The semantics of lawlessness

The semantics of lawlessness

Bhopal’s ‘encounter’ mirrors a wider culture of impunity.

Kishalay Bhattacharjee
Bodies of SIMI terrorists who were killed in an encounter after they escaped from Central Jail, being handed over to their relatives and family members after post-mortem in Bhopal. (PTI photo)

There is now enough circumstantial and documentary evidence to question the “encounter” killing of eight undertrial prisoners in the Bhopal jailbreak case.

This is not an isolated event. It is a pattern of violence to which India has become inured. It is about impunity and the systematic replacement of the rule of law with lawlessness. It is such that even the parlance of this lawlessness — which is no better exemplified than in the word “encounter”, with all its sickening connotations — has entered India’s civil vernacular.

In 2015, I wrote Blood On My Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters (Harper Collins, India) where perhaps for the first time, some of the perpetrators of this form of violence have narrated accounts of how they hunted down their prey. Their revelations of how the system has coerced and supported them in committing atrocities, then concealed and even rewarded acts of almost unthinkable depravity, are profoundly disturbing, and compel one to question the essential morality of civil government in India.

Encounters are, by their very nature, questionable. Of the many such deaths that I have covered as a reporter over the last two decades — mostly in India’s northeast and in what is known as the Maoist corridor — I cannot recall one that I can say for certain was genuine. I hasten to add that, by “genuine”, I mean a killing which occurred in self-defense in the course of a bona fide counter-offensive operation.


Questionable methods of engaging armed insurgents are routinely employed by commandos in special operations, but random killing for personal gain under the guise of national security is another matter entirely. Yet, it happens with alarming frequency.

The semantics used to describe state-sponsored killings is engaging. The formality of “extrajudicial killings” almost lends an air of legitimacy to what is essentially murder. The word “encounter” gives a sense of an exchange of fire between two opposing forces. The shooting is purportedly initiated by one side — which is always that of the militants (as issued in government press releases) — and, in defence or counterattack, the security forces open fire. If there is “collateral” damage, it is woven into the very nature of an encounter. The term “fake encounter” goes a step further and impugns the veracity of the encounter, indicating that the story given by the security forces is, in all probability, concocted. “Staged encounters” are encounters that are set up, where the security forces have the advantage of time, place and action. These are planned more meticulously and made to appear genuine. The Bhopal encounter in all probability was “staged”. In 1999, the media in Assam coined another term — “secret killings” — when a photojournalist discovered severed parts of a human body while investigating a series of mysterious murders across the state.

An entire network of trespassing and transgression has been generated by the state. Laws have been transgressed and peoples’ lives have been trespassed on. In order to secure the nation’s territory, several other territories have been violated. Slowly, and with conscious design, the citizen has been dispossessed of rights that should be guaranteed in a free country.

One of the most controversial legislative provisions in India and one that can be said to facilitate encounter killings by the state’s forces and shield them from justice is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA) that is used in Jammu and Kashmir and states of India’s northeast. The Supreme Court and the NHRC have found several of the killings by the security forces in these states as illegitimate but action has been taken in only one incident.

While discussing the recent Bhopal encounter, it is worthwhile to recall that on April 7, 2015, the police in Andhra Pradesh had killed 20 men. The victims were ordinary workers, without criminal records or any history of violence. The families of the victims alleged that when the bodies were returned, arms had been hacked off from one or two of the bodies, the teeth were missing from several of them, eyes had been gouged out from others, and there were marks of burns, of sharp objects having been thrust into and of limbs being crushed in many of the bodies.

There is a culture of impunity pervading the forces in India, and that shall continue unless justice is upheld. There are a plethora of examples of police, paramilitary and armed forces personnel being accused in highly controversial and sometimes blatantly unlawful killings, but rarely have the perpetrators been convicted of their crimes, leave alone serve a jail sentence. Bhopal may not be any different.