The killing of eight SIMI undertrial prisoners, who escaped from the Bhopal Central Jail on October 31, by the police has generated considerable controversy. The former Madhya Pradesh chief minister, Digvijay Singh, was among the first to jump into the fray and ask if the prisoners escaped or were made to escape. If they were indeed made to escape, who killed the prison guard is a question that Singh did not answer. His statement reminds one of what some Pakistanis said after the Uri massacre: The incident was stage-managed by India and was not the work of Pakistani terrorists.
While Singh’s remarks are bizarre, the statement of the state’s current CM is equally bad, if not worse. He called the encounter a “gallant act” by policemen. There is nothing gallant about killing fugitive prisoners who, according to all evidence, were unarmed and could have been arrested. The Bhopal police chief has said that weapons were recovered from the under-trials. But the police has not produced a shred of evidence to this effect. None of the videos that went viral after the incident showed that the fugitives were armed. After such incidents, the security forces always exhibit the impounded weapons to convince people that the deceased were dangerous criminals. Nothing of that sort was done in this case.
The Bhopal police chief has claimed that the police fired in self-defence. In addition to acting in self-defence, the Criminal Procedure Code authorises the police to use force to the extent of killing a person in only two situations — to disperse an unlawful assembly that cannot be dispersed through other means and poses imminent danger to life and property, and to arrest a person who has committed an offence punishable with death or life imprisonment but is resisting arrest. Since this was not a case of using firearms in self-defence, the police would have been justified in their action if they had tried to arrest the fugitives and met with resistance. There is no evidence to show this.
According to information given by the Union home ministry to Parliament on July 15, 2014, 368 fake encounter cases were registered by the National Human Rights Commission between April 2011 and April 2014. There are various reasons why such incidents take place. One, the incompetence of the criminal justice system to complete trials in time. Two, the support the culture of fake encounters receives from different quarters. When controlling crime or dealing with law and order becomes politically important, fake encounters get state encouragement and protection, with complete assurance of impunity granted in advance. Mostly, such assurance is implicit, but occasionally clear directions are given. A prominent example is the April 30, 1998 address of the then UP chief minister, Kalyan Singh. Addressing the state’s police officers, he said, “Noted criminals can be liquidated in encounters, do it. If you take the life of one person who has taken the lives of 10 others, then people will praise you. And I am here to protect you.”
Fake encounters are sometimes supported by the public, especially when terrorists or insurgents belong to minority communities and their crimes were targeted against security personnel or members of other communities. In such cases, an attempt is often made to justify the police’s illegal violence by citing the crimes committed by those who were killed. This is not only against the law, but also criminalises the police force. We need to remember what Nietzsche said: “Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one.”