The killing of the eight undertrials by the Madhya Pradesh police, alleged to be activists of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), has taken a Rashomon-like turn with different versions of the sequences of events being put out on an almost hourly basis. There are, at present, three versions of the story out there depending on who is telling it:
1. The eight undertrials escaped from Bhopal Central Jail, killed a constable on duty, stayed together, found weapons, were cornered by the MP Police, engaged in a firefight with the police and were all killed.
2. The eight undertrials were taken from Bhopal Central Jail by the police themselves, shot in cold blood, and the scene was "dressed up" to look like an "encounter".
3. The eight undertrials escaped from Bhopal Central Jail (having killed the constable on duty) were caught, but executed all in cold blood by the MP Police.
For the moment, the MP government is convinced of the correctness of its version, and has only ordered an inquiry into the jailbreak. The National Human Rights Commission is less convinced, and has called for a detailed report from the Madhya Pradesh government on the events leading up to the killings. Whichever version is put forth, the way this has played out, with contradictory stories being put out by the MP government and police themselves, it only shows that a deep and thorough investigation is necessary. Whether this is through a court overseen Special Investigation Team or some other mechanism, given the questions that have gone unanswered so far, it is important that this is carried out in an impartial unbiased manner.
It is a sign of the times and mentality of those in government that the response, far from trying to answer these questions prefers to either denounce those asking questions, as Kiren Rijiju did, or respond with barely concealed bigotry, as MP CM Shivraj Chouhan did.
Such "encounter" killings are nothing new in India. Along with the use of custodial torture to extract confessions, they are often used as a convenient "shortcut" to avoid doing the tough work of investigation and prosecution of a case. It is not even a new problem. James Fitzjames Stephen, who helped draft the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 and the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1872, quotes an English officer on the tendency of native police officers to use torture, "There is a great deal of laziness in it. It is far pleasanter to sit comfortably in the shade rubbing red pepper into a poor devil’s eyes than to go about in the sun hunting up evidence."
That is why there are elaborate protections worked into the Evidence Act and the Code of Criminal Procedure to ensure that the police are required to investigate a crime properly and thoroughly, keeping in mind basic civil rights.
The Supreme Court is also hearing an appeal against a judgment of the Andhra Pradesh High Court making the registration of an FIR compulsory in all cases of encounter killings. Though the Andhra Pradesh judgment in the PIL filed by Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee has been stayed by the Supreme Court, recent events such as the suspicious death of murder-accused Ramkumar, the killings of alleged red sanders smugglers and of course, those of the SIMI undertrials should hopefully influence the Supreme Court in evolving a proper mechanism to address this issue.
Still, the question remains: Why then have our police sustained a reputation for lawlessness and brutality?
Part of the answer lies with the fact that the State Government controls the police and uses it to meet its ends. The police in India, while notionally tasked with maintaining with law and order, functions more like an occupying force on behalf of a government, which treats its citizens with suspicion. Law and order improves only because a chief minister or a home minister makes a conscious effort to get the police to act better. However, the system which allows the next government to fritter these gains away in favour of their family, friends, and party workers, is retained. When pressure over a deteriorating law and order situation pushes the government, encounter killings and round-ups of the poor and dispossessed are used to assuage "public opinion". Or if public opinion needs to be whipped up against specific communities, the police can be used to stage a few "encounters" as needed.
Addressing this requires large-scale police reforms. One which will ensure that the police maintain law and order, firmly but justly, and look to address the needs of citizens, and not just their political masters. This is of course easier said then. Even the Supreme Court’s very limited directions to state governments in the Prakash Singh case to reform the police has been met with stonewalling and outright disobedience by most state governments. The stark and depressing fact is that there is no real constituency for police reform in India. In a society, as deeply unequal and divided as India’s, it’s hard to see police reform benefitting all communities as a realisable goal soon.
The author is an advocate and Visiting Fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Views expressed herein are purely personal