The tendency on the part of security forces and the political classes to justify (directly or indirectly) the killing of terror suspects is not rare in this country. The latest controversy over the killing of eight Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) activists, and the government’s subsequent defence of the police action, therefore just furnishes more evidence of this same disturbing mindset. The SIMI activists, accused of committing acts of terror, were killed within hours of breaking out of the Bhopal Central Jail this Monday.
A series of videos which surfaced later, however, showed the police gunning down – at close range – men, who were apparently unarmed. In the wake of the controversy over the encounter, the responses of the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, as well as heads of security agencies, have once again raised serious questions about our commitment to the principles underlying the criminal justice system.
First of all, even if these men were terrorists – and we must not forget that they were undertrials – there is simply no law mandating the cold-blooded killing of suspects or even of convicted criminals. “We should be clear that the killing of escaped detainees who had not retaliated, and by several accounts appear to have been unarmed, should not be an action which is legally open to the police force and cannot be justified,” writes Kunal Ambasta in a column in The Indian Express (November 3).
Not complying with these basic tenets of the criminal justice system in itself is a punishable offence. The violators must face judicial action if they transgress the law. Unfortunately, the authorities in charge – whether in state or central government, or heading crucial security agencies – seem to propagate a different system of justice: one that is of their own making.
For instance, here’s how Sanjeev Shami, Madhya Pradesh's anti-terror squad chief, views the killings: “It is well settled in law when police can use force and take life. These men were dreaded criminals. If the police sees the possibility that such men can escape, they can use maximum force.” In a similar vein, Chief Minister Chouhan criticised those raising questions about the incident following the video revelations. Not just that, Chouhan also announced cash rewards for the policemen involved in the killing.
While more than one inquiry has been ordered to look at the circumstances making possible the jailbreak, the issue of probing the killings has been left solely to the National Human Rights Commission. The central government – on Chouhan’s request – has ordered a National Investigating Agency (NIA) investigation into the jailbreak. The state government is conducting a separate inquiry into the prison’s security lapses.
No doubt, security mechanisms at the prison must be examined and the gaps therein must be bridged. But equally, the killings themselves must be probed, especially in view of the disturbing videos as well as the dubious track-record of security forces in such encounters. How else will the state ensure the principles of natural justice? The proclivity to brand all such disquieting questions as ‘anti–national’ or ‘anti–security force’ is nothing but counter-productive.
The stated or unstated assumption that terrorists, when they can be arrested alive, can be killed without attracting judicial flak, does not sit well with India’s claims of being a modern and civilised nation. Let’s consider, for instance, the remarks made by Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju in this context. “We should stop this habit of raising doubts and questioning the authorities and the police. This is not a good culture. What we are observing in India is that people have developed this habit of raising unnecessary doubts and questions,” the Minister said.
The “habit” referred to by the Minister has developed because of the background framing it, spanning the many human rights violations by security forces. Recall in this context earlier this year’s Supreme Court’s verdict on fake encounters in Manipur under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Following a petition by the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association (EEVFAM), to look into 1,528 fake encounters in Manipur, the court said that over 1,500 cases of alleged fake encounters in Manipur, spanning two decades, “must be investigated.”
Clearly, there is always more than meets the eye in such cases. When civil society and human rights organisations raise questions over these encounters, they must be heeded. Rather than blindly endorse actions of security forces, the state must fulfill one of its primary duties, ie ensuring that no one is free to disregard the law in such matters.