Only in India can the moral hazard of fake encounter killings be diluted by presumptive political positioning that serve to turn focus away from the real issue to a predictable, partisan tu tu main main. The controversy over the jailbreak and subsequent killing of eight SIMI operatives by the Madhya Pradesh Police has predictably given rise to building of narratives over ever-deepening fault lines.
Prima facie, it appears that state and police versions of the dramatic events are riddled with inconsistencies. And when such a thing happens, when the line is blurred between the legal and the outlawed and the state's moral legitimacy seems shaky, it is natural for democracy's watchdogs to raise tough questions and demand clarity.
But what is equally morally hazardous is the hardening of battle lines over a controversial event even before the facts are clear in a fast-developing situation. The eight terror undertrials and a slain police constable then become mere pawns of a familiar political game whose ultimate aim is to translate the event (any event, for that matter) into a ringing of the electoral register.
In this game, nobody is interested in the truth or the answers that tough questions should elicit. What matters is the slanging match played over and over through various mediums of mass media — replete with obfuscations, rhetorical gymnastics and cherry picking of facts to suit respective narratives.
Just a few hours into the incident where eight SIMI activists ostensibly broke a high security jail in Bhopal and were subsequently killed by a special task force of the MP Police that some political parties and a section of the media began drawing sweeping conclusions. Facts were still hazy but opinions were not.
Cold blooded murder. Period
— Rana Ayyub (@RanaAyyub) October 31, 2016
Today 8 hostages were killed in India in perhaps the most brutal terrorist attack since uri. Hope perpetrators are punished.
— Monkey Bath ?????? (@brumbyOz) October 31, 2016
Speaking to ANI, Congress Rajya Sabha member and former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh Digvijay Singh said: "It is a serious issue. First SIMI activists fled the Khandwa Jail. Now they have fled from Bhopal jail. I have been reiterating that RSS activists and other similar organisations are behind the anti-Muslim riots in the country. It should be probed whether there is someone behind this or not."
There is no question that Chief Minister Shivraj Chouhan and his police department have some really tough questions to answer. The contradiction in statements of state home minister Bhupendra Singh and IG Yogesh Choudhary do not make for a happy read. There are far too many loopholes in the 'story' that the state has propagated and only an impartial, time-bound probe should get us closer to the truth.
There can be no justification to extra-judicial killings. There is no moral ambiguity here. The prudent option would be to wait for clarity to emerge from the enquiries that have already been ordered. But why be prudent when we can pluck some 'facts', pass instant judgement, draw sweeping conclusions from it and engage in a persecution narrative?
If there are loopholes in the state's 'story', there are equally glaring loopholes in the conspiracy theories. For instance, if the cops had to stage a fake encounter, why on earth would they do it in a manner (like huddling the bodies in open space) that instantly gives rise to a thousand questions? If they were indeed raining bullets on unarmed fugitives (as some videos whose authenticity cannot be verified have suggested) why on earth would they shoot self-incriminating videos and circulate it among media?
The JNU episode should have taught a few lessons to our media on trusting the veracity of spurious videos that emerge from any scene of controversy with alarming regularity. But in our haste to draw conclusions in a super-charged political atmosphere journalists often forget the basic rules of due diligence. While many anonymous videos call into question the state's story, news agency ANI, for instance, has posted a video that seems to conform to the police version that locals had spotted the SIMI activists and alerted the police.
Besides, quite apart from the debate over a staged encounter (which at no circumstances can be condoned) is the troubling attempt to paint the SIMI operatives as the very picture of innocence. As news reports have indicated, all the of the eight fugitives were on trial for serious charges.
The Hindu reported that two of them were wanted by the Tamil Nadu police for their involvement in the twin blasts on the Bangalore-Guhawati Express that killed one woman passenger and injured a dozen others in Chennai on 1 May, 2014.
One of them, reported Hindustan Times, was accused in several terror-related cases including the 2009 triple murder of state anti-terrorism squad constable Sita Ram Yadav, a bank manager and a lawyer. He was also one of the accused in the 2008 Ahmadabad serial blast case and the murder of another ATS constable in Ratlam district in 2011.
Another report in The Times of India informs us that those killed were allegedly key members of SIMI's Abu Faisal module that had developed links with al-Qaida to free 9/11 accused Aafia Siddiqui from FBI's custody in US and also had a blueprint to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They had also hatched a plan to bomb Sabarmati Central Jail in Ahmedabad and tunnel out SIMI supremo Safdar Nagori. Three of them, reports the newspaper, were arrested in February from Khandwa jailbreak in 2013.
If we question the state for trying to cover up an extra-judicial killing, we must also inquire about the motive of those who prefer to draw judgments even before facts have presented themselves.