Bullets, bodies and unanswered questions

Knapps

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02, Nov 2016

Yet another encounter incident has been brought under scrutiny. Police version of the Bhopal encounter in which officers killed eight SIMI undertrials has evoked several questions. Silence on most of these so far has fuelled further suspicion. Fake encounters have a long history in India and the Supreme Court guidelines to address these extrajudicial killings have not proven effective so far.

What is the official version of the SIMI activists’ encounter in Bhopal?

The Madhya Pradesh police announced the escape of eight SIMI activists from the Central Jail in Bhopal early Monday morning. A few hours later they made it known that the activists had been killed in a desolate forest area about 15 km from the prison.

  • Security measures had been tightened to prevent escape attempts of SIMI activists. Officials said the escape took place at about 3 am, and several guards were on leave. The SIMI activists allegedly killed the head constable in a gruesome manner and tied up another guard. They tied bedsheets together to make a rope which was used to climb over the 30-feet wall.
  • A guard spotted the group of eight fleeing and informed his seniors. Police said they received information about the escapees’ whereabouts and the result of a joint operation which also involved the Special Task Force and the hawk force along with the city police led to the gunning down of the eight escapees at around 11 am.
  • Indian Express reports that senior officials said the escapees had initiated firing and some threw stones at the police and IG Yogesh Choudhary said the police had to fire back in self-defence.

Four officials have been suspended by the Madhya Pradesh Government and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) will investigate the incident.

Why were doubts raised over the official version?

Footage emerged soon after the incident and depicted a contrary version. In it, the police are shooting at close range at the men lying on the ground. This video is said to have been shot by the village head of Acharpura.

  • Further CNN News18 confronts other parts of the narrative – it reports that the escapees were unarmed, and that while the police chose to go public at 11 am, the encounter had actually happened three hours earlier.
  • This was accompanied by an examination of other parts of the official version and several objections were raised to get across the point that the escape as described in the official version seems too easy considering the Central Jail in Bhopal is known for its strong security measures.
  • There was no uniformity among sources – police said the escapees were armed with guns, the Home Minister Bhoopendra Singh said they used utensils for weapons and the Anti-Terrorism squad chief also specifically said the men were unarmed.

Choudhary called a press conference in the evening and addressed most of the questions with the response that investigations were on.

When was SIMI formed?

Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) was formed in 1977 to renew momentum to the Students Islamic Organization founded in 1956. Anti-western in its stance, it also rejects the fundamental principles of India’s Constitution as anti-Islamic. It envisions a state ruled by its version of Islamic principles and resurrection of the Caliphate, emphasis on the Muslim ummah (community) and jihad as the way to realizing the vision.

  • Their ultimate aim is to establish Dar-ul-Islam (land of Islam) in India by either forcefully converting everyone to Islam or by violence. The group has a strong footprint in states like Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Assam and Andhra Pradesh.
  • Opposed to democracy, secularism and nationalism, SIMI has been advocating among its followers - some 400 ansars (full-time cadres) and the 20,000 ordinary members - the need to oppose "man-made" institutions and work for the Ummah or Islamic brotherhood/society.
  • Students up to the age of 30 years are eligible to be its members and after completing this age-limit they retire from the organization.
  • The SIMI has links with the Jamaat-e-Islam (JeI) units in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. It is also alleged to have close links with the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM), Lashkar-e-toiba and the ISI in Pakistan.
  • Despite its ban in 2001, it continued to exert an influence and attract support.
  • SIMI is alleged to be responsible for conducting bomb blasts inside commuter trains in Mumbai in 2006. The blasts killed 187 people.
  • It was banned again for 5 years under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 in 2014.

The eight escapees were faced with different charges; some are briefly outlined below.

  • Zakir Hussain is reported to be involved in bank robberies from 2008-11 and another one between his first escape and recapture.
  • Mehboob Guddu was accused of having a hand in the 2008 Ahmedabad serial bomb blast case as was Mujeeb Sheikh. Guddu was also accused of the murder of two ATS constables.
  • Mohammad Aqeel Khilji, a former SIMI leader was arrested for planning the assassination of top RSS and BJP leaders.
  • Amjad Khan faced charges for involvement in the planning of a local leader’s assassination as did Mohammad Khalid Ahmad.
  • Abdul Majid was imprisoned for hoarding explosives and gelatine rods.

Where did some of the more controversial encounters take place?

  • Police fatally shot 19-year-old Ishrat Jahan and three others on 15 June, 2004. They alleged the four were Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) operatives conspiring to assassinate the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. A Special Investigation Team examined the case and concluded that the encounter (as claimed by the police) was not “genuine”. The criminal case against Former Intelligence Bureau special director Rajender Kumar and some other officers is still being processed.
  • Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his partner in crime Tulsiram Prajapati made money from extortion, arms smuggling and murder. Sheikh was the first to be killed, in November 2005, again for being involved in a plan to do away with Modi. Sheikh’s wife Kausar Bi was strangled three days later. The police account was unanimously accepted for a year.It was only when drunken officers bragged to journalist Prashant Dayal and the latter exposed them was the truth known. Four weeks after Dayal published his report, Prajapati, a crime branch informer, was done away with in another staged encounter.Dayal’s reporting facilitated the arrest of Gujarat police Deputy Inspector General (Border Range) D G Vanzara, Rajkumar Pandian, superintendent of police with the Intelligence Bureau, and M N Dinesh Kumar (Rajasthan police) on the charge of murdering Sohrabuddin Sheikh and other fake encounters.

Consequences

  • The CBI charged Amit Shah, the then Modi’s Home Minister in Gujarat, and presented detailed documentary evidence to establish his guilt in Prajapati’s killing. Shah was arrested but immediately came out on bail and retained his position as home minister. But a dozen officers and men were jailed.
  • P.P. Pandey and N.K. Amin, senior police officers accused of and arrested in connection with the Ishrat Jahan case are now out of jail and appointed to higher positions.

Who has decided to legally challenge the official version of the Bhopal encounter?

Pervez Alam, the lawyer of seven of the escapees said he would petition the High Court for a judicial probe or CBI investigation on the grounds that this encounter was in reality a pre-planned “cold-blooded murder”.

  • He put forth some points for the conclusion he had drawn – the non-disclosure of CCTV footage by the police who unconvincingly claim the cameras were not functional, the “too easy to be true” story of escape from an ISO certified prison.
  • The prisoners had not been convicted and were under trial for the crimes they were accused of. Alam said the police had a hand in postponing the trial of his clients because trial would mean acquittal and the police would be held accountable. He said on Tuesday, “It is a fake encounter, a cold-blooded murder. It was pre-planned murder and I believe they did not escape the jail, but they were made to flee by the police.

It is also undeniable that prison guard Ramashankar Yadav was killed during the event of SIMI operatives’ escape (or attempt to escape). The 58-year old guard was preparing for his daughter's wedding less than six weeks away.

  • The police told that the SIMI men slit Yadav’s throat with a knife fashioned out of a steel plate.
  • “He used to say that he, at the age of 58, is not fit to keep check on terrorists,” Yadav’s neighbour and friend Bhupendra Singh recollected.
  • Yadav often complained about his odd duty hours to his seniors but didn’t get any respite. He was put on duty even on the night of Diwali.

How should the law take its own course?

One cannot dismiss the argument that encounters are at least in part, a response to an overwhelmingly slow Indian judicial system. But there have been and continue to be alarming periods when those in charge of law enforcement take law into their own hands, confident of impunity.

  • Journalist and former information advisor Prem Shankar Jha points out the drastic change in role of such encounters from being a measure to counter insurgency, especially in Punjab to spreading and instigating resurgence of terrorism in South Kashmir.
  • Killing of prisoners by extrajudicial means cannot be condoned in any situation. Politicians, instead of jumping on the bandwagon to bad-mouth each other should come together to ensure that no prisoner should be killed or punished outside the purview of law.
  • Severe caste and class biases and the never-ending wait for justice inside and outside of prison are characteristic of India’s judicial system and the government’s lack of initiative to address this problem is disheartening. In this context, there have been times when the law has come down heavily, at times fatally on cops convicted with fake encounters. While one side of the debate argues that cops indeed deserve such harsh punishment for behaving like Nazi war criminals, the other side points out how senior police officials are let off more easily at the expense of their juniors.
  • In a 2014 judgment, the Supreme Court appeared to set a positive precedent when it laid down a set of guidelines to be mandatorily followed in case of encounter deaths. While empathizing with the ever-increasing pressure faced by the police force, the court had also sensed the repercussions of letting the law go wayward in the form of fake encounters.

If the Bhopal encounter videos are proved authentic, they show the police to have violated the Supreme Court judgment. One of the guidelines directed medical aid to be immediately administered to the injured and this was definitely not followed in the Bhopal encounter situation.

As encounter incidents after 2014 have proved, the Bhopal encounter is not an isolated case. The fact that the guidelines are seldom implemented even two years later highlight India’s negligence in addressing such extrajudicial killings. A major loophole the apex court judgment did not address was the filing of FIR against the dead in every encounter killing. This allows police to take advantage of Section 307 of the IPC (attempt to murder) and justify their action as self-defence.

Two years and several more deaths in encounters with many of these instances left unpursued necessitate stricter action from the Supreme Court, and a collective effort to stop such deaths.

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Tags | Bhopal encounter extrajudicial killings Fake encounters SIMI SIMI Activists SIMI undertrials Students Islamic Movement of India