Encounter killings affect all citizens living in a free democracy. Even more so in situations where the police have to use lethal force while pursuing the people who have managed to escape from their custody.
Recently, the Madhya Pradesh Police shot down eight under-trial Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) activists, who had escaped from the Bhopal Central Jail on Monday after killing a police constable. All of them were fired upon from the front and over the waist, making it look like an encounter.
While the environment in the country is charged – as encounter killings in India are often celebrated by certain sections as a form of quick and efficient justice – this time around, it has become rather worrisome. Especially, with the Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kirren Rijju, publicly asking people to stop questioning the police for their actions.
Encounter killings need to be subjected to the highest level of scrutiny by the public. Especially an encounter like this, where official support is lent to the Madhya Pradesh police for their unofficial 'shoot to kill' approach.
The chief of the Madhya Pradesh Anti-Terror Squad (ATS) has even gone on record saying that the SIMI under-trials shot dead were unarmed, adding that he did not see the shooting as a problem.
In a quote to NDTV, he said, "It is well settled in law when police can use force and take a life. These men were dreaded criminals. If the police sees the possibility that such men can escape, they can use maximum force."
While it is unfortunate that a police constable had to die in the process, it is even more unfortunate that the actions of the police are being condoned by the highest offices of the Central and the state governments involved.
An encounter killing is no laughing matter and is not something that should be taken lightly. Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan went on record and said: "Wish the opposition had said a few words on the guard. They have nothing to say for martyrs...these men were dreaded terrorists. We have no idea what terror they would have spread. Yet for them, so much fuss (sic)."
That is, however, the precise reason why the MP police did the nation a disservice by killing them instead of arresting them. Due process is a double edged sword. Along with protecting the civil liberties of an individual, it also enables the state machinery to completely and thoroughly investigate a matter.
Now all that is left are the dead bodies of eight under-trials who were jailed for charges ranging from dacoity to murder. If they were arrested alive right now, these eight could have been in an National Investigation Agency (NIA) interrogation room.
But for that to have happened, the MP police would have had to show restraint – by shooting below the waist, to wound and not to kill. Further, if the police were so ill equipped that they had to use lethal force to overpower eight unarmed under-trials, then it clearly shows that they are in dire need for better equipment, or training, or both.
Mourning the brave police constable, who had to take on the prisoners without backup, and asking why an arrest could not be made without all eight under-trials dying, does not have to be mutually exclusive.
We can do both at the same time and both we must do. A review needs to be conducted to ascertain what possible intelligence has been lost as a result of the under-trials death. While the security at our prisons also needs to be stepped up at the same time.
What is perhaps one of the worst outcomes of this entire episode is that human rights defenders are being accused of defending "terrorists". Human rights and anti-terrorism operations are not at war with each other. In fact, they often can and do work hand in hand.
Fundamental human rights and due process may not look good on an election campaign poster in Uttar Pradesh, but are often an effective tool that can be deployed by intelligence agencies to solicit cooperation from members of existing terrorist groups. They can help the agencies to get them to defect and provide intelligence on active networks and plots and turn over evidence on their co-conspirators to secure convictions.
What is the war on terror for? We are fighting to defend our civilised way of life against an enemy that seeks to take away our democratic principles. If we surrender these very democratic principles, there is literally nothing left to fight for.
Chouhan needs to go pick up a civics textbook from school. In a democracy, security forces do not match with the justice courts. The job of the security forces is to arrest people and produce them before courts, so that justice can be delivered; no matter what the circumstances.