A judicial probe set up by the Madhya Pradesh government into the gunning down of eight SIMI members, hours after they escaped from the Bhopal Central Jail in October 2016 has held that “the use of force resulting in (the) death of the escaped persons was quite inevitable and quite reasonable under the prevailing circumstances”.
The eight SIMI members were lodged at the state’s most secure prison and were being tried for several cases including offences punishable with death or life imprisonment. They had escaped after tying up one guard and slitting the throat of another. They had then opened the lock of the cell with a key and scaled the outer jail wall using a ladder made of bedsheets and wooden pieces, the one-man judicial commission noted, in its 17-page report tabled in the MP Assembly Monday.
Two videos purportedly of the encounter recorded on mobile phones had surfaced hours after the encounter in the intervening night between October 30 and 31, 2016, raising questions and causing a political storm. While the home minister and senior police officers maintained that the encounter was genuine, Opposition parties had alleged that the suspects were neutralised without giving them a chance to surrender or take them alive.
Retired High Court judge Justice S K Pande was asked by the government on November 7, 2016, to probe the jailbreak and the subsequent encounter to determine the sequence of events leading to the shootout and whether the action was justified among other terms of reference.
The three-month deadline was extended and the report was submitted in September 2017. The judicial inquiry was ordered in the wake of allegations that the encounter was staged. “The deceased persons were asked to surrender but instead of complying they started firing at the police and public surrounding the area at the time. It was necessary for the police to open fire on persons who had escaped from lawful custody. Even after the police opened fire they showed no intention to surrender and as a result, sustained injuries and died on the spot,’’ the judge said quoting depositions.
According to the probe report, the police action was lawful under Section 41 (any police officer may arrest persons who have escaped from lawful custody) and 46 (2) (3) (if such persons forcibly resists the endeavor to arrest them or evades arrest, police may use all means necessary to affect the arrest) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). The commission also looked at the circumstances around the escape from the central jail.
When informed the police formed separate teams for action, covered the area and did not allow the accused persons to make further advances as per their plan, the report said. Villagers noticed them advancing from the Acharpur side to Manikhedi Kot Pathar and followed them while passing on information to the police.
The judge said three police teams zeroed in on the accused to arrest them but when asked to surrender they (SIMI members) opened fire and tried to injure policemen with sharp-edged weapons. “This act of firing from firearms and use of sharp-edged weapons created apprehensions in the minds of villagers and prevented further advance of police parties to make arrests. Under these forced circumstances, the police opened fire and the injured persons succumbed on the spot,’’ the judge said. The report does not mention how did the SIMI members accessed firearms and weapons and if they got any outside help.
“When jail superintendent and others rushed they found the makeshift ladder hanging from the outer wall and found Chandan Singh tied with a piece of cloth stuffed in his mouth in Block B. When freed, he narrated the incident. The officials found Ramashankar dead in Block-A.’’
Relying on the affidavits filed by jail and police officials, sitemaps and photographs, the judge observed that after careful scrutiny and critical examination he found that they are corroborated by facts because escape was easy with the help of makeshift ladder given the low height of the wall.
Referring to affidavits filed by the relatives of the slain SIMI members, the report said: “They are neither witnesses of the incidents alleged nor they have any personal knowledge of what actually happened in the night between October 30 and 31, inside the jail or at Manikhedi Kot Pathar (encounter site).” On the eyewitness account of Chandan Singh, the report said: “These facts have come on record and are quite believable.”
Advocate Parvez Alam, who represented some of the slain SIMI members, accused the commission of not providing documents that he had sought. “We would have given explanations had documents and evidence been shared with us. We were kept in the dark,’’ he claimed and questioned and reliance on Chandan Singh’s testimony. He also said a petition had been moved in the Supreme Court seeking a CBI probe into the encounter.
On June 14, 2017, the commission visited the Bhopal Central Jail and Manikhedi Kot Pathar, the village on Bhopal’s outskirts where the encounter took place. A demonstration was given to Pande on how the undertrials opened the cell lock using a key and scaled the wall using the makeshift ladder.
The judge recommended the constitution of a committee to examine security measures to stop such incidents at jails and asked the government to start a training institute for jail officers and staff on the lines of Punjab.
In its action taken report, the state government said the height of the 6-meter outer wall will be increased by adding a 1.5 meter electrified fencing on top. A sum of Rs 3.90 crore has been sanctioned for electric fences at 11 central jails.
The jail department also held 10 jail employees responsible for the alleged escape and has initiated an inquiry to probe allegation of negligence. A probe is also on against a Special Armed Force (SAF) staff on duty that day.
On November 1, the state’s foundation day, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had hit out at those questioning the encounter by publicly praising the policemen involved in the operation and announcing cash rewards for them.
Referring to terrorists as “enemies of humanity’’, he had called for speedy trials. “How long can you keep them under trial? Some people even get chicken biryani in jail,’’ he had said and spoke about appeasement without naming any political party.
About the encounter he had said: “They were involved in bomb blasts, bank robberies and murders of anti-terror squad constables, and would have posed a threat to the state and the nation if they had not been eliminated.’’