By Samar Anarya:
Five terror suspects, all under trail after their arrest 5 years earlier, get killed in a fierce ‘encounter’ inside a police van with 17 heavily armed security force personnel escorting them to a court hearing. Four of them were photographed dead while handcuffed in their seats. Add to this the bodies of twenty red sanders ‘smugglers’ killed in two encounters with the Red-sanders Anti-Smuggling Task Force (RTSF) of Andhra Pradesh, with their slippers and wood logs neatly aligned – can things get murkier than this?
The answer would not be obvious to even a seasoned human rights defender who knows the reality of India, the wayward republic that masquerades as the self-designated largest democracy of the world. This hasn’t happened in say Kashmir, or Manipur, after all. One knows that the ‘republic’ wants to dominate the first as an insult to equally wayward neighbor that keeps oscillating between being a failed state to a military dictatorship, and also that it wants to humiliate the other one as a colonial outpost. But the encounters took place in the very heart of the Republic! (okay, a little south of its heart, in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh to be precise.)
One would have even understood if the ‘encounters’ had taken place with Naxalites, the single biggest ‘internal threat’ to the republic, but that wasn’t the case here. The other encounters took place with poor youth from the neighbouring state of Tamilnadu. Put all these things together and one realizes that yes, things can be much murkier than the encounter themselves. So much that The Hindu had already reported on April 3, 2015 that the DIG of RTSF Kantha Rao had sought permission from the Andhra Government to open fire at red sanders smugglers as an ‘effective move to curb wood smuggling’. The dead bodies, many of which had received randomly fired bullets in forehead or back, confirm that the permission had come by. Forget that both the request and the permission are in violation of the much celebrated but hardly implemented guidelines of the Supreme Court framed precisely for stopping extrajudicial killings, in its order in Criminal Appeal No.1255 OF 1999.
Cut to Tamilnadu, where the RTSF was bound to create ripples. Its government, along with its ‘internal’ opposition, acted swiftly and went into a wallowing mode while announcing INR 3 Lakh compensation for the ‘smugglers’ killed by Andhra Police, and lodged protests with them. It is just that all parties concerned, including the mainstream media, forgot to ask a very important question – has the Tamilnadu government ever taken any action against the real smugglers who employ the poor youth as wood cutters? Red Sanders smuggling is a real problem after all, isn’t it?
Back to the encounters. Buttressing all the suspicions arising out of these revelations, Tamilnadu officials who inspected RTSF encounter sites, bodies and remaining exhibits, stressed that the dead looked like having been killed earlier and the logs were not freshly felled but had paint marks on them. Then surfaced a survivor and alleged that RTSF had picked up all those killed from a bus, and murdered them in cold blood. Despite being unconfirmed yet, the claim did get support from the fact that the RTSF didn’t arrest a single person alive, allegedly in an encounter with more than 100 ‘smugglers’. Any self respecting force would not want to see it in such dubious light as if it were on a ‘no survivor’ mission, unless it is fighting with a suicide squad of deadly terrorists, would it?
Such obviously incriminating evidence was bound to make even the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) take ‘suo moto’ cognizance of the issue, and so it did.
Cut back to the first encounter. Viquar, alleged to be the leader of the terrorist group, had expressed apprehensions that the police may kill him in a staged encounter while bringing him from Warangal Central Jail to Hyderabad. He had even filed a petition in the trial court seeking transfer to Hyderabad jail. The police did not disappoint him, the judiciary did.
But then, fake encounters keep taking place across India, don’t they? Why such a hue and cry on these ones? Because the real message of these encounters is sickeningly sinister. They expose the brazenness with which law enforcers are operating now; the brazenness of not even attempting to make the encounters look real. They did not force the undertrials (in the Telangana case) to get off the van and run, before shooting them from behind – the most preferred trick that got even more popularized by Bollywood. They shot them then and there, and didn’t even bother to remove the handcuffs. They did not bother to get their own goons to fell some logs in Seshachalam Forest to make the other one look real either. They got the ones that were already confiscated, and neatly arranged them near the bodies.
This is the message from these encounters that should send a shiver down our spines. This should make the civil society shiver too. No, not for our mere lives but for the complacency we have always shown for the criminal justice reforms. We should shiver for having largely believed that things are all fine with the judiciary, especially the higher one. What reason did we have to believe so?
In fact, everything that can go wrong is wrong with our judiciary and criminal justice system. What use is a judiciary, for instance, that exonerates Muslim youths after a decade in jail on fabricated charges but takes no action against those officers who fabricated them in the first place? What is the worth of a judiciary, even a ‘Supreme Court‘, that cannot enforce its orders?
It is no secret that we have a colonial police operating with colonial law. We know that the political system uses it, and it lets them use it, because it is beneficial for both. That’s why there’s no point in flogging that dead horse of impunity, not even in asking where that impunity comes from. The answer is obvious. It comes from our criminal justice system, and reforming it is as urgent as fighting starvation. Or else, we can keep outraging over such encounters which are bound to increase with the Gujarat Model having grabbed power in Delhi too.
Samar Anarya is Programme Coordinator, Right to Food, Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), Hong Kong.