Rajnish Rai, the police officer who investigated the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case in Gujarat, till he was withdrawn and sent to India’s Northeast, has now blown the whistle again. Rai, now the Inspector General (IG) of the CRPF posted in Shillong, has called a joint operation in Assam’s Chirang district by his own force, the army, the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) and the Assam Police staged, in other words, a murder.
The operation was allegedly carried out against two NDFB(S) militants and, Rai claims, weapons were planted on their bodies. This is routine in the badlands of Assam.
The recent claim by Rai, however, takes me back to another confession, albeit in anonymity, by a serving officer of the Indian Army who had virtually split open the anatomy of staged encounters. I recall him telling me, “In the Northeast, if you are unaccounted for, you run the risk of getting killed. There are lists available with the mafia of people who are not recorded anywhere. They are picked up when the situation gets desperate.”
The most alarming aspect of encounters is that almost anyone can be a victim. That is not to say that the killings are indiscriminate. In the Northeast, and even in places in the Kashmir Valley, what the officer meant by “unaccounted for” is people who have no immediate family or are not on the electoral roll and have no ration card or identification papers. These unwitting souls — itinerant labourers, beggars, illegal immigrants and the like — are peddled to units of the armed forces and the police.
Bodoland, where this encounter was reported from, has long been the hunting ground for headcounts by Indian security agencies. Killing is the measure for performance, commendation and awards in these forces, so the lure and pressure to hunt heads is what Rai reflects in his letter where he says, “it indicates a deeper institutional malady in the functioning of the country’s most prestigious security forces. It represents a dangerous deterioration and degradation of institutional processes.”
In the same area, in 2008, a beggar who was a leprosy patient was reportedly picked up from the Rangiya railway station. At the time, a local operation was going on with the Royal Bhutan Army. People didn’t notice his absence since he was not an old-timer. The beggar was taken to the Bhutan border, killed and labelled a sergeant of the NDFB (National Democratic Front of Bodoland).
Lower Assam, from where the recent incident has been reported, has a mixed population and has witnessed strife for a long time. Nalbari and Barpeta were ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam) hubs. Beyond that was BLT (Bodo Liberation Tigers) and NDFB territory. And since the NDFB has several factions, it means there is adequate turf war. The entire north bank of the Brahmaputra is dotted with armed groups.
Across is Bhutan, a safe haven because India doesn’t have a fenced border with Bhutan, and patrolling along the border is lax. Till 2003, Bhutan had close to 40 underground camps of various Indian militant denominations. With the area under the influence of guns for 25 years, the notoriety there is an excuse for security agencies to show encounters.
Usually, victims for staged encounters are purchased. One of the locations for handing over victims is the Baihata intersection, close to where the recent incident took place. Money is paid and the victim is immediately taken to the unit. The doctor checks him and he is under observation for a few days. He is closely scrutinised and interrogated to confirm that he is a safe kill. Either he is a militant or a petty thief or an innocent Bangladeshi illegal migrant. This is confirmed by the local police station. The encounters are usually joint operations.
After ascertaining the victim’s antecedents, the police usually set the stage. While the police are left to interrogate, the others plan the encounter: The area is selected 3-4 days prior to the killing. Intelligence inputs are manipulated. Then he is shot. The hands are never tied, in case victims injure themselves, leaving contradictory evidence. One of the most controversial legislative provisions in India, and one that can rightly be said to facilitate encounter killings, is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA) applicable in Assam.
The Act contains provisions that grant immunity to members of the armed forces who kill people they suspect are militants. Even a non-commissioned officer has the power to “fire upon or otherwise use force, even leading to death, of any person acting in contravention of any law” if the officer believes it is necessary for “the maintenance of public order”.
Anyone can be arrested without a warrant. Any premises can be searched, and no legal action can be taken against the armed forces unless prior sanction is obtained from the Central government.