Speak up before next bullet hits you

…when we kill people we feel compelled to pretend that it is for some higher cause. It is this pretence of virtue, I promise you, that will never be forgiven by history – Sea of Poppies/Amitav Ghosh

India appears to have transformed into a country where people have selective visual and hearing impairment. They have developed a special knack for listening only to what they want and see what they want to. Nothing could propel a collective outrage even if the very idea of their country is challenged. They would love their macho policeman to shoot the unarmed at point blank because they believe he is a criminal, like in Bollywood flicks Singham or Ab Tak Chappan. It was no different for the recent Bhopal encounter too.

(Videograb of the encounter)

Tapes – both video and audio captured by eyewitnesses – on the encounter killing of eight men accused of being SIMI terrorists have surfaced, questioning the intentions and genuineness of the operations. The eight men scaled the prison walls after killing a 57-year-old Head Constable and walked into the darkness. Then came the information about an encounter 12 km from the jail. The undertrials fired and policemen responded in “self defence”, police claimed. Jubiliation followed but the script changed soon after TV channels aired visuals captured on mobile phones, whose authenticity has not been verified.

Two-three videos made its way to TV channels that contradicted the police version. One of the videos showed the SIMI men, who were unarmed, waving and policemen firing at them. A second video showed a policeman firing at a prisoner, who was already suffered bullet injuries, in cold blood while another was seen taking out a knife-like weapon from the body of a dead prisoner. Days later, audio of exchanges between personnel and senior officials on wireless sets emerged. From what transpired it was clear that police did not want to catch the undertrials live. Contradictions and unanswered questions also galore as days pass. How did the SIMI terrorists get out of the prison, who gave them the arms, why they could reach only 12 km from the prison even after 12 hours of their escape and how locals were allowed to gather at the encounter site? Perhaps, it would be the first encounter where locals merrily shoot the operations while firing was on. More questions would follow like why the CCTVs were not working in the ISO certified prison, which does not have adequate staff.

The genuineness of the operations came under cloud with opposition, activists and the National Human Rights Commission raising doubts. But Central and state ministers believe that questioning the forces is an undemocratic and unpatriotic act. A central minister felt that questioning the encounter would affect the morale of the force. The Anti-Terrorism Squad chief Sanjeev Shami feels that his men can shoot anyone even if they are unarmed. The ‘SIMI men were unarmed, so what’ was his retort. What does it mean to a citizen when a policeman is overheard saying in an audio clip that the senior officer has approved the killing and that it is a blessing that we have such superiors? A lie perpetrated by prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam, who handled the Ajmal Kasab case, has been used by Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan (terror suspects are fed with chicken biriyani in jails) to give a clean chit to police. He conveniently forgets that prisons in his state do not serve non-vegetarian food. Chauhan also easily sidesteps the question of Rule of Law.

(Bodies of SIMI terrorists who were killed in an encounter after they escaped from)

A new trend appears to have swept the country where it is an unwritten dictum that police and military are above criticism. When the civil society points fingers at the forces, if they question how police can shoot an already injured suspect as seen in one of the circulated videos in blatant violation of every international conventions, they stand the risk of being isolated and branded anti-national. However, police and public conveniently forget that it is the same civil society, which took on political leadership when policemen came under pressure, be it in Karnataka or elsewhere. It is dangerous if civilian supremacy is eroded by insulating the forces from accountability and criticism for their unlawful actions.

Question here is not whether the undertrials killed are terrorists or not. The courts will decide it. Even if they are terrorists, the question is, can police kill them when they are unarmed. Can the civilian leadership turn a blind eye on the pretext of boosting their morale? One should not forget that several terror suspects had walked out of jails for want of proof or court castigating police for planting evidence. Only in 2013 Delhi Police had egg on its face when they tried to frame a former Kashmiri militant Liyaqat Ali who returned to India to surrender. One should not forget that it is not terrorists alone who are undermining the country but those in seats of power also do the same when they ignore Rule of Law. Indians should never forget what Russian writer Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote ‘whenever truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie’. Because your silence may be the licence for the police to aim at you.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald’s Spotlight on Nov 13, 2016)

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