Fake encounters do not draw a response from the Indian state

Both the US and India have witnessed extra-judicial executions by the police of the members of minority communities. However, the response to these killings on the part of the authorities in the two countries has differed widely. In the US serious note is taken of such violations of rule of law and immediate remedial action is initiated. In India, on the other hand, the response has increasingly displayed deeply problematic features: the authorities evade proper analysis and action or use the argument of ‘national security’ to justify the killings. We examine here recent some cases.

In the US, Ferguson, a city of some 20,000, situated north of St. Louis in Missouri, was once predominantly white, but later began to be dominated by African-Americans. The city council is white-dominated and has a white mayor. Only three of the 50 police officials in Ferguson are African-Americans. On August 9, 2014, the 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown was shot dead by a white policeman in the city while allegedly maintaining law and order. This led to major civilian protests. Brown received six gunshots including two fatal ones on his head, while walking down a street with a friend. The white policeman allegedly admonished the two for walking on the middle of the street. A witness said the policeman fired several shots at the unarmed Brown without provocation.

The six gunshots on Brown enraged the local African-American community. Police reluctance to name the offending policeman (who was later suspended) further infuriated them. A grand jury has been appointed and its report is expected sometime soon. This is expected to be followed by penal action against the guilty. The refusal of the Ferguson police to arrest their guilty colleague was held to be offensive and racially motivated.

A probe by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (civil rights) was initiated into police misconduct. Attorney-General, Eric Holder, a victimised black himself, visited Ferguson to oversee the police response and calm the feelings of the black majority. Holder addressed a lengthy press conference and provided detailed answers to questions from the public and the media. Interestingly, observers have noted the massive militarisation of the US police since 9/11 a pattern not dissimilar to increasing militarisation of the Indian police in the recent period in the wake of the globalisation of terrorism.

The response to the peaceful protests in the aftermath of Brown’s killing in Ferguson was marked by an appalling display of a militarised police force with the look of an invading army training its weapons on unarmed citizens. A lot of anger was seen in the African-American community over the way the laws were enforced. The racial question, a serious one in the US, has engaged citizens and elites alike. The response to racial profiling by the police in the US has been sensitive and police attitudes are strongly deplored. The state response in this case was prompt and straightforward though many complications exist.

Contrastingly, India has, in the recent period, witnessed increasing numbers of extrajudicial execution by the police and security forces of minorities, dalits and adivasis in different parts of the country. Mainstream states such as Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir and the Central Tribal Belt consisting of several states as well as states in the peripheral Northeast, have been seriously affected.

A recent field investigation in Manipur which is under the operation of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958, providing immunity from prosecution to armed police and the army, a large number of extrajudicial executions of minorities have been made in the course of alleged ‘counterinsurgency’ activities. A young woman, Irom Sharmila Chanu has been under a non-violent indefinite fast for over 14 years demanding the removal of this ‘lawless law’. She is being force-fed by the authorities.

The state of Gujarat witnessed a number of extrajudicial executions during and after the politically instigated anti-Muslim carnage of 2002. In a major case in July 2004, a young Muslim woman named Ishrat Jahan and three others were brutally executed in Ahmedabad by the state police in a politically motivated joint operation with the officials of the central intelligence bureau (IB). The officials claimed that these individuals were Pakistan-trained ‘terrorists’ targeting the state chief minister. The incident was kept under wraps for several years until a judicial enquiry in 2011 blew the lid off the case and exposed it as a macabre and fabricated case ‘encounter’ killing. Local media investigations too established the validity of the finding.

The Supreme Court of India then asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), equivalent to the FBI in the US, to investigate the case. Interestingly, the CBI operates within a legal framework and a charter of duties while the IB does not. The CBI has collected convincing evidence of culpable homicide against the men of the state police and the IB and sought the arrest of the guilty. However, the colonial Indian Penal Code (IPC) provides that prior government permission must be obtained for prosecution of officials involved in crime.

This provision has been used by the guilty IB men to put up sustained resistance to the investigation and prosecution of the case by the CBI. Obviously, the IB had either been misled by false leads or had prepared them against the young woman and three others. A conflict of interests has thus arisen between the CBI which wants the arrest of the intelligence officials and the Intelligence Bureau (IB) which opposes the investigation on grounds of ‘national security’ inhibiting justice delivery in the case.

While the IB seeks protection of its officers in terms of one provision of the IPC, another provision of the same law protects the CBI and prohibits ‘obstruction a public servant from the performance of his duties’. This is a piquant situation indeed! The situation is complicated because the entire criminal justice system in India today has been politicised beyond measure with many police officers who are seen to be ‘preoccupied with politics, penetrated by politics and participating in it individually and collectively’. It is thus not at all surprising that justice delivery for the brutally assassinated young Ishrat Jahan and her three companions has been long in coming.

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