On 14 July 1991, I became aware of the killing of ten terrorists in three separate encounters in Pilibhit district of Uttar Pradesh. Those were times when Punjab terrorists were drawn to UP’s Himalayan foothills, known as Terai region, comprising Lakhmipur Kheri, Pilibhit, Nainital, Rampur and even Bijnore, as a safe haven. The UP police were not adequately trained to deal with the menace and central forces were overstretched in Punjab.
Since it was not yet the time of 24x7 media channels or the blitzkrieg of social media, these incidents would have passed as truth paraded by the police. But there were too many holes in the story. The first doubt about the authenticity of the police version arose from the fact that district police RD Tripathi was known for his reckless policing. His name figured in the infamous Maliana case in which he headed a battalion of Provincial Armed Constabulary in the 1987 Meerut riots. Able-bodied Muslim youth were dragged out of their homes and shot dead in cold-blood.
In this context, Tripathi’s role as head of the district police where three encounters took place raised serious doubts. At the same time, it was also unbelievable that the UP police force, which usually took to its heels at the sight of AK-47 wielding Punjab terrorists, could become so efficient overnight as to kill ten terrorists in separate encounters on the same day.
I was working as staff reporter in The Times of India’s Lucknow edition. Unfortunately there was a workers’ strike at the paper. We were told to work for the Delhi edition instead and given a free hand to hire a taxi and go to the spot to gather news. I rushed to Pilibhit through Shahjehanpur where I caught hold of a police officer, who was quite disillusioned with Tripathi’s style of policing. After some cajoling and prodding, he gave details of the logbook of the control room and General diary (GD) entries that revealed that the encounters were fake.
I came to realise that a total of 11 Sikh pilgrims, aged between 14 and 40, were taken down from a bus on its return journey from Nanded to Nanakmata. They were intercepted at Kachla Ghat near Budaun and segregated from the women passengers.
Later in the night they were split into three groups and carried to the encounter spots like trussed up chickens and shot dead in cold blood. I visited the encounter-spots and asked villagers if they were aware of exchange of fire between the police and terrorists. In most places, eyewitnesses grudgingly admitted that they heard about police vehicles passing by their villages late in the night. Some of them heard cries – “maar daala (killed me)” – before the rattle of guns silence their voices. The same story was repeated in all three places of encounters.
I met the deputy SP’s who were in charge of three different locations. Though they began by bragging about their prowess in eliminating terrorists, they meekly yielded when they learned that I was aware of the real story. “I did not do it but I can’t disobey my boss,” was the refrain. Additional SP Badri Prasad Singh was quite coy when he pointed out that they had staged fake encounters. A relative of a powerful Congress politician, Singh was cocksure of getting away with murder. But the most amazing conversation I had was with RD Tripathi, the man who supervised the entire operation. Right from the word go, he was remorseless.
“But what about taking down pilgrims at Kachla ghat from a bus?” I insisted. Without betraying any feelings, he said, “I am not aware of any Kachla ghat episode”. Did you not collect pilgrims instead of terrorists from the bus? I persisted. “You must have been wrongly briefed. These are genuine encounters,” he said while lighting his Wills filter cigarette. Since I had the minutest details of the story, I decided not press the issue further and rushed to Lucknow to file the story. Later I realised that number of those killed rose to 11.
Just as I reached Lucknow and sat on telex to file the copy, I recalled the terror-stricken faces of victims’ family and carefree, smiling face of Tripathi puffing on his cigarette – these images became imprinted in my mind. The next day TOI’s, Delhi edition carried a banner with this screaming headline: “Pilgrims not terrorists shot in Pilibhit”. Parliament was stalled as UP was run for the first time by a BJP government headed by Kalyan Singh. All hell broke loose as the Punjab police then headed by the formidable KPS Gill came to the rescue of the Pilibhit police and leaked selected details about the criminal antecedents of some of those killed in the encounter.
Things started getting muddled up as the Centre and the state governments got together to defend this criminality by diverting the attention from fake encounters to the criminal past of those killed. Just then Supreme Court took cognisance of my report and entertained a PIL filed by advocate RS Sodhi. A CBI inquiry was ordered to probe the case. An officer of the CBI approached me and put some queries only once in connection with the case.
I occasionally followed up the case only to find that the CBI carried out its investigation in the most partisan manner by absolving all senior officers who were instrumental in planning the execution of 11 Sikhs. Not even one officer of the rank of deputy superintendent of police, not to say the district police chief RD Tripathi, was named in the CBI’s chargesheet. If one goes by the CBI story, it appears that police constables and inspectors were responsible for fake encounters not their officers. As the CBI court in Lucknow sentenced 47 policemen to life imprisonment – men who were trained to obey their bosses – the 25-year journey of the case reveals a hideous face of the justice system and the Indian state. RD Tripathi would be far too happily puffing his Wills filter, feeling vindicated by the system.