Bhopal Jail Encounter: 4 Years On, Kin of Undertrial Await Justice

Eight students associated with the banned SIMI were killed in an encounter on 31 October 2016.

Updated
India
10 min read
File photo of police at the encounter site at the hillocks of Acharpura village after the STF killed 8 Students of Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) activists who escaped Central Jail killing a security guard in Bhopal on Monday. 
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Memories of the fateful day still haunts 65-year-old Najma who spends sleepless nights recounting the events that might have led to her 35-year-old son Mehboob Shaikh’s body arriving home in an ambulance with multiple cuts, deep injuries and two bullet marks.

Guddu was one of the eight undertrial prisoners who were shot dead on the afternoon of 31 October 2016 by the Bhopal Police, after they allegedly tried to escape out of the Bhopal Central Jail.

All the eight were allegedly associated with the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and had escaped the ISO-certified high security prison after killing a 58-year-old on-duty constable Ramashankar Yadav.

Four years after they were shot dead, the family members of the deceased are yet to reconcile the way police had acted on the fateful day.

What prompted the police to encounter the undertrials who were imprisoned on charges of attempt to murder and sections of Unlawful Activity Prevention Act (UAPA) often crosses their mind. They think and think again only to reach the same conclusion that the encounter was staged and the eight were victims of state killings.

Bhopal Jail Encounter: 4 Years On, Kin of Undertrial Await Justice
(Photo Courtesy: Kashif Kakvi)

Seeking accountability, family members of five of the eight, who were killed, have written a letter to the Home Ministry, along with Department of Home, Madhya Pradesh, demanding prosecution of nearly 50 police officials under Section 197 (Prosecution of Judges and public servants) of the CrPc, for gunning down the escaped prisoners on 31 October 2016.

In a 250-page application attached with evidence and videos, the family members have charted out the entire incident and raised a number of questions.

Applicants Demand Action Against Police and STF Personnel

The detailed application described the sequence of events, including how many bullets the cops had been fired that day, how many teams had been formed, which officer had been leading the team, what guns they had used during the operation, how many bullets they had fired, and the bullets police shot at the undertrials during the operation, as per the official record.

The applicants have raised several questions in the letter such as how could a physically challenged Salik scale a 30-feet wall of the jail and escape?

Bhopal Jail Encounter: 4 Years On, Kin of Undertrial Await Justice
(Photo Courtesy: Kashif Kakvi)

Even after 9-10 hours of escape, how is it that the eight only managed to cover a distance of 10 km? They had firearms, fresh clothes with shoes and they were shaven, as police claimed officially; who helped them from outside to escape?

“We have sent all the documents related to the escape, encounter, copies of FIRs filed after the incident with the audios and the videos of the entire incident in a pen drive, CDs and hard copies.”
Jaleel Khilji, Applicant

In the letter, the applicants accused the police officials for falsely planting and manipulating the evidence to cover up the alleged fake encounter. And sought permission to register criminal cases against all the officials and personnel who were part of this alleged state killing under Sections 302, 307, 147, 148, 149 and 120B of the Indian Penal Code.

“We know there is a little hope for justice, but we will fight for the truth until the last breath,” Jaleel added.

In the light of the given evidence, videos and audios with the application, the applicants have demanded to prosecute nearly 40 police as well as STF personnel who were a part of the encounter.

Few names of the officials which was highlighted in the application are the then Bhopal SP (North), Arvind Saxena, SP (South) Anshuman Singh and ASP (Crime) Shailendra Singh Chouhan, DSP, Dhyan Singh Chouhan along with SDOP (Bairagad) Nagendra Singh Bais and SDOP (Bairasiya) Beena Singh.

“Whatever the police claimed in an affidavit before the court and by the probe committee is unjustifiable,” said a senior High Court lawyer working with the families but requested anonymity.

“Not a single penny was found from them; although the police have found dry fruits, arms, sharp-edged weapons in their possession. More so, no cross-examination questions have been done in the court from the officials, except taking affidavit. It is against the basic rules of the judiciary. Without cross examination, there is no justice,” the advocate thundered.

At the end, the applicants observed, “The eight prisoners were surrounded by 62 policemen on a hillock from all the three sides while the only way to escape for these prisoners was to jump down from the hill which was 80-90 feet deep. At least 50 of the 62 policemen were armed. Apart from this there were also villagers present at the spot. In such a situation when no one can escape from that place, what was the need to encounter?”

“All the concerned police personnel have killed the eight in a systematic and planned manner stepping out of their code of conduct. Hence, a criminal case should be run against them,” the application noted.

“The police intentionally killed those prisoners and to cover up the incident, fake evidence, FIRs and arms were planted,” said Najma, mother of Mehbooh Guddu.

“If the government did not respond within the time frame, we will approach the Madhya Pradesh High Court to get justice,” said the High Court lawyer.

The applicants have sent the letter to all the officials concerned in August 2020 and sought permission for three months.

Commenting over the issue, Additional Chief Secretary of State Home Department, Rajesh Rajora said, “A judicial probe by the retired High Court judge has given a clean chit to the police as well as the jail department. The cabinet also approved the report when it was tabled in the Assembly. Hence, there is no need for any further investigation.”

The Killing of Undertrials

Eight SIMI activists who had been encountered on 31 October – Mohd Saliq, Mehboob Guddu, Zakir Hussain, Amjad Khan, Mohd Aqeel Khilji, Mujeeb Sheikh, Abdul Majid and Mohammad Khalid Ahmad – by the Bhopal Police on a hilltop of Eitkhedi village, 12 kilometres from Bhopal city and eight hours after they escaped from Bhopal Central Jail.

Five of the eight SIMI members who were killed in the encounter were from Khandwa district. Amzad, Sadiq, Shaikh and Guddu were charged with attempt to murder under Section 307 of the Indian Penal Code and under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) 1967, while Salik was accused only under the UAPA.

Shaikh, who was from Ahmedabad, was accused in several cases of bomb blasts and robberies as well as under the UAPA. Ujjain native Majid was an explosives expert, who was also charged under the UAPA.

At present, the Bhopal Central jail has 28 SIMI prisoners. Of them, 19 are convicted and are serving life imprisonment, while the remaining nine are undertrials.

Two weeks ago, six SIMI prisoners who were staging a hunger strike inside the Bhopal Central Jail for various reasons, including police torture, were admitted at the Jail hospital.

Plight of the Family

A day after the encounter, on 1 November 2016, on Madhya Pradesh Foundation Day, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan addressed a rally in Bhopal’s Lal Prade Ground. An overwhelming Shivraj raised both the hands and thundered: “We did this encounter, was it a right thing to do?”

He further shouted into the microphone, “It takes years for these terrorists to get convicted and for years they eat biryani, did we do the right thing or not?”

“After the encounter and following statements of CM Chouhan, even after four years of the incident, the people see us with disgrace and avoid talking to us,” said Akil Khijli, son of alleged SIMI men Jalil Khilji who was killed.

According to the families, they are facing discrimination within the community. They are not invited to any local gathering or social events. “They also fear that the police might interrogate them if they meet us,” Jalil added.

House of Aqueel Khilji.
House of Aqueel Khilji.
(Photo Courtesy: Kashif Kakvi)

While the mother of another assassinated undertrial Zakir, Salma said, “People abuse and shoo our children away from work, if they know that we are family members of killed SIMI men.”

“Living with such a burden is very difficult for us at such an old age,” she added.

It is difficult to wash away the stains of being a family member of an alleged terrorist. Hence, they are questing for the truth and knocking the doors of governments as well as those of the Court’s.

Gulmohar Colony (Khandwa) where a few families of killed SIMI suspects live.
Gulmohar Colony (Khandwa) where a few families of killed SIMI suspects live.
(Photo Courtesy: Kashif Kakvi)

The ‘Incomplete’ Probe Report

To look into the encounter, the Madhya Pradesh government formed a probe panel, headed by Justice (retired) SK Pandey, which submitted its report to the government on 25 June 2018. The probe panel gave a clean chit to the state police and Anti-Terrorists Squad, citing “the use of force resulting in the death of the escaped persons was quite inevitable and quite reasonable under the prevailing circumstances.”

The report further stated: ‘The action of the police was in consonance of the provision of law under Sections 41 and 46 (2) (3) of the CrPC.’

However, the probe report failed to address a number of questions and the sequence of the events that indicates the incident to be a conspiracy.

The Unanswered Questions

  1. The statement of the only eyewitness of the incident, Chandan Kumar Tilanthe, a guard, who was tied up by the SIMI men when he tried to stop them from escaping has no further details. The guard is the key to unearth the truth of the incident. Moreover, after a few hours of the jailbreak, he was untraceable.
  2. Why were only four out of 42 CCTV cameras installed in the jail premises not functioning on the Diwali night when the jailbreak happened? (These cameras would have captured the alleged movements of the suspects).
  3. Did the suspects receive any insider’s help in scaling the 30-feet-high wall of ISO-certified and the most secure jail of the state?
  4. Why were the cells, in which the undertrial SIMI prisoners were lodged, left unguarded?
  5. A prahri Ramashankar Yadav (jail guard) was killed in cold blood. Why did the jail authorities not find this alarming?
  6. After the escape, who supplied fresh cloths, food and weapons to the SIMI men to defend themselves?
  7. How did the prisoners get access to weapons (.315 bore and 12 bore country-made pistols and sharp edge knives)?
  8. If they had connections to acquire weapons, why couldn’t they get a vehicle to escape, and why were they moving together rather than dispersing and could not go beyond 10 kilometres in eight hours after the escape?
  9. How did three cops receive knife wounds when bullets were used in the encounter? And why were the wounded policemen brought to the public?

What the Courts Observed?

After the encounter, advocate Parvez Alam, who was representing seven of the eight men in the cases against them, had requested the court to continue the hearings till it pronounces verdicts so that the public can know the truth.

"Mujeeb Shaikh was accused in some major cases of bomb blasts and bank robberies, and I was assured that the court will punish him. But, we were in a stronger position in other cases because the prosecution did not have any evidence against the other six," the lawyer said, adding that he was not defending Mohammad Khalid Ahmed.

However, the court declined the request, making a remark that the cases shut after the death of the accused.

According to a report published in The Week on 20 August, two months after the probe report was tabled in the State Assembly, the Supreme Court had refused to entertain a special leave petition in the Bhopal Jailbreak and the subsequent killings of eight SIMI undertrials in a police encounter in 2016.

The apex court disposed of the plea filed by Mehmooda Mohamad Salim Muchhale – a relative of one of those killed in the encounter – seeking independent probe into the incident. A three-judge Supreme Court bench, on 18 August, said that there is no point entertaining such a plea.

The bench comprising Justice Ranjan Gogoi, Justice Navin Sinha and Justice KM Joseph said that the report of the one member commission, which was headed by a retired High Court judge, is sufficient.

The bench said that the “enquiry report of retired High Court judge has come in. The report is negative. In view of the report of the commission of enquiry, which has been brought on record, we are inclined not to interfere in the special leave petition.”

Why Is It a Called Fake Encounter?

Referring to the official police versions of the jailbreak and encounter and ambiguity in the probe report, social activists and advocates term it a ‘fake encounter’.

There are countless questions that still remain unanswered, even after four years of the incident from the jail escape story to the encounter,  said Pervez Alam, advocate of the killed SIMI suspects.

"In the probe report, the postmortem reports have been ignored, that mentioned that all the entry wounds on the suspects’ bodies measured between 0.4 to 0.5 cm in diameter, which is consistent with small calibre weapons. It means that the bullets were shot from close range,” he lamented.

He further stated that the police claimed the encounter party used AK 47, Insas rifles and pistols. Had they been fired at from an AK 47 or Insas rifles, the size of the entry wounds would have been bigger in diameter.

However, the killed SIMI suspects, according to the postmortem report, had bullet injuries either on the left and right sides of their chests, hips and backs or on their heads from a close range.

While a social activist, who closely watched the incident, Madhuri said, “This was a televised encounter. The whole country saw how people who were unarmed and waving their hands in surrender were next seen dead; and one person Akheel Khilji was still alive though unconscious when he was shot dead at point-blank range by a police officer."

She further said that the circumstances of the jailbreak were so unbelievable that the suspicion that they were deliberately taken out and killed still continues. The then SP Arvind Saxena was heard giving instructions to kill them all. Entry and exit wounds suggest shooting from close range.

"To all appearances, it was murder and no evidence has emerged to suggest otherwise. The Pandey Commission was clearly a whitewash job. It did not even try to offer an explanation for the discrepancies or deal with the footage which showed the killing of unarmed people," said Madhuri, who is also the Convenor of Jagrit Aadivasi Dalit Sanghatan Madhuri.

Senior Journalist Rakesh Dixit said, “Unfortunately both the administration and the courts have also failed us in this matter. Families of the victims are still trying to get an FIR registered, and Justice Ranjan Gogoi’s bench in the Supreme Court refused to even order an enquiry!”

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