In October last year, eight terror under-trials ostensibly escaped from prison in central India's Madhya Pradesh and were subsequently killed by the state police in what was termed as a raging gun battle. Police action raised eyebrows when a video surfaced, showing a policeman shooting at one of the unarmed suspects from a close range.
Prima facie, many loopholes and inconsistencies were visible in police version. The state government, however, abruptly rejected the demand for any investigation, and termed all the allegations as conspiracies to malign the image of the state and security forces.
Systematic Pattern of Violence
Due to pressure and fear of possible repercussions from the security agencies, very few cases of fake encounters are registered by the kin of those killed. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has registered only 440 cases of fake encounters in the country in the last decade. However, there have been reports of over 1,500 fake encounters in the north-eastern state of Manipur alone.
These are not mere numbers or anecdotes. It is a systematic pattern of violence to which India has become inured. The language used to describe this lawlessness – no better exemplified than in the word 'encounter' – with all its abhorrent connotations has gradually become a part of India's vernacular.
Harsh Reality About Staged Encounters
In fact, the post colonial history of India is marred by innumerable such 'encounters', especially in the conflict ridden areas of the Northeast, Punjab and Kashmir Valley. Not astonishingly since every such incident is made to slip into the realm of nationalism and national security, these episodes hardly garner public indignation.
The reality of every questionable skirmish or gun battle in India hides behind the euphemistic term 'encounter'. The word 'encounter' usually gives a sense of bilateral engagement of fire, from opposing forces, usually initiated from the militant side. However, in reality, the modus operandi is entirely different. In many cases, the army in collusion with the police handpicks individuals, abducts them from their homes and then they are killed in staged encounters.
The encounters are staged to win awards and medals. In the army, citations are based on points, which are earned by eliminating or apprehending militants. Greater the headcount, greater the points and greater the awards.
Half Widows of Kashmir
In Kashmir, a term "half widow" has been coined for women who have lost their husbands and uncertainty persists over their return. In all probability, their beloved recline in thousands of graves that lie unmarked. Most of the victims have either been killed while in custody and then dumped into these graves, or murdered in fake encounters and dubbed as foreign terrorists.
In one such case, Abdur Rehman Paddar, a carpenter from the Anantnag district of Kashmir became Abu Hafeez, a Pakistani commander of Lashkar-e-Taiba. He was identified perhaps because of his fairer complexion and had a family which was frantically looking for him. However, hundreds of illegal Bangladeshi immigrant labourers who infiltrate into India for a better living, face the wrath of this systematic extra judicial persecution, as they are unaccounted for and resemble the Pakistanis.
They are lured by the army as porters and are then killed in staged encounters and termed as LeT militants.
Perhaps the inconsiderate numbness and unfazed credulousness among Indian masses towards such incidents has largely been shaped by the national media. The semantics used by media lends an air of legitimacy to every murder committed in the name of nation and nationalism. The fact that media has got trapped in the parlance of state and reports of killings invariably sounds like government-released press notes.
Ultimately, the euphemism that surrounds the word 'encounter' masks the brutality and illegitimacy of the act. In an environment marked by high levels of jingoism, the army has been made a sacrosanct institution and even challenging its version mounts to blasphemy. This is perhaps the greatest disservice to the very essence of democracy.
Brutality in the Name of AFSPA
Chongkam Sanjit, a surrendered activist of the banned People's Liberation Army (PLA) of Mizoram was going about his ordinary daily chores when security forces surrounded him in front of a public telephone booth.
The forces dragged him into a medicine shop next to the booth. Minutes later his bullet-ridden body was dragged in full public view and the entire sequence got photographed blow-by-blow. Police spokesperson later declared that Sanjit was killed in a fierce gun battle. Months of violent protests followed after the photographs of the actual episode got published, but the culprits are yet to be punished.
There have hardly been any instances where the culprits have been brought to justice, primarily because of the impunity they enjoy. Draconian legislative provisions like Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) grant enough immunity to the armed forces. The security personnel can search any premises, arrest anyone without a warrant or even kill people on mere suspicion, and in a conflict zone like Kashmir or Mizoram, everyone is a suspect and hence a prospective dead body.
(The author is assistant editor with weekly "Heaven Times" and a citizen journalist with "Daily Uqaab". He can be reached @HananZaffar. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)