There is more than one version of the alleged encounter on the outskirts of Bhopal early on Monday morning, in which eight inmates of the city’s Central Jail, activists of the banned SIMI, were killed within hours of their escape. In its aftermath, the BJP, which rules in Bhopal and at the Centre, has sought to label all questioning of the incident as inappropriate if not downright anti-national. Union minister of state for home, Kiren Rijiju, said: “We should stop this habit of raising doubt, questioning the authorities and police”. Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan accused those raising questions of “insulting his sacrifice”, referring to Ramashankar Yadav, the head constable killed allegedly by the inmates as they escaped. And BJP spokespersons have drawn a direct link between those raising doubts over the official version of the encounter in Bhopal and those who expressed scepticism about the government’s description of the “surgical strikes” along the LoC. This attempt to quell criticism, invoke the army and its morale and to drape the national flag over the events of Monday morning, is unacceptable.
In a vibrant democracy, it may even be said that it is a patriotic responsibility to ask questions of the government about an encounter that invites doubt and suspicion. In this case, there are discrepancies in the accounts of senior police officials — on whether or not the escaped inmates were armed, for instance. More than one video, purportedly of the incident, is doing the rounds. In such a scenario, the questions that are being asked give the government an opportunity, in fact, that it cannot afford to turn away from — to clear the air. Because not doing so would risk damage to the citizen’s faith and trust in the system. It is that prospect — of a waning state legitimacy and credibility — that must discomfit the government in this moment, not the questions.
True, the eight men killed on Monday morning faced serious charges in cases ranging from the 2008 serial blasts in Ahmedabad to a 2014 bomb blasts case in Bijnor, and communal violence in Khandwa. Yet, to insinuate, as is also being done, that the undertrials did not deserve the benefit of due process, that it was not their right, is to do grave disservice to the compact between India’s Constitution and its citizens. On encounters, the highest court of the land has struck a cautionary note to the government. In 2014, a bench led by Justice Lodha laid down elaborate guidelines — from making it mandatory to register FIRs and investigate the encounter by an independent agency to asking that no officer be given an out of turn promotion or gallantry award for encounter operations till the inquiry is completed. In other words, the Supreme Court was casting the onus of sobriety and rigour on the government after an encounter. The Madhya Pradesh has done well to suspend jail officials on whose watch the undertrials escaped. It must now institute a fair and impartial probe into the encounter on the outskirts of Bhopal.