"There has never been a death more foretold,” wrote Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his classic little novel, Chronicle of a Death Foretold. The setting is a small seaside town somewhere in South America where virtually the whole town knows that a honour killing of a young man is going to take place one morning. The killers wait with open knives in full view of the public, declaring to all passers-by their intention. Nothing is kept secret; the killing takes place in full view of the town through the public’s various acts of omission and commission. Everyone has his or her justification for why they couldn’t prevent the killing. Insights into the gripping power of collective prejudice merge with realism and fantasy to create the magic Marquez is famous for.
But even the magic realism of Marquez falls short of the ‘facts’ presented by Indian law enforcing authorities through the media about so-called encounter killings. Here are some ‘facts’ presented in one case:
- A man was reported killed, but soon enough, he returned to give a press interview. So he had to be killed again.
- The man then ‘foretold’, more or less exactly, the events leading to his own death.
- The death occurred in a jungle with magical qualities, where objects defied the laws of gravity and the arrow of time moved inexplicably from the future to the past.
- And finally, the collective prejudice of the powers that be found it fit to celebrate this ritualistic killing, although it might be illegal, as a victory of democracy.
Let us try to decipher this conundrum. One ‘Azad’, a Communist Party of India (Maoist) spokesperson and member of its central committee, was killed with his wife Rama in an “encounter” in the Eturnagaram forests in the Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh. Soon, P.K. Hormis Tharakan, a senior police officer and former chief of the Research & Analysis Wing, confirmed the killing in an article in the April 22, 2008, edition of The Indian Express. But the ‘news’ was contradicted in a few days by another man called Azad in an interview that appeared in the No. 2, May 10, 2008, issue of the Maoists’ News Bulletin. It said the Azad who was killed was one Gajarala Saraiah and the person giving the interview was Cherukuri Rajkumar, the party’s chief spokesman, who also goes by the name of Azad.
Then, Cherukuri ‘Azad’ Rajkumar kept foretelling the circumstances of his own death—through the deaths of his other comrades. In a May 24, 2009, press release published by leading national dailies, he described how his comrade, Patel Sudhakar Reddy, alias Suryam, also a central committee member of the Maoist organisation, was arrested by police officers of the Andhra Pradesh Special Investigation Bureau (APSIB) in Nashik, Maharashtra. Suryam was “brutally tortured and murdered on 23rd night”, and the government floated the story of an encounter killing, the purported location where Suryam and a Maoist district committee member, Comrade Venkatayya, were killed being the Tadwai forests of Warangal district. The police claimed that “an AK-47 rifle and a 9 mm pistol were recovered”. Azad’s press release describes how Suryam was being trailed by the APSIB for at least the week before his arrest: “He was kept under watch when he went to the shelter maintained by Comrade Venkatayya in Nashik.”
In another press statement, published in the May-June 2010 issue of People’s March, Azad chronicles how two other comrades, Sukhamari Appa Rao and Kondal Reddy, were murdered by the APSIB and the Greyhounds in cold blood on March 10, 2010, “after being abducted two days earlier from Chennai and Pune respectively, tortured and taken to the Nallamala forests, where they were shot dead in an encounter”. The statement alleges that the order to kill came directly from Union home minister P. Chidambaram. It then wryly observes that the Andhra Pradesh police and Chidambaram had all along been claiming that the Nallamala forests had been cleared of the Maoists, but did not probably realise that “the so-called encounter with such a big Maoist leader in Nallamala region would mock their own claims of the past three years”.
A few months later, between the night of July 1 and the morning of July 2, 2010, Azad himself was killed by the Andhra police. The killing followed the same script. Azad’s body, with that of Hem Chandra Pandey, a journalist, was discovered in the Adilabad forests. As with Suryam, the police claimed that an AK-47 and a 9 mm pistol were recovered beside the two bodies. The Adilabad forests—like Nallamala, where Appa Rao’s body was found—had been reported as quiet and free of Maoist activities for the last four years, according to villagers. Villagers mocked the police in private: how could the body of a Maoist leader of Azad’s stature have been found in forests said to have been cleared of the rebels? One villager told a visiting fact-finding team that Azad had more brains than the entire Andhra police put together, and wouldn’t have been so stupid as to give occasion to be killed near their village in the Adilabad forests. However, there is a method in the apparent stupidity of the police, on which Azad had commented earlier: policemen, perhaps for effect, throw the bodies of Maoist leaders they slay in areas where they are known and admired for their ‘overground’ work. Azad, for instance, was found in a place not far from the Singarini coal mines, where he had worked to organise the labourers into trade unions.
There never has been a chronicle of a death so frequently foretold by the very man killed. And there never has been stronger collective prejudice against such a man, manufactured by the media, the political class and big business, and justifying his killing for the sake of “democracy”. There is, however, an omission in Azad’s foretellings: he failed to see that a peace initiative of the government to the Maoists in which he was a key participant was in fact meant to kill him.
The sequence of events that led to Azad’s killing is well-known. On Chidambaram’s appeal, Swami Agnivesh, a respected social worker, approached the Maoists with a letter from the minister setting out conditions for a dialogue for peace, starting with a 72-hour bilateral ceasefire. Azad responded positively, but wanted some conditions amended. For instance, he wanted the ceasefire to be extended to six months so as to enable him to coordinate with regional committees of his rebel group before any dialogue for peace. Chidambaram then insisted on a definite date for the ceasefire to come into effect. Agnivesh suggested three alternative dates, and Azad was travelling widely, contacting various regional units to arrive at a date acceptable to them all. In the process, he outed himself and the police got on to his tracks. The rest is well-known.
With Azad’s killing, all possibility of peace was killed. Chidambaram refused to initiate any inquiry, saying it was for the Congress government of Andhra Pradesh to do so. The home minister of Andhra Pradesh, for her part, claimed immediately after the encounter that she had no knowledge of what happened. Both the state and central governments have since maintained a studied silence.
The story of this encounter might have remained buried. Yet the incongruities were too fantastic and began to trickle out through the efforts of a few journalists, human rights activists and some members of civil society. Consider this: in a report written at 9:30 am on July 2, 2010, at the police headquarters, officers said the two bodies at the encounter site were unidentified; however, at 6:30 am the same morning, local journalists had got calls from persons claiming to be policemen that Azad had been killed and that two bodies were lying in the Adilabad forests. The second body was later identified by them as that of “Hem Pandey”. Clearly, the arrow of time moved backward at police headquarters.
A later police report said Azad and Pandey, who were with a Maoist band that was travelling to Andhra Pradesh from Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, were killed in an encounter with a police team. It said the band was atop a hillock and the brave policemen were firing from below. And yet, according to the post-mortem report, the bullet that killed Azad entered his body from above chest level and travelled downwards. Clearly, even the law of gravity changed for the benefit of the police. And the bullet marks on Azad’s body, according to forensic experts, suggested he was shot dead at close range. Some remarkably brave policemen, in the face of AK-47 firing, must have run uphill at lightning speed and shot him dead at close range.
Azad’s death adds a new chapter to the discourse on revolutions. We have been told repeatedly in history books that violent revolution devours its own children. However, the powers that be haven’t taken the trouble to tell us how a democratic republic—purportedly built on the Gandhian foundations of non-violence—becomes a deranged killer. During a recent hearing, Justice Aftab Alam of the Supreme Court tellingly observed that “our Republic cannot bear the stain of killing its own children”. Can our democracy be saved from such patriotic killings of its own children?
(The writer is emeritus professor at JNU’s Centre for Economic Studies & Planning, New Delhi.)