Scarcely a day passes in India by without news of an encounter between the police and criminals elements "encounter" being the local jargon for shootouts involving the police, who are allowed to fire only in self-defense. On Wednesday, it was a "dreaded mafia don" who was gunned down by the Uttar Pradesh police shot dead, and therefore unable to challenge the police account of the circumstances of the shooting. But some in India have begun to question the frequency of such "encounters".
A national conversation was sparked by a January 25 encounter, in which two men were shot dead by police in the southeastern Delhi suburb of Noida. They were allegedly carrying documents proving they were Pakistani nationals, and were allegedly armed to the teeth to wreak mayhem on India's Republic Day. Four Kashmiris were rounded up for interrogation, prompting a media frenzy about a "foiled terror attack". Minister of State for External Affairs, Anand Sharma, quickly pointed a finger at Pakistan-based terror groups. "[The] Noida encounter shows that terror groups are still active in Pakistan, though we have repeatedly told Pakistan to dismantle terror infrastructure," he told a TV channel.
Within two days, however, the detained Kashmiris were released, and it became clear that the investigations had reached a dead-end. That was when the media began to ask questions of the police account: Two terrorists tasked with staging a Republic Day attack on the national capital had stopped at a tea stall to seek directions; a police informer, who just happened to be present, spotted an AK-47 sticking out of a bag. An urgent tip-off prompted a dramatic chase and shootout, but the "terrorists" lived just long enough to "confess" their Pakistani nationality. Nor did it go unnoticed that this was the fourth such "encounter" between police and suspects in the same area in less than a month.
"Encounter" has been a dirty word in India for decades, especially since the Punjab insurgency of the 1980s and 1990s. Not only did an encounter allow the security forces to bypass the often slow and unreliable criminal justice system, it also brought promotions and gallantry awards. Human rights activists have for years protested the growing incidence of encounters, some of them allegedly staged. "Encounters have become the norm," says Vrinda Grover, lawyer and human rights activist. "They have become the police's preferred method to deal with not just terrorists, but criminals of all kinds." Legends of "encounter specialist" cops abound, and one of them was even the subject of the Bollywood film Ab Tak Chhappan ("So far 56", implying the number of people he had killed).
Activists allege that in numerous instances, evidence has been planted after a shooting in order to justify police claims that officers had acted in self defense. Encounters are meant to be probed by a magistrate following a post-mortem, but critics point out that the investigative work in such probes is undertaken by the police themselves. They also allege that such tactics enjoy tacit approval from the authorities in areas plagued by insurgencies. In 2003, a National Human Rights Commission proposal on new norms on encounters suggested that investigation on behalf of a magisterial probe be handled by a different police station from the one where the officers involved are based, but its recommendations have yet been adopted.
The growing incidence of encounters is viewed by some analysts as a symptom of police disenchantment with the justice system. "The system is so defective and the criminal justice machinery so lethargic that it takes years to bring the guilty to book," explains G.P. Joshi, a former police officer now a consultant with the Commonwealth Human Rights Commission. "But crime continues to increase, and statistics show that conviction rates are down. This tendency promotes vigilantism in the public and the police. And the state also comes out in support, in consonance with public reaction."
Public reaction is far from uniformly supportive of tough police tactics, however. A recent encounter in New Delhi's Jamia Nagar district sparked a protest from members of the Muslim community, who claimed that the police had presented no evidence to back their claim that the two Muslim men killed in the action had been linked with bombing in the capital. "It is no wonder that the minority community feels victimized," says Joshi. "Even within the police, there is a divide which shows up in their dealing of communal problems. Numerous inquiry commissions have noted that prejudice exists among the police."
More worrying are increasing allegations of encounters being staged. In February 2007, two senior officials of Jammu and Kashmir police were stripped of their rank and arrested on charges of running a rogue operation in which fake encounters were staged in the central Kashmir district of Ganderbal in December 2006. The officers remain in custody facing charges of killing at least five innocent people, and planting evidence to imply that the victims had been insurgents.
In April 2007, a top cop in Gujarat, D.G. Vanzara, was arrested along with nearly a dozen other officers, in connection with the killing of a petty criminal, Sohrabuddin Sheikh, and his wife Kausarbi, in November 2005. Vanzara was convicted of planting false evidence at the scene of the shooting to create the impression that the pair had been involved with a Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorist plot against Chief Minister Nahendra Modi. The state of Maharashtra has a list of nearly half a dozen disgraced "encounter specialists" earlier hailed as heroes, they now face charges ranging from staging encounters to amassing wealth through corrupt means. "This trend has criminalized the entire police force," says Joshi, "It has serious implications for our democracy, for our social fabric, for our criminal justice system. It is undermining the very foundations of democratic policing."
Adds Grover, each time Indian security forces are shown to have cried wolf about Pakistan-based terror plots, they undermine India's credibility in the face of genuine foreign-sponsored terrorism.