THOSE WHO LIVED in Mumbai through the late- 1990s will recall the popularity of encounter killings. Members of the police’s elite Crime Branch, which did the encounters, had the macho halo of movie heroes. Crime journalists got tip-offs of an encounter and sometimes reached the spot even before the gangster had been killed. And still, the next day, they diligently reported the police version: the gangsters, asked to surrender, had fired first and got killed in retaliatory fire. The same lines each time for years on end.
The policy came into place because crime was spiralling out of proportion. The Dawood Ibrahim syndicate had broken up and lost its stranglehold on the underworld after the 1993 Bombay blasts, which made him untouchable to politicians and police officers who had been his patrons. Until then, Dawood ensured that crime was carefully calibrated in the city. So long as it was organised, everyone was happy. Once the system crumbled, there was a free-for-all. Petty criminals and local goons started getting into crimes so far reserved for the big gangs, like extortion rackets. The government’s solution was to start killing them till order was restored.
To the public, this was welcome. It didn’t matter that the source of the problem had been the police themselves and that their objective was not to eliminate crime but to get it organised again. Giving them a licence to kill had predictable results. The encounter specialists became quasi-dons, acting as arbitrators between criminals and businessmen. Sometimes they became contract killers for gangsters settled abroad. Even now, two decades later, these encounter specialists are periodically suspended, fired and re-enlisted into the police. In 1997, a man named Abu Sayama was killed using the same storyline. Except that, instead of a gangster, he was a peanut seller with a name similar to a gangster’s. The media picked the story, a commission of enquiry confirmed it. Ultimately, no one was convicted for the murder and he is now a footnote of the policy.
At present the Uttar Pradesh government is grappling with one of its police constables having murdered an Apple executive, Vivek Tiwari, and trying to pass it off as an encounter. A Times of India report said, ‘Tiwari had attended a launch event for a new phone and was on his way to drop colleague Sana Khan at her residence before heading home. His SUV was intercepted by two constables on a motorbike near Makhdoompur police post. “They asked sir (Vivek) to stop but he continued as it was late and he was concerned about my safety,” said Khan. “One constable hit the vehicle with lathis… The other rode ahead, parked his bike in the middle of the road, got down and signalled us to stop. Our car was still moving slowly. Suddenly, the constable took out his revolver and shot from the front.”’
The constable has a new version of the ‘he fired first’ defence, stating that Tiwari tried to run him over with his car. There are some differences in how the UP government reacted to the case, as against Maharashtra’s of the 1990s. It has charged the constable with murder and its Chief Minister acknowledged it was not an encounter. He also visited the victim’s family and promised justice. That the man who died was an upper middle-class executive of an MNC may have something to do with this response.
In January this year, United Against Hate, a body of human rights activists, came out with a report, ‘Killing fields of UP: Public Tribunal of the Police Encounters under Yogi Regime’. It says: ‘According to UP government figures, by January 2018, the police had conducted 1,038 encounters. In these, 44 people and four policemen were killed and 238 injured. The unofficial figures are far higher, where the total number of ‘encounters’ are estimated to be more than 1400. These ‘encounters’ entail, shooting at people, who may and may not be petty criminals or gangsters, without following due processes of law.... The testimonies of eyewitnesses and family members of those killed clearly show that most of these killings are cold-blooded murders by the police, where no gun battle took place. For many of those killed or injured, the police had posthumously inserted clauses of criminality in their record and thereby have justified killing or injuring…the police, in fact are getting encouragement and impunity from the highest echelons of power, in this case none other than the CM himself. In many press conferences he has categorically justified the killings and stated that these will continue. He flaunts the encounter as his ‘zero-tolerance towards crime’ but refuses to accept the blatant lawlessness in these cold blooded attacks.’
The idea of a greater good necessitating summary justice is what the Mumbai Police used. The more difficult option is to reform the force and judiciary so that due process is followed and justice is quick. Fake encounters are easy to do and may even work for a while before they inevitably degenerate. If a government gives illegal permission to shoot pre-set targets at will, it is just a short psychological leap for a policeman to feel that he has the right to kill who he wants. It’s slippery slope policy.