Sunday, Jul 03, 2022

Close Encounters

A recently released report by Transparency International shows that India's lower judiciary took Rs. 2630 crores in bribes last year. Add to that what the recent sting against RK Anand showed. Is that why the general public is willing to go along wit

Just as we were getting our fill about the "encounter" between the Gujarat Police and an alleged terrorist Sohrabuddin Sheikh who was allegedly gunned down in cold blood, the movie Shootout at Lokhandwala about the 1991 slaying of the gangster Maya Dolas by the Bombay Police brings into focus state-sanctioned extra-judicial killings by the police. Staged encounters have become fairly common all over the country and no state can claim to have a better record than another. In fact there is good reason to believe that there is now considerable support for them among the general public, which could be a main reason for their prevalence, and even portrayal in films. This does not make it right, but it is a telling commentary on the state of affairs prevailing in the country. 

A recently released report by Transparency International documents that India’s lower judiciary took Rs. 2630 crores in bribes last year, which might offer us a good inkling as to why the general public is willing to go along with the police’s murderous ways. Lower judiciary generally refers to the trial courts, the kind that found Manu Sharma innocent of killing Jessica Lal despite having shot her in front of scores of people including an IPS officer. The trial courts are where evidence is recorded and justice is dispensed, and the rule of law is supposed to be upheld. Add to that the implications of the major drama that unfolded around us with the NDTV sting on RK Anand and IU Khan, both well known lawyers with a good track record of getting their clients off. RK Anand is the same lawyer who had defended PV Narasimha Rao on the JMM MP’s bribery case. Now we learn that RK Anand doesn’t entirely rely on his legal acumen but takes recourse to other means as well, which possibly accounts for his track record. In this case we see all the concerned parties -- the police, prosecutor and witnesses -- colluding with the accused to get him off. All this, and often with a little help from our judges, ensures that criminals usually get away with crimes, unless of course they cannot afford the high costs that "justice" entails. 

Facts suggest that our trial courts are quite murderer-friendly.  According to the Chief Justice of the Patna High Court, Justice JN Bhatt, only about 6.5% of murder trials result in a conviction. In 2005 there were 32,719 recorded murders all over India and 28,031 attempts to murder. This track record not only speaks volumes about incompetence of the police but also suggests a very low level of integrity. No wonder, the recently elected UP MLA, DP Yadav feels that his son Vikas Yadav, Manu Sharma’s co-accused in the Jessica Lal case and the main accused in the Nitish Katara murder case, feels victimized by the state’s extra diligent prosecution of his son. Given this state of affairs it is little wonder that the public applauds the Dirty Harry methods of the police. 

But this leads to another more serious consequence. Many individuals in the police then take to contract killings, either to please their bosses or for money. In fact it is now not uncommon for gangland bosses to contract killings out to the uniformed "encounter specialists". In Mumbai the topmost killer policeman, Inspector Daya Nayak, who is now facing charges of corruption, has long been suspected of liquidating smalltime hoodlums at the behest of certain dons. Even ACP AA Khan, the main protagonist of Shootout at Lokhandwala has been suspected of killing Maya Dolas, incidentally brilliantly portrayed by Vivek Oberoi, on the instructions of Dawood Ibrahim from Dubai. This too has been depicted in the movie. 

In Delhi the escapades of ACP Rajbir Singh of the Special Cell are well known. But most notorious of them was the Ansal Plaza shootings in which two purported Pakistani terrorists were killed in the basement parking lot of the capital's toniest mall. So brazen was the encounter that the NHRC was forced to take notice of it, but even three years later the wheels of justice have not even begun their slow grind forward. In the meantime, Rajbir Singh got the President's Medal for distinguished service and gallantry. But sometimes the police does act motivated by its sense of infantile justice, as we saw in the Barakhamba Road shooting incident where a Delhi Police team gunned down a perfectly respectable businessman and his nephew under the mistaken belief that they were the two notorious killers they were trailing. Nevertheless, it is still murder and the trial is supposedly progressing. Another ACP, in the meantime, has been sentenced to death for an "encounter" killing over a decade ago when he was still a SHO. The fellow recently retired as an ACP, no doubt earning his promotion for "distinguished service and gallantry".

Encounter killings have been an instrument of state policy right from the day of independence. The first ordered killings by the state took place in the Telangana region of the erstwhile Hyderabad state within months of independence when the Indian Army and the state police gunned down hundreds of persons on the pretext that they were insurgents intent on overthrowing the new government and installing the dictatorship of the proletariat. This indeed was the official line of the Communist Party of India then, championed by its General Secretary, BT Ranadive. Poor Ranadive, who had a reputation of being a bit of a Stalinist, had the plug pulled from underneath when Josef Stalin himself decided that the insurgency was not viable and was the worse kind of adventurism, and hence refused to support it. It is said that when Telangana was pointed out to Stalin on a map, he just said that it had no coast line and supplying it with arms and military material was impossible. We know that that was not true. The Australian aviator Sidney Cotton supplied the Razakars in Hyderabad with Pakistani arms by air. Cotton was a former officer of the British Secret Intelligence Service who got hold of a fleet of retired RAF Lancaster bombers for his gun running. This tells us a bit about British intentions also. Like the Communist rebels, many Razakars were terminated with extreme prejudice. The policy of the state being the judge and executioner emanated from the office of Sardar Patel, India’s first home minister and the role model for many a home minister after that.

The next major outbreak of state killings was in the Naga Hills in early 1956 when the Indian Army literally ran amuck killing, raping and pillaging in the remotest region of the erstwhile Assam state. It has been widely reported that the Indian Army even shot and then publicly displayed bodies to serve as an object lesson. The military action in the Naga Hills was ordered by the ministry of external affairs and the minister heading it was none other than Jawaharlal Nehru. The army has come a long way since 1956 and now has a more sophisticated and nuanced appreciation of human rights and values. So much so that generally people in insurgency hit areas prefer the deployment of the Indian Army to the para-military and state armed police forces. One does not hold a brief for the Indian Army, but clearly it is now deemed the lesser of the two evils.

During the 1960s, extra-judicial killings became the order of the day whenever the state was confronted by an uprising, popular or otherwise. The brutal Naxalite violence in pursuit of the class annihilation policy of its leader Charu Mazumdar was met by just as brutal methods by the police. Custodial killings were the norm and the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, a reputed barrister thus earned his spurs to high national office as a result. In 1966, the Gond people in Bastar revolted against the corrupt and exploitative ways of the Madhya Pradesh Congress government of DP Mishra. Pandit DP Mishra, a Sanskrit scholar of some repute, had few qualms in unleashing the police on the Adivasis who congregated in Jagdalpur to pay the customary Dussera homage to their Raja, Pravinchandra Bhanjdeo. Not only did the MP police kill scores of Adivasis, but they also shot down the Raja in cold blood. Soon after this incident, central forces were deployed in Bastar and one got a first hand look at the havoc they wrought.

During the Emergency, Sanjay Gandhi’s handpicked Chief Minister of UP, VP Singh, resorted to extra-legal killings in the districts bordering MP apparently to rid the state of a reign of terror unleashed by dacoits. It’s a matter of conjecture as to whether VP Singh did this to avenge the shooting of his older brother, CPN Singh, a High Court judge who was out on a night-time poaching expedition in the badlands of Mainpuri in UP. The dacoit Chabiram, who had the reputation of being a bit of a Robin Hood, was killed in VP Singh’s retaliation. The seeds of Singh's continuing conflict with Mulayam Singh Yadav were sown here. But then this was during the Emergency and at a time when the then Attorney General, Niren De, informed the Supreme Court that people did not have a constitutional right to life and liberty and the four out of five learned Justices even concurred with this. So why blame poor VP Singh for thinking he was God?

The troubles in the Punjab, abetted by our Pakistani friends, saw state-sponsored terrorism rise to new levels. Under the redoubtable KPS Gill, who had honed his skills during the Assam crisis, the Punjab Police unleashed a reign of terror. The details of this are well documented and also well known. Millions were given away as rewards for killing wanted terrorists and many of the so-called dreaded terrorists have now been found to be alive and well. This means that many innocents were killed and the state exchequer defrauded. Incidentally, when the then Governor of Punjab, a former intelligence officer, died in an air-crash, suitcases filled with currency notes were recovered from the crash site. 

I recall that when the then Prime Minister, Chandra Shekhar, sent me to Punjab to talk with some Sikh extremist groups who had got in touch with him, I asked for some protection. Chandra Shekhar told me to proceed without it as I faced a greater threat from the police as counter-insurgency had become a lucrative proposition for them. Nevertheless, KPS Gill emerged as a national hero for having rid the nation of a scourge. He seemed destined for higher office and greater honours till the controversy regarding his inebriated fondling the derriere of a lady IAS officer hit the headlines. He now runs the Indian Hockey Federation, pretty much the same way but with far less success.

In more recent times we have seen the state continuing to meet terror with terror in Kashmir and Andhra Pradesh. The killing of innocents continues unabated. The most recent one was the killing of Abdul Rahman Padder, a 35 year old carpenter from Kupwara who was lured to Srinagar by a policeman with the promise of a job. For a onetime payment of Rs.20000, paid in advance. Once in Srinagar on December 8, Padder disappeared only to reappear as a news item in the local newspapers on December 10 as a Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorist who was gunned down in an encounter with a Ganderbal police party headed by the SSP Hans Raj Parihar, a much decorated officer. Rewards and honors were generously bestowed by a grateful state. The matter would have ended here but for the zeal displayed by the police to publicize its valour. A photograph of the supposed slain terrorist was published in some local papers and this was shown to Ghulam Rasool Padder, Abdul Rahman’s father. Due to the effort of local human rights groups, Padder’s body was exhumed in February this year and the DNA test confirmed his identity. Parihar has since been arrested and investigations are still underway, which means the odds are still very much in his favor. The police can be quite inventive when it comes to fudging evidence. After a similar incident in Chiitisinghpora where five shepherds were picked up and cold-bloodedly killed, the blood samples of the parents were called for to help in DNA identification. The J&K Police sent the blood of some farm animals instead. Justice is still awaited.

So by all means go and see Shootout at Lokhandwala. It should make you think. It’s also a true story, even though the director claims otherwise. Abhishek Bachchan has done the best acting of his life. Mercifully, his role lasts about a minute half of which is taken up by his death throes.