HOURS after they announced that eight activists of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) had escaped from the Central Jail in Bhopal early on Monday morning killing a guard, the Madhya Pradesh police said that all eight had been killed in an encounter in an isolated, forested area over 15 km from the prison premises.
The eight accused, Amzad Ramzan Khan, Zakir Hussain, Sheikh Mehboob, Mohammad Saliq, Mujeeb Sheikh, Akeel Khilji, Khalid Ahmed and Majeed Nagori, were facing trial on several charges, including murder of two ATS constables, sedition, jail break and bank robberies, and were lodged in what is said to be the state’s most secure prison.
Mehboob alias Guddu; Hussain and Khan were among the seven SIMI activists who had escaped from a jail in Khandwa three years ago before being nabbed again in Odisha this year, said police.
Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan praised the police for their “quick action” and said he had briefed Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh about the incident. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) has been asked to probe the matter, he said.
Describing the jailbreak as “very serious”, Chouhan announced the suspension of five jail officials, including DIG (jail) and the jail superintendent, and the transfer of Additional DG (jail).
Contradictions have emerged over the official version of the encounter with videoclips doing the rounds showing police firing at what appeared to be bodies on the ground, amid shouts of “kill them”. It was unclear who shot the clips but State Home Minister Bhupendra Singh did not dispute their authenticity.
Senior officers claimed that police started firing only after being shot at by the accused and that they had initially asked the eight to surrender. Some officials claimed that the accused also threw stones at the police team.
But while Bhopal IG Yogesh Chaudhary said the activists were killed in retaliatory firing, the state’s ATS chief Sanjeev Shami told TV channels that they were unarmed.
Chaudhary also claimed that police had recovered four firearms, from which some rounds had been fired, and three sharp weapons from the slain activists.
Asked about these contradictions, Chaudhary said that police would conduct an investigation that will cover all aspects.
The encounter was also questioned by Opposition parties, who alleged that it had been staged and that the unarmed accused “were shot in cold blood”. Senior Congress leaders, including Digvijaya Singh and Kamal Nath, and lawyers and families of some of the accused were among those who questioned the police version.
“I am demanding a judicial probe because even the government must know under what circumstances they escaped. People of the state and country must know how terrorists with such a record were able to escape from such a high security jail and within hours caught and shot dead,” said Nath, a Lok Sabha MP from Chhindwara.
BJP spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao alleged that the Congress leaders were undermining the morale of the security forces.
“Like they questioned the cross-LoC surgical strike, the Congress is doing the same for vote bank politics. They are undermining the morale of our security forces,” he said.
Police said that they had received information about the presence of the accused near a hill adjoining Acharpura village on the outskirts of Bhopal, adding that the eight were gunned down around 11 am during a joint operation conducted by the STF, the hawk force and city police.
Through the day, the encounter site drew a crowd of onlookers, including local village residents, who raised slogans in support of police such as “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”, “Hindustan Zindabad-Pakistan Murdabad”, “Vande Mataram” and “Atankvad Murdabad”.
Police said that the accused escaped around 3 am after allegedly killing head constable Ramshankar Yadav by slitting his throat using spoons and steel plates and tying up another guard Chandan before crossing a high wall using a rope made of bedsheets.
Several guards were on leave when the jail break occurred, said officials. Jitendra Singh Jadaun, a guard posted at the jail, said he had spotted the fleeing activists around 3 am and informed his seniors.
“If I had a gun I would have shot at them. Several guards were on leave because of Diwali but I stayed back because I am planning to take leave for my marriage next month,’’ said Jadaun, 26.
In the Khandwa jailbreak of 2013, one of the seven who escaped, Abu Faizal, was caught two months later. Two others were killed in an encounter with Telangana Police last year and the three who were killed today caught in Odisha.
Faisal had been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in connection with the killing of ATS constable Sitaram Yadav in 2009 in Khandwa.
The government had shifted several SIMI activists facing trial in different parts of the state to the Central Jail, citing its modern security system and strong deployment of guards. Police had also stopped taking the SIMI activists for trial to the Bhopal district court and were using the video conferencing facility at the jail instead.