The killing of 25 people in two separate incidents in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana on Tuesday raises disturbing questions about the conduct of the police. The 20 men shot in the Seshachalam forests in Andhra Pradesh were allegedly working for red sanders smugglers, while the men killed near Hyderabad were undertrials, allegedly members of SIMI, in police custody. The police has claimed the firing was in self-defence, but preliminary reports cast serious doubts over that version. A senior police officer with the red sanders anti-smuggling task force has said the labourers were armed only with sticks and stones; photographs show the dead undertrials in the police vehicle handcuffed. Given the grave apprehensions that established procedures and due process have been brazenly breached, both incidents must be speedily probed by independent agencies and the guilty brought to book.
State governments, irrespective of the party in office, have argued that stronger laws are necessary to keep the peace and add teeth to law enforcement. But rarely do they emphasise the urgent need in a democracy to build checks and balances and institutionalise accountability to ensure that the police works within the ambit of the law and respects the rights of citizens. The Telangana and Andhra Pradesh police forces, involved in Tuesday’s incidents, are offshoots of the undivided Andhra Pradesh police, which had earned itself a decidedly notorious reputation. Over three decades of Naxalite violence had arguably brutalised the force. Many innocent lives were lost, while the police enjoyed near total impunity from legal action. The Naxalite insurgency has almost disappeared from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh but, clearly, policing methods haven’t changed. They will, in Andhra and elsewhere, only when the message goes down to the forces that those involved in extrajudicial killings will, under no circumstances, be provided immunity from the law. On this count, however, state governments have a poor record, even in high-profile cases like the Ishrat Jahan and Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounters.
The Tamil Nadu government has expressed outrage against the Seshachalam forest killings since the dead hail from that state. But this is a matter, above all, that raises fundamental questions about law enforcement and human rights. It should not be diverted and discoloured by arguments of ethnicity, religion or domicile status of the victims.