The Madhya Pradesh government claimed Monday that eight activists of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), who had escaped the Bhopal Central Jail hours ago, were killed in an ‘encounter’ on the outskirts of the city. Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, while suspending several jail officials for the activists’ escape, commended the security forces for the strong action. A jail guard, Ramshankar Yadav, was overpowered and killed by the men during their escape. The eight activists were facing charges of murder of ATS constables, bank robberies and sedition. Three activists out of the eight killed Monday had fled from a jail in Khandwa three years ago.
But what has made the case so intriguing is the manner in which the activists made their escape and were ultimately gunned down in what police are calling an ‘encounter.’ Opposition parties including the CPM and Congress have demanded a judicial probe into the matter raising questions about whether the encounter was staged. Also adding to the state police’s worry is the surfacing of videos in which a cop is seen retrieving a knife from an activist’s body and another cop firing bullets into one of the men killed.
Eight men, all SIMI activists, escaping a high-security prison is serious. How did it happen?
There are no clear answers as to how the eight men managed to escape out of the jail in Bhopal, considered to be a high-security prison albeit with overcrowded prisoners. Jails in India are often crammed with prisoners more than the required limit. The fact that three of the SIMI men had earlier staged a similar escape in Khandwa three years ago should have alerted the authorities that something similar could happen here as well. The men are suspected to have fashioned daggers out of steel spoons to attack the guards and a long ladder out of bed-sheets to climb over the 28ft perimeter wall of the jail. How did the guards at a maximum security prison, that houses many serial offenders, fail to prevent such a daring escape? There are no answers yet.
Logistics of the men, who escaped and who were eventually killed, are confounding.
The alleged encounter in which the men were killed is said to have taken place around eight hours after the jail break and 15 kilometres away from the prison. Did the men have the help of a vehicle after they escaped, or did they travel by foot? The more important question is why the men decided to stick together instead of going in different directions to avoid being caught. The activists, who are all undertrials, were found wearing jeans and sports shoes. How did the men get access to such clothes?
Contradictory stands of security forces
The major point of contention around the official version of what transpired lies in the dissimilar comments made by Bhopal IG Yogesh Chaudhary and state ATS chief Sanjeev Shami. While Chaudhary said the SIMI men were killed in retaliatory firing, Shami told television news channels that the men could not have fired as they did not possess arms.
Chaudhary said four firearms and three sharp weapons were recovered from the men. An investigation would be conducted to cover all aspects of the case, he added. So what explains the contradictory stands of two of the top cops in the state. If the men did not have arms, then there is no basis for ‘retaliatory firing.’
What’s the meaning behind the videos?
The surfacing of the videos have added to the murkiness of the case. The location of the video is the site of the encounter which, according to the police, took place between 10:30 am and 11:30 am. It is far away from the city and is near a small hill with no signs of nearby human habitation. In one video, cops are seen looking for weapons on the bodies of the activists. A plain-clothed man is seen later neatly pulling out what looks like a brand new knife from the waistband of one of the bodies. In another video, an officer is seen firing at a person who shows signs of movement with the hand. A man is heard egging the officer to fire more rounds. There is yet another video that shows the activists standing on a huge rock with their hands raised. It’s unclear whether they have arms.
“Control, yeh paanch admi baat kar rahe hain, teen pichhe ki aur bhagneki…hai…charo taraf se gher lo. (control, the five men want to talk to us, but three others are tying to escape, surround them from all sides),” a man is heard saying.
What’s the explanation of the police behind such actions? So far, the state home minister has not disputed the videos.
What are the operative details of the encounter?
Perhaps the most important thing the police need to do is to make a clear statement on how the ‘encounter’ actually took place. Were the men armed or not? What was the intelligence that led the cops to the SIMI men? How did the gunfight erupt and were the SIMI men the first to fire? If yes, how did the men have access to the weapons? It is important for the sake of clarity that these details are presented to the media and to the people of the country.