What links the two killings is the supreme impunity with immunity which classically defines the police encounter.
The killings on April 7th, 2015 by the Telengana and Andhra Pradesh police seems a sort of gruesome competition between the two states’ forces to lay claim to a gory heritage. It was after all the police of the erstwhile united Andhra Pradesh who first gave new sinister meaning to the word “encounter”. The first report regarding such encounter killings, brought out in May 1977 by a committee headed by retired Bombay High Court Justice VM Tarkunde, was regarding the killings of Naxalites by the AP police. It was simply and self-explanatorily titled “Encounters are Murders”. “Encounter” then went on to become part of the everyday police lexicon of a number of Indian states and languages.
The April 7 killings took place around 500 km apart, the first on a secluded part of the highway on the border of the Warangal and Nalgonda districts of Telangana, the second in the Seshachalam forests of Chitoor distict of AP. The victims had little similarity – the first were five Muslim undertrials on the verge of completing their case where they expected acquittal, the second were tribal labourers from neighbouring Tamil Nadu who had crossed into AP in search of work.
What links the two killings is the supreme impunity with immunity which classically defines the police encounter. In the Chitoor case the police story farcically claims that the tribals “armed” with stones attacked a posse of police armed with automatic weapons, whose random fire in “self-defence” killed 20 persons. Witnesses have already testified before the National Human Rights Commission how these “attackers” had been apprehended by the police some hours before the killings, while human rights organisation reports tell that there were no stones at the encounter site. The Warangal story was that five prisoners being taken to court in handcuffs attacked the escort party of 17 policemen armed with modern weapons. They said the handcuffs had been removed when one of them wanted to urinate on the highway. But the photos show handcuffed prisoners chained to seats with guns obviously placed in hands of dead bodies.
The deliberate cold-blooded nature of the police killings and their encounter stories seem to have grown more brazen and barefaced over the years. Certain common ingredients however remain.
Ministerial and official support for encounter killings
The most important factor perhaps for the existence and rise of encounter killings is the go-ahead and green signal from the political establishment. All encounter killings – whether in Naxalite-affected areas, or in militancy-affected areas of Northeast and Kashmir or earlier Punjab, or of so-called criminals – have ministerial patronage. In some cases – think Amit Shah, when home minister of Gujarat – ministers have been accused of being directly involved in particular police killings. But more important is their blanket backing for human rights violations. Rajnath Singh, soon after coming in as Union Home Minister, promised a symposium of DGPs and heads of police training institutions that they would have full freedom from hassles of human rights commissions while dealing with maoists. A functionary oathed into office to protect the Constitution had no compunctions in publicly proclaiming contempt for it.
The other important driving force behind encounter killings is the top police establishment, with its easy contempt for rule of law. Being fully aware of the illegal and extra-constitutional nature of encounter killings, they are the ones who, on the one hand give the order for such killings, while at the same time feeding to the media the false and fabricated tales of valour of the killer cops. When a five judge full bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court gave a judgement in February 2009 directing filing of FIRs wherever a police officer causes death of a person, it was the AP Police Officers’ Association who appealed against it in the Supreme Court and obtained a stay on it within a month. They obviously want no judicial interference hindering their unwritten licence to kill.
Encounter specialists and executioner teams
The next rung in the encounter machinery are the commanders of the encounter teams. Over the years there have been police officers who have specialised in these killings giving rise to the ominous term of “encounter specialists”. They have achieved fame with awards and even many films being made on them. Many, particularly the “specialists” of Mumbai, are into the business of extortion and collecting payouts from rival gangs for the killings, ending up with wealth reportedly running into several hundred crores.
At the lowest level are the team members, whose names appear in the fabricated stories of encounters as participants. Their USP is their mindless obedience of orders – whether legal or not – and their willingness to keep silent about it. If the crimes get exposed, it is this lot and not the bosses who take the blame. When we (the authors of this piece) met a few such cops in jail, who had been charged with murder along with their encounter specialist boss, Pradeep Sharma, they were lamenting how they had “only done their duty” and now did not even have the wherewithal for proper legal aid. Their trial ended in a life sentence for them, while Sharma was acquitted.
Manufacturing consent by demonising victims and glorifying killers
The encounter murder is one type of heinous crime that has considerable legitimacy in many sections of Indian society. The media and film industry in particular have played no small role in manufacturing consent for this crime. This is done through a combination of demonization of the victims and glorification of the killers.
Thus, in most newspaper headlines, the poverty stricken tribal labourers killed in Chitoor became “smugglers”, a word that could easily create images of filthy rich criminal dons. Similarly, all newspapers unquestioning adopted the police story branding the undertrials of Warangal as “terrorists” and listed “their” terror acts. Not one mentioned that they had not been convicted even once and were likely to be acquitted and set free.
Meanwhile, the encounter specialists who gun down arrested persons at point blank range are portrayed as sharpshooters and daredevils. Films on particular cops even show them as protectors of the people. Many newspaper editorials even laud them for their efforts in delivering “justice” in the face of the delays and deficiencies of the judicial process.
All these celebratory noises thus consciously counter rule of law, which is the basis of any civilised society. The lonely dissenters are the few democratic rights and civil liberties organisations that try to bring out the truth and expose these encounters for the murders that they are. The odds against them are however getting heavier. A fact-finding team of Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisations (CDRO) which went to investigate the Chitoor killings even had an FIR registered against them for trespassing into the forests – even before any FIR was registered against the killer cops. The road to the establishment of democratic norms in our country is uphill all the way.
By Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira