Jailbreak before dawn. Encounter by noon.
This is the headline some men in the Madhya Pradesh security establishment thought will appear in the newspapers on 1 November. In fact, between noon and 7 pm on Monday, their phones were buzzing with congratulatory messages.
And then the videos emerged, leaving them red in the face. IG of Madhya Pradesh police Yogesh Choudhary's answers created more questions in the minds of those who listened to him at a media conference.
The Bhopal police story was simple. Eight SIMI activists escaped from Bhopal Central Prison between 2 and 3 am, killing head constable Ramshankar Yadav inside the jail. But by 11:30 am, all of them were killed in an encounter, 12 km from Bhopal, in a place called Eintkhedi.
Those who think jailbreak is child's play need to bear in mind that Bhopal prison is not a cattle shed. It is an ISO 9001 centre, in fact the first jail in India to be awarded this certificate in 2002. Though it must be mentioned that the ISO tag was more to do with the facilities to prisoners than security measures.
- How is it then possible that no one in the jail raised an alarm when the guard was killed?
- How is it that the CCTVs monitoring the escape route were not functioning? Why didn't the security personnel manning the CCTV room not smell a rat?
- The parapet wall has live wire. How did eight prisoners scale the 32 feet wall without even one, coming in accidental contact with the live wire? Or had some insider help switched it off?
- How is it that all eight undertrials scaled the 32 feet wall — no mean feat — without a soul inside prison coming to know of it? The jail houses around 2,400 prisoners. Their lawyer also has raised doubts, saying at least three of the eight operatives are not fit enough to do this.
- Every central prison has watchtowers, to be manned by armed Special Police Force and not the jail staff. The complex has searchlights and spotlights that keeps moving. Did no one notice anything?
- If the entire SIMI gang had plotted its escape, why did its leader Abu Faisal lodged in a separate cell, not join them as well?
Questions there are no answers to. Let us look at the encounter next.
The MP police version is that the SIMI men were armed, with four country-made pistols and two knives. The state home minister Bhoopendra Singh sang a different tune, claiming they used utensils as weapons and had no arms. ATS chief Sanjeev Shami also denied the men were armed.
Who is speaking the truth?
The video footage that has emerged shows the men standing on a hillock at a distance, "trying to talk to the police" (heard clearly in the policeman's audio over walkie-talkie) and raising their hands in surrender position.
If the police wants to tell the world that it was not a fake encounter, as the video seems to strongly suggest, it needs to come clear on these points.
- Which professional police force in the world will go into an encounter, with mobile phones shooting them "in action"?
- If the men on the hillock were really armed and firing at the cops, how is it that none of the policemen and the 'cameraperson' were even trying to take cover, fearing getting shot?
- Which sensible policeman will go into combat mode against "armed opponents" wearing a bright red shirt (visible in the footage) that would make him a sitting duck for any sharpshooter, which these SIMI activists are said to be?
- Why would a cop fire at bodies after they have been neutralised? What was the Madhya Pradesh ATS trying to fix?
- How is it that the man in blue t-shirt knew exactly where the undertrial had kept a gleaming, brand new looking sharp knife like object? In the video, he can be seen lifting the shirt and taking it out.
- The cop in blue t-shirt uses no gloves to touch the weapon. Which trained cop would destroy forensic evidence by tampering with the scene of crime like that?
- All the SIMI men were wearing shoes, watches and belts. If the police are to be believed, some outside help provided all this to the terror operatives. Wouldn't vehicles to escape as soon as possible been a priority over sartorial accessories?
In light of so many doubts over the police version, it is fair to assume there is more than what meets the eye. One can surmise that a lot happened between 2 am and 3 am inside jail.
Not for a moment is one holding a brief for the SIMI prisoners. But we are a country that follows a legal system. The terror suspects were in judicial custody, which means in the protection of the court. Are all those who claim it is nationalistic to kill deshdrohis fine with mutilating the system instead of the fair process of law deciding their fate?
It is clear that there are missing links between what happened inside jail and the encounter site. The NIA which has now been entrusted with the investigation will need to probe these points.
- Whether any outsiders entered Bhopal prison around 3 am?
- Eyewitness account says the police fired in the air after the prisoners had been killed. Was it a ploy to create the setting of an encounter in which the police, according to the IGP, fired some 45 rounds?
- Eyewitness account also says the spot where the bodies were kept is next to a gorge, making it impossible for them to escape, as the police claim. If they had, they would have fallen to their death.
One conspiracy theory suggests that the SIMI men tried to escape and killed the guard. They were spotted and overpowered by the jail staff. Angry at their bravado, it was then decided to teach the terror suspects a lesson. The CCTV was switched off and the eight men were taken out. The counter to this however is, why would Bhopal prison authorities agree to their reputation getting tarnished.
The Madhya Pradesh police is finding no support even among its own fraternity. Najmul Hoda, IPS officer from Tamil Nadu who was involved in the investigation into the Chennai Railway station blast case of 2014 in which this SIMI gang was allegedly involved, made this important point in a post on his Facebook page: "... quite a sizable number of killings have been for medal and machismo rather than exasperation and frustration or nationalism and patriotism.''
When your own raise questions, it means the stink is getting unbearable.
Moral of the story for the police: Never allow a policeman to carry a smartphone to an encounter site.