Faking it with impunity
At the site of the encounter in Bhopal where eight alleged SIMI terrorists were killed in cold blood, there were scores of people with smartphones recording the grisly happenings. The images, accompanied by the frenetic voices, establish to ordinary senses the crime of a fake encounter or extra-judicial killings. Interestingly, there was not just one but different videos shot from all kinds of angles. And all of them told the same story. Why does it not worry the perpetrators – the police – that for this crime they could be punished? Worse, why does it not bother the government that what it is condoning could hurt law-based institutions?
These are difficult questions, but with an easy answer. The purpose behind this ugly display of brute power and its lazy documentation by all and sundry is meant to convey an important message to civil society or the victim community: We do not really bother about what you think of our actions. There is no one who can help you even when you have all the evidence against the cops – the government, the army, the courts or the media. This display of impunity is accentuated by the political bosses who gave the go-ahead to these policemen to take the law into their own hands and not to bother about the outcome of the trial or court verdict. To show what they think of the media and what it claims as proof of a fake encounter, the MP government is rewarding the cops that felled the SIMI activists. The chief minister also said that it was better to kill these “terrorists” than to “feed them chicken biryani”.
Manifestly, the CM was trying to appease the majoritarian impulses in society that are Islamophobic and have little patience for the long-winded judicial process. Therefore, the blatant violation of law by the cops in providing what they think is “summary justice” is celebrated and seen as a “good job” by the state and the central government and in some ways compensates for poor performance in other sectors.
This is not the only ‘fake’ encounter that has taken place in recent years. Some years ago, when I was Editor of Delhi Mid-Day, I happened to guide an investigation into the killing of a bunch of terrorists in the basement parking of a city mall, Ansal Plaza.
We managed to find an eyewitness who saw cops in plain clothes pulling out some strangers – seemingly drugged – from the car and shooting them in cold blood. Here again, the police had claimed that these terrorists were planning to hold up the mall and spread mayhem, but they managed to get the better of them.
The government expressed outrage after the story came out of the fake encounter in Ansal Plaza. The proprietor of the newspaper was threatened and he, in turn, threatened everyone down the line in the newspaper.
During the 2002 Gujarat riots, it was not the police that engaged in violent acts, but right-wing gangs who were looking at a “final solution” against the minority community. For quite a while these killers moved freely, conveying to the victims of their violence that no harm would come to them. It was only when the Supreme Court stepped in that many of the perpetrators of these heinous crimes were arrested. Again, many of them are out on bail and have regained their lost status and influence in Gujarati society.
In popular culture in India, there has been a lot of glorification of those cops who ignore the constraints of the law and take matters into their own hands and kill criminals enjoying political patronage. The film, Gangajal, based on the Bhagalpur jail blindings of undertrials, is a case in point. This desire for instant justice has been rather astutely harnessed to take action against Islamic jihadis. The narrative is simple – proof of their crime cannot be found against them so just take them out and shoot them. This attitude covers up the lack of professionalism of the police force and its inability to ferret out proof against perpetrators of crime. This way they become willing tools in the hands of those politicians practising majoritarian politics.
Such a display of impunity is visible in societies that have no conscience. In Israel, similar tactics have been used against the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Graphic journalist Joe Sacco has in his books recreated the agony of the Palestinians when the Israeli army attacks them. Here again, there are killings and daily humiliation without the perpetrators ever being brought to book. The collapse of the liberal Left in Israeli politics has strengthened these disturbing trends that accord legitimacy to the majority community’s blood lust.