criminals opened fire at the police team, in the cross firing, Shamshaad was injured. The other criminal escaped on foot, leaving his gun. SI Arun Pawar and Co. Arun Rana injured in their hand, while 4 police officers received bullets on their bullet-proof jackets. Shaamshad and injured officers sent to Dist Govt Hospital.”

This version fails to explain the injuries on Shamshaad’s body, as stated in the PMR report.

Saliha also tells CAH in her testimony: “Shamshaad was imprisoned in the Deoband jail for the past year-and-a-half.’’

On September 7, he was brought from the jail to Vikas Nagar for a hearing, and on the way back to Deoband, it was said, he escaped, along with an accomplice.

Four days later, Saliha heard that Shamshaad had been killed in an encounter with officials from Sadar Bazaar police station, her testimony reads. She has also alleged “the police officials are concocting the story of Shamshaad running away from jail. They had abducted him on the way back, tortured and killed him. Later, they showed that Shamshaad had been killed in an encounter.”

Similar narratives were shared by the families of other victims present at the press meet.

A report in The Wire, titled “A Chronicle of the Crime Fiction That is Adityanath’s Encounter Raj’, lists the death of Shamshaad – “convict who ‘escaped’ just before his release and was shot dead four days later.”

Just days prior to Shamshaad’s death, one Nadeem was shot dead in an encounter in the Jathwada jungle of Kakroli in Muzaffarnagar, the report states.

Between 2000 and 2017, India registered 1,782 cases of fake encounters, an RTI query found. “People have been picked up, tortured and killed,” Vipul Kumar, a member of the forum, says. Speaking on the encounters, he adds: “These are not encounters or mutbhaed but pre-meditated, pre-planned killings.”

According to The Wire’s report, by January 2018, the police had conducted 1,038 encounters in which 32 people were killed and 238 injured. More recent figures, as stated in the CAH report, put the toll at “50 deaths in ‘encounter killings’ from March 2017, when chief minister Yogi Adityanath took office”.

Talking about the mechanism to check the alleged extrajudicial killings, Kumar says there is none. “How can you expect killers to investigate? There is no avenue (for justice),” he adds.

Last November, Adityanath had publicly said: “Hum unka jeena haram kar denge (we will make life difficult for criminals). Uske liye do hi jagah hongi phir. Ya toh pradesh ke jail honge. Ya phir police ki mutbhed mein yamraj ka  ghar uski jagah hogi (they will have only two places to go to. Either jail or they’ll get killed in police encounters and go to yamraj’s house).”

In the absence of a speedy and independent probe into such killings, statements such as these appear as endorsement of police encounters.

Media’s role

Speaking about Adityanath’s comment, Rihai Manch’s Rajeev Yadav, who has endorsed the families’ petition to the NHRC, called out the Indian media for its failure to question Adityanath.

“If a chief minister is making such a comment, why did the media not question him about the 15 cases that are registered against him?” Yadav asked, in a conversation with Newslaundry.

“The media is the fourth pillar of democracy. It is expected to question authority and fight for the rights of minorities and the vulnerable, including women, adivasis, OBCs and Dalits. The media has made a mockery of people,” he added. “Kisi ne himmat nahin ki, media pura ka pura bika hua hai (no one in the media dared (to question Adityanath), they are sold out).”

Earlier, Yadav had alleged that “there is an attempt to build the narrative that some communities are criminal – musalmaan deshdrohi hai (Muslims are anti-national)”.

Another endorser, Devika Prasad of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, however, says: “The media’s role has been of a key accountability mechanism, in its effect that killings have petered out a bit after the media reporting.” But she agreed with Yadav in terms of the content of reports.

Speaking to Newslaundry, Prasad said: “There’s been a lot of reporting on the ground in UP (local media). But a lot of that valorises the police. It says ‘this is very good, this is heroic, this is defeating crime’. It is the reporting which questions the police, (which asks) is it right, is it okay, is it legitimate action by the police? But such media reportage has been limited.”

The media needs to keep tracking, she adds. “Especially now that the police and government’s narrative is being challenged.”

As the matter stands now, the NHRC has taken cognisance of the families’ petition and assured of action in the matter