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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The encounter cop,a broken omerta

The question is not of the individual culpability of Vanzara and his team,but of the systemic distortions that have led us to this situation

Written by Abhinav Kumar |
September 9, 2013 12:35:48 am

The question is not of the individual culpability of Vanzara and his team,but of the systemic distortions that have led us to this situation

The Vanzara letter represents a Rubicon moment in the history of Indian police. A boundary has been crossed. While the media and political parties cry themselves hoarse about the political and legal significance of this letter,for police officers across the country,it has evoked condemnation,embarrassment,indignation,anguish and sympathy in equal measure. For IPS officers,the letter raises troubling questions about our professional practices. It also creates a nagging sense of self doubt and uncertainty about the future of professional policing in India.

Two points need to be borne in mind. First,policing around the world is an extremely dangerous profession. Second,policing India is a doubly hazardous task. For all its claims to being a democracy that enshrines the rule of law as a foundational principle,India remains a violent,fragmented and unstable society where,apart from their regular chores of preventing and detecting crime and maintaining law and order,the police routinely battle organised crime,terrorism and leftwing extremism. In India,violence is not just an individual moral aberration. Regrettably,it is also a widely used instrument of politics,culture and economics. No surprise,then,that,barring the five years in which we were embroiled in wars,the police in India have taken more casualties in the line of duty than our armed forces. This background must be appreciated before we judge Vanzara and his fraternity.

The encounter culture that Vanzara talks about emerged in its present form in the 1980s. It was a typical jugaad type solution offered by the police leadership in the backdrop of a dysfunctional criminal justice system assailed by low investment in police capabilities and delays in the trial process. The political leadership,the media and the middle class embraced this jugaad with grateful enthusiasm. For a while,even the higher judiciary looked the other way. Encounters were used to fight naxalism in Bengal and Andhra Pradesh,terrorism in Punjab,separatism in the Northeast and J&K,dacoits in UP and MP,organised crime in Mumbai and Delhi. What would qualify as cold blooded murder in any society became an instrument of state policy and everyday administration. Very soon,encounter specialists were feted as heroes. Medals and cash awards were showered on them. Many were depicted on celluloid. The irony,of a democracy using murder as a tool of state policy,was lost on the police and the polis alike.

Encounters relied on a delicate and complex omerta between the local police,district administration,lower judiciary and the media,with the tacit backing of the state police headquarters and the state government. Across the country,CMs and DGPs,both in public forums and in closed-door meetings,exhorted their district SPs to be tough on crime and tougher on criminals. The sentiment was that if we could not legislate or adjudicate or administer our way to a crime/terrorism/separatism free society,by God we would shoot our way through to get to one. But it is misleading to suggest that Vanzara and his kind were dumb tools in the hands of higher-ups who simply did what they were told. Often,the tools decided the task and those entrusted with oversight quietly went along. It was a marriage marked by convenience and frequent role reversal.

And then the tide turned. While there was always an element of disquiet about these tactics in civil society,till the 1990s it had lacked legal and institutional backing. The creation of the NHRC,against the backdrop of judicial activism,changed the rules of the game. Individuals,NGOs,the media,all realised that the omerta could be broken,and gradually dissent turned to protest,and then more quickly,protests turned to criminal complaints and prosecution. A deluge of PILs and writ petitions followed. All of a sudden,the protectors became the accused. Today,the large number of cops facing trial and languishing in jails across the country for encounter killings is testimony to the wheel coming full circle. As a citizen,I take pride in the affirmation of the rule of law,but as a police officer,I remain unconvinced that things have really changed,that the cause of a just and peaceful India is best served this way.

The question is not of the individual culpability of Vanzara and his team. The question is of the systemic distortions that led us to this situation in the first place. The chaotic conditions of our criminal justice system that led to the adoption of the jugaad of encounters have not gone away. With countless criminal cases pending in the courts and the presence of hardcore criminals in politics,we have only fixed one scale of the balance that upholds the rule of law. Second,and this seems to be the crux of Vanzara’s lament,the law is being applied selectively and too harshly by the courts in cases involving police officers. It is true that as upholders of the law,we in the police bear greater responsibility to abide by it ourselves. However,when the law gives us no more protection or authority in the use of deadly force than a common citizen — the Andhra Pradesh high court had ruled a few years ago that in all encounter cases,a case of murder must be mandatorily registered against the police officers involved in the incident — then the court should deal with police officers facing murder charges with the same compassion and grant bail as it does to those ordinary and not so ordinary citizens accused of murder and other heinous offences. The selective and blatantly inconsistent application of bail provisions by our judiciary is a subject ripe for a PIL.

Along with the criminal justice system,the wretched conditions and shoddy capabilities that define police functioning in India,and which led to the adoption of the encounter culture,have still not changed. The police continue to be grossly undermanned and underinvested. The Planning Commission of India,which occupies the high table of public sector resource allocation in our country,regards it beneath its dignity to have a full-time member to assess the policing needs of the country. The total annual allocations for police modernisation are a fraction of the resources given to other sectors. If resource allocations reflect ground realities,then India must be the best policed country in the world.

As a member of the IPS,I fully support bringing errant police officers to book. We don’t have a licence to kill,nor are we asking for it. But we cannot all be painted as a band of bloodthirsty murderers. While public appetite for a trigger-happy police in routine cases may have waned,in cases involving national security,most countries recognise the need to suspend due process and provide adequate protection to police and security forces. The Indian armed forces have the umbrella of the AFSPA. Despite a shrill and sustained outcry against it,the political,administrative and judicial consensus has remained in its favour. Perhaps a similar legal protection should be considered for the police and the paramilitary,who are fighting terrorism,naxalism and separatism. It might not bring relief to Vanzara,but it would prevent the creation of more Vanzaras in future.

The writer is a serving IPS officer. Views are personal

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