Truth and War: Police Encounters

Image: 7MBB
Police encounters in India see insurgents and terrorists killed without trial. What makes encounter situations so difficult to verify?

The life of an Indian policeman is challenging, to say the least. 479 died on duty between 2015 and 2016, with over a hundred from Uttar Pradesh alone. The hazards they face are many – from terrorists to rioters, Maoist insurgents, and armed gangs. How do the police respond when their lives are at immediate risk?

With deadly efficiency, or so the story goes.

Ten suspected members of the banned terrorist outfit SIMI were killed recently, after a jailbreak that left one guard dead. Within five hours of their escape, they were all gunned down. Soon, unverified videos emerged showing armed men executing prone bodies in cold blood. It looked like a war scene, and the police claim it was similar to one – they were fired upon, and so, they fired back.

Armed, policeman
Image: Riyaz Shaik/ 7MB

The police encounter is a situation where the cops find themselves in a battle against the bad guys – literally. It happens in a variety of scenarios – from pursuits to patrols – and the outcome is usually the same: all the attackers are killed, lined up and displayed as a message.

Of the hundreds of encounter deaths incurred in the last five years, few to none have had survivors. It raises the question, similar to a famous thought experiment – if the police killed an armed suspect in a forest, and no one is around to see it, was the suspect still armed?

Swaranjit Sen spent many years fighting the Naxals, as Andhra Pradesh’s Director General of Police. He explains the code of conduct that is expected of policemen:

Whenever we are in an encounter situation we should not fire first because we’re not supposed to. We’re supposed to give a warning, so then if that person fires back at you, you have every right to fire back. If they surrender, you are supposed to take them into your custody. Altogether, in very few cases did the Naxals actually surrender on being confronted and challenged. But in most cases, they fired

Referring to the encounter in Madhya Pradesh, he points to systemic failures, that led to the incident:

The condition of jails, in many of the states, is shocking… the buildings are too old, jails are overcrowded, and security methods that could be used are either not enforced or nobody bothers to operate them. I am not surprised the jailbreak happened. I think it’s unfair of the government to just simply suspend the superintendent of jails. You don’t provide the manpower, the physical security that is required, and when a jailbreak situation occurs you just find a scapegoat.

Family members of those who were slain in the encounter, call it a cold-blooded murder. The National Human Rights Commission has since issued a notice expressing concern over the killings.

Since the formation of Independent India, encounters have been used to quell uprisings in Naxal corridors in North and South India, insurgencies in Kashmir and in Manipur, and even criminal gangs in Mumbai.

Deciphering contrasting narratives is difficult with India’s demographics. India has roughly a hundred policemen for every 100,000 citizens. There are more NGOs than policemen in the country – and this makes truth into a casualty of narratives.

While NGOs and activists serve as a civilian check on the State, their efforts may not carry the weight of a police First Information Report (FIR) in court. Yet, in a case filed on behalf of the Manipur Extra-Judicial Execution Victim Families Association (EEVFAM), 1,528 instances of extra-judicial killings went undocumented, without a FIR.

The Supreme Court noted this lapse and ordered an inquiry. But as Sen points out, the judicial system is already overburdened.

We know every year cases are mounting… They have fast track courts but they’re not fast at all. If we do not address these problems, the administrative system will be so overburdened that it will just not be able to serve any purpose.

Whether encounters are cases of judicially-exercised self-defence, or of state-sponsored homicide, depends largely on the ability of independent judiciaries to verify the facts. Police and NGO statements that are at odds with each other will not suffice to form a clear picture. The truth is the first casualty of war, and encounters are but everyday forms of war.

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