In all fairness (pun unintended), Indians have every right to activate their anger towards anti-racial police brutality some 6000 miles away. You cannot decide what issue should move who. However, it’s only logical to know how your back garden operates first. #BlackLivesMatter garnered great attention worldwide, even in a year that has its hands full with a pandemic. We just don’t stop making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
However, with no discount to the history behind the BLM movement, there is a need for one movement within this country. While one end of the spectrum lauds our police force as COVID warriors for their fearless presence to ensure lockdown runs smoothly and curfews are executed well, there remains an underlying darker side to the system. Indian police brutality under the garb of ‘encounters’ happens in bulk each year in our very own backyard. Our country didn’t register when a word like encounter, translated from a noun into a verb, and occasionally a standard operating procedure in a lot of cases across our landscape. Often encouraged, sometimes awarded by the governments in power, “encounter specialist” is a coveted term and no longer a job hazard.
Ishrat Jahan probably didn’t even know a 1000 people in her entire lifetime, to imagine 10,000 attending her funeral in Mumbai. Who was she? A 19-year-old young woman, hailing originally from Bihar, pursuing Bachelor of Science from Mumbai’s Guru Nanak Khalsa College. She tutored young kids, did small embroidery jobs to support her family after her untimely demise. She used to work with Javed Sheikh partly, as his secretary, handling accounts. On June 15, 2004, she, along with Javed Sheikh, Amjad Ali Rana and Zeeshan Johar, was encountered (read: brutally murdered) by the Gujarat Police in Ahmedabad.
Overnight, she was declared a woman ‘Fidayeen’, the first of her kind in the country. Her blood soaked-body, along with the three other men, was placed on display by a group of Ahmedabad-based cops, alleging them for an attempt to murder the then CM of Gujarat, Narendra Modi. The attempt was publicised as a radical response by extremist groups like LeT for 2002 Godhra riots. A Special Investigation Team (SIT) was established to look into the legitimacy of the encounter. In 2008, Gujarat High Court shook the country declaring it a fake encounter. However, it is an ongoing case, with investigation transferred to CBI. In February 2013, GL Singhal (a Gujarat cop) is arrested on charges of fake encounter.
While there were multiple to and fro, the current status remains a no-shocker for a country which has accepted politics as a way of life. CBI arrested the officers for a few months, but currently, they are all out on bail or reinstated to their initial positions. Godhra remains a mystery forever, especially for those who refuse to acknowledge our capabilities in cover ups, but the Gujarat government received enough flak from Human Rights groups for this tradition of encounters over the years. Three can be attributed to the lone reason of protecting Mr Narendra Modi.
But why discuss a dusted case from 2004 today? Simply because every protest that’s fought online, and currently there aren’t many alternate options for the same, should be supported by information on the world you live in. The millennial generation of our country is very quick to pick on battles that require trending hashtags and slacktivism of any sorts, however it’s equally important to know the system that surrounds you.
Naresh Paras, who hails from the same town of Agra as me, is an RTI activist. Having worked with children and prisons in the city, he filed for an RTI on a hunch. Depleting numbers of prisoners made him enquire about the exact number of deaths in Uttar Pradesh in a mere span of five years (2010-2015). It was 2600. There is a prisoner dying every 26 hours [RTI filed by Naresh Paras, 2016]. Almost 50% had ongoing cases and the causes of death are as foggy as it can get.
Another RTI filed by him revealed 211 fake encounters registered by NHRC between January 1, 2015 and March 2019. Andhra Pradesh, closely followed by Uttar Pradesh, holds the notorious position of topping the list. Odisha, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh follow the steps. Mind you, these are registered cases of police atrocities and cover ups. Maximum deaths, captures aren’t calculated under theatrical killings, and recorded as natural deaths in jail or fire fights between the police and accused.
The system is so complicated that even Bollywood censors how higher officials in the police are represented. Slumdog Millionaire was asked to edit a scene that captured a police commissioner torturing a detainee in custody. They didn’t want an officer beyond an inspector’s rank to be shown engaging in torture of the kind. The issue is so deeply entrenched, that irrespective of the party in power, there have been cases nearly every year, every district. Besides these cases being tortured and killed in custody, or murdered to avoid build ups of chargesheets, the issue doesn’t end there.
Another systematic approach, highly employed since the BJP has been in power, is the scenario of communal targets. The most recent example was of Deepak Bundele, a diabetic lawyer, on his way to meet his doctor a day after the lockdown, mercilessly beaten up by Delhi Police. When they learnt he was a lawyer, on his way to his physician with no aim to jump the curfew, they pleaded with him to withdraw the case. Another police inspector paid a visit to his house to convince him to withdraw the case. Since he was “misjudged” for being a Muslim, the inspector was basically doing his duty in these polarised time.
The incident has stunned communities, but like every other situation of extremism towards certain sections of the society, it will collect dust in the backlog of courts. Policies and laws like Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 only help brew the problem a little more. The very recent “encounter” of Dubey is by public records, 119th such encounter since 2017 under Yogi Adityanath’s regime.
A French writer, Andre Gide wrote, “Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and begin all over again.” We have always had our mythology overburdened with innovative justice systems. Whether it was Krishna explaining Arjuna why it’s fair to kill, or Ravana murdered despite being a pious man, everything has an explanation. The police have had their narratives for years on these encounters. Usually, the criminal is caught between a scuffle, attacks the police, and the police has no option but to protect itself. Usually, in the staged process, a constable or two get wounded. And if movies are to be believed, it’s always in the legs.
But no amount of paperwork, manipulation is capable of justifying these beastly deaths by the very people we trust our system to. This isn’t why an oath on admissions is taken by the officers. The tragedy remains that our police system, largely recruiting officers from varied castes, becomes a victim to caste politics. If Rana Ayuub’s Gujarat files are referred, a large number of Dalit officers are left with no choice in the matter. Follow unwritten orders or get transferred, or worse.
I am too young to offer solutions to an issue so deeply entrenched in our country. But since all of us are fighting our wars online, and sometimes those wars do win, maybe it’s time to open your back door and not choose plausible deniability.