Ishrat Jahan and the ethics of India’s encounter policies

Let’s just call him J., the former United States special forces officer I met for dinner at a beach-shack somewhere many years ago.  For much of his life, J. served in black operations: tracking down people thought to be his nation’s enemies; torturing them; puting a bullet through their head, and sometimes a second one just to make sure.  It sometimes takes raw courage to kill in cold blood: if J. had been caught, he’d have ended up exactly like the people he hunted.

“The taking of human life should never, ever be a casual decision”, he said, “but it always, always ends up that way”.

I’ve often recalled what J. told me while reporting on Ishrat Jahan Raza’s extra-judicial execution—which is, for the record, what I suspect it was, just as I suspect she was a Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist about whom the union government is, for disgraceful political reasons, not keen on discovering the truth.

Perhaps, as human rights activist Vrinda Grover argued on CNN-IBN, Ishrat Jahan was killed for no other reason that she was a Muslim, in a state Muslims are being demonised.  I don’t know.  I've no idea what the senior officers alleged to have carried out the killings—Pruthvipal Pandey, Rajinder Kumar and DG Vanzara—think about Muslims. For all I know, because the CBI has chosen to be silent on the question of motive, they got Ishrat Jahan’s name from Ask Me.

Then again, perhaps not.

Telling the story of India’s Encounter Policy isn't easy, because everyone concerned denies it exists. There’s no way to prove otherwise.  It’s clear, though, that the story began long before anyone had heard of chief minister Narendra Modi.  Through the colonial period and before, the execution of and torture of criminal suspects was commonplace. In his 1883 classic, James Stephen mocked British police officers in India: “it is far pleasanter to sit comfortably in the shade rubbing red pepper in a poor devil’s eyes than to go about in the sun hunting up evidence”.

File photo shows suspended police officers Tarun Barot (holding revolver) and G.L Singhal (R) during a reconstruction of Ishrat Jehan encounter by CBI.  PTI

File photo shows suspended police officers Tarun Barot (holding revolver) and G.L Singhal (R) during a reconstruction of Ishrat Jehan encounter by CBI. PTI

Killings of criminals began to gather pace in the 1960s, by the accounts of police officers, as a response to public frustration over the state’s inability to enforce order.

From the mid-1960s, police forces in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh began shooting dacoits in response to massacres and looting—hideous crimes that have been vested with a certain aura of nostalgic romance now by Hindi pop film.  It’s been reported that 500 dacoits were shot dead. Though it’s impossible to say how many died in genuine exchanges of fire, contemporary newspaper accounts were suffused with stories of extra-judicial killings and torture.

Even today, charges periodically surface that such killings still take place: last year, for example, the Rajasthan High Court ordered an investigation into the killing of Rameshwar Gurjar, an alleged dacoit.

Four more dacoits were recently killed in Madhya Pradesh, too, under circumstances that were, well, intriguing.

In Maharashtra, then-police commissioner Julio Ribeiro has often been alleged to have presided over the murder of organised crime suspects.  Beginning with the cold-blooded murder of Manya Surve in 1983, an estimated 500 men with alleged links to crime syndicates and terrorism were simply shot dead.  Hindu gangsters and Muslim gangsters both died.

“The encounter policy was not only not questioned at the time”, journalist Debashish Panigrahi wrote, “it was warmly welcomed as a necessary step in breaking the back of the underworld”.

Siddharth Shankar Ray, West Bengal’s former chief minister, is reputed to have presided over the torture and killing of hundreds of Maoists, aided by the state’s communists.  There are graphic accounts of how “over a hundred young Naxalites were killed by the Congress and the CPM together at Baranagar and Kashipur, close to Kolkata, and the dead bodies were tarred over and thrown into the Ganga”.

From several historical accounts, we know savagery most intense when the state was besieged. It’s generally forgotten that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the air force to bomb Aizawl in March, 1966, using air power against civilians.  Former Assam Chief Secretary, Vijendra Singh Jafa, has recorded how the villagers of Darzo were relocated: the hamlet was set on fire, and elders ordered to certify “that they had burnt down their own village.”

It’s indefensible right, this savagery?

KTS Tulsi, the eminent lawyer, who served as public prosecutor in Punjab’s most grim years of carnage, has provided rare insight why these things happened the way they did. In February, 1986, Dalip Singh’s son, Avtar Singh, was shot dead by a group of four terrorists outside the village church.  In June 1988, top terrorist Malkiat Singh Ajnala was arrested—and charged, based on his video-taped confession, with the murder.

Was Ishrat actually working for the Lashkar-e-Taiba? Reuters

Was Ishrat actually working for the Lashkar-e-Taiba? Reuters

“I, in my capacity as Public Prosecutor, met Dalip Singh”, Tulsi wrote, “who very bluntly told me, with tears in his eyes, that he would not give evidence in court because he had been told that if he did so, his two other sons would meet the same fate”. “Dalip Singh refused to identify his own son’s murderer”.

Malkit Singh Ajnala vanished in the waning years of the insurgency—perhaps ending up as one of the many victims of Punjab Police encounters the police never did get around to identifying.

From the frontlines of India’s insurgencies, stories like these emerge all the time. Farooq Ahmad Dar, known on the streets of Srinagar as Bitta Karate, who lives a quiet life in Srinagar after bragging that he executed Kashmiri Pandits, lives happily—hundreds of people showed up at his wedding in 2011. Maulana Masood Azhar, the chief of the Jaish-e-Muhammad, who was eventually released in the Indian Airlines hostages-for-prisoners swap at Kandahar, wasn't ever convicted of a crime.

Following Azhar's release, and the surge of pan-India terrorism starting from 2002, security services operated a take-no-Pakistani-prisoners policy—the reason I suspect Ishrat Jahan Raza was killed.

There’s no evidence, though, that the Gujarat police was especially fond of these policies. In 2004, the year Ishrat Jahan was killed, there were 354 civilian civilians killed in police firing—the highest number coming from Andhra Pradesh, with 85, Jammu Kashmir with 50, Uttar Pradesh with 42. Gujarat had just 5. Even today, that’s true: Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan topped the civilian killing list in 2011, the last year for which union government data is available.

In India, then, there’s this strange reality: if you’re responsible for mass killings, you’re either innocent—or dead.

For five decades and more, extra-judicial means have been key to the Indian security system’s way of fighting not just terrorism, but every kind of serious crime. It happened because police forces simply didn't have the numbers, resources or technologies needed to bring about prosecutions—and because the public demanded order.  It’s led, just as J. told me that day, to a casualisation of police attitudes to investigation, to the rule of law, and life itself: why bother spending months digging for evidence, when you can settle the case with a bullet?

Little I've seen, though, leads me to believe police or intelligence officers mainly do what they do for personal enrichment or political expediency: indeed, police officers who've spent their lives fighting insurgencies tend, in my experience, to be living less well than the ones well-connected enough to have had successful careers in traffic management.

They do what they do, mostly, because in the Republic we have, as opposed to the one we’d like to have, you often have to chose between law or order.

We need to understand how this came about, because unless we do, they'll keep happening. We’ll be left a republic without law, or a republic without order—and neither can survive.

India deserves better—but moral sermons won’t cut it. In an August 20, 1996, editorial, written amidst prosecutions of decorated Punjab Police officers, Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta asked this: “the Punjab crisis saw five Prime ministers and as many internal security ministers. Each one knew precisely what was going on”.

“Why are they hiding now?”

Good question. Perhaps the CBI will get around to asking it in the Ishrat Jahan case one of these days.