It has taken some time for the police encounters in Uttar Pradesh to become news. Perhaps it is the relatively meagre rate of actual kills as Prakash Singh reminded us, “only one person killed in 30 encounters” (‘Fear and faith’, IE, February 28) that imparts to them an aura of normalcy. One is not sure what would be a satisfactory statistical rate of deaths before we start to worry over the “trigger happy” ways of the police, but even a single killing in police action requires investigation. Forty killings in less than a year — with no corresponding loss or grievous injury to any policeman — indicates that encounters in UP are not being carried out in self-defence. The chief minister has triumphantly boasted as much.
Singh’s brazen defence of the policy of encounter killings — notwithstanding mandatory platitudes of caution and circumspection — is wrong on several counts. He would have us believe that the series of guidelines starting from National Police Commission (1979) to NHRC (2003) and the Supreme Court (SC) judgment in the PUCL case (2014) have had a chilling effect on the police, lest they be “faulted” for the use of force. Singh is clearly struggling to come to terms with the law laid down in various SC rulings that encounters cannot be a mechanism of policing in a democracy, contemptuously calling it “extreme”.
But surely Singh is not innocent of the fact that this stated law is followed mostly in the breach — that magisterial inquiries if conducted are managed, while rewards and promotions are routinely bestowed upon “encounter specialists”. The NHRC is either condemned to look on passively, never able to secure prosecution of errant police officers, or is, at best, reduced to disbursing compensation to the families of those killed (though the new SC guidelines have shrunk even this role). FIRs are almost always filed against the deceased — and if charges are ever brought against the police and the case reaches the stage of a trial, it is entirely due to the perseverance of the families of those slain, or due to the sustained intervention of civil liberties groups.
The guidelines had no restraining effect on the Andhra Pradesh special task force when it gunned down 20 woodcutters in Seshachalam forest accusing them of being sandalwood smugglers in April 2015; or when the Telangana police shot down handcuffed undertrial prisoners accused of being SIMI members while they were being transported to the court, also in April 2015; or when in October 2016, Madhya Pradesh police filmed themselves pumping bullets into the bodies of eight men who had allegedly escaped Bhopal central jail while being tried for their SIMI affiliations.
In the larger landscape of impunity, the UP government is not exceptional. It is distinctive, though, in acclaiming police encounters as its flagship policy programme. In Singh’s hands, too, encounters acquire an “everyday-ness” — a mundane mode of policing: To strike terror in the hearts of “criminals”, and to establish the writ of the state. Slyly obfuscated is the constitutional principle that use of violence must be reasonable, justified and proportionate to the threat that the police claim to have faced. When encounters are rendered into policy, even the fig leaf of self-defence falls away, exposing naked lawlessness.
Given that Singh has long been an advocate of “police reforms”, of which autonomy from political control is a key ingredient, it is amusing to see him endorsing the Yogi Adityanath government’s overtly political use of police for encounters. In his eagerness to give the UP CM a distinction report card, Singh engages in the classic legitimation of encounter killings — attribution of criminality to “certain sections”. In the previous regimes (of BSP and SP), “these sections” were allowed to run amok, he says, leaving little doubt about which sections these might be: Dalits, Yadavs, Muslims. Ergo, those belonging to these sections are perforce culpable, and if killed in an encounter, must not be mourned. This is how common sense ideas of genuine and fake encounters are cemented. “Criminals” are fair game for encounter killings, “terrorists” even better. And since guilt is apportioned by association, a genuine encounter is one in which the deceased fits the social profile. The police thus need only demonstrate that the deceased fell into the category of “encounterables” to allay any accusation of wrongdoing.
In Singh’s Manichean worldview, peace and security now reign in UP, and all that its police needs to do is to win the hearts and minds of ordinary people. Except for some cursory warnings that police cannot be allowed to go berserk, it is a satisfactory resolution to the law and order situation of the state. However, the rule of law threshold once lowered, has the habit of not discriminating between “guilty” and “innocent”. Remember Ranbir Singh, the 22-year-old MBA graduate who was shot dead by Uttarakhand police in 2009, or the two businessmen who were gunned down by the Delhi Crime Branch in Connaught Place in 1997. In both instances, the police had claimed — falsely — that those killed were gangsters trying to escape.
Moreover, the list of encounterables is never static. Yesterday, it was terror accused, today “notorious criminals”, tomorrow it will be those charged with rape, day after thieves and pickpockets, and the following day, striking workers — any one in fact who can be demonised and whose “crimes” can be shown to be repugnant enough. Where will this lead us? Exceptions never remain exceptions. They will come to consume all of us eventually.
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