Barry Parker, AFP
New Delhi: Hundreds if not thousands of extrajudicial killings are coming back to haunt Indian security forces who are facing a wave of public revulsion and demands for justice.
Years of apathy over human rights reports of the murder of innocent people by police, paramilitary and army appear to be ending as the scale of the killings emerges.
Today security forces are under fire from families, rights groups and the media to account for the missing and dead across the country from Punjab to Assam, Kashmir to Manipur and Chhattisgarh to Gujarat.
However, Human Rights Watch South Asia researcher Meenakshi Ganguly is far from certain the killings can be halted soon.
“There is a sense of outrage,” she said.
But “we are not hearing enough outrage in New Delhi, in government.”
While newspapers report new cases almost daily, the rights groups are waiting for the first prosecutions to succeed.
HRW says extrajudicial killings are common and wants to see real political will to tackle the issue, the police empowered and politicians held to account.
Ganguly notes one of the most notorious killings in which troops shot dead five Kashmiri villagers in 2000 and passed them off as Islamic militants is still languishing in court.
Some 3,000 people are still listed as officially missing in Punjab after a Sikh militant campaign for a homeland which erupted in 1982 was put down with the loss of 50,000 lives.
“It ended in the 1990s but we are now in 2007,” said Ganguly. “The state does not want to acknowledge what has happened.”
The Punjab government last week said it would probe reports that police killed innocent people to claim cash bounties during the insurgency.
At least three Sikh separatists purportedly killed by officers appeared in the media as back from the dead. Police officers reportedly claimed a Rs2.5 million ($55,555) bounty offered by the state.
That also raised the question of who was killed in their place. The Punjab Human Rights Group claims more than 300 innocent men were shot dead as “terrorists” during the campaign.
The officer credited with putting down the uprising, K.P.S. Gill, insists no “fake encounters” took place with his knowledge. But he said India needs to devise a “system to combat terrorism and organised crime” and a strong criminal justice system where justice is meted out swiftly.
Gill also said he had written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to ask for “special commissions to look into the whole question of how the state apparatus responded to terrorism included the judiciary itself.
“Only that way will the real truth out and this bogey of fake encounters be exposed.”
In Kashmir, the government lists more than 20,000 rebels killed in the insurgency against Indian rule.
“How many were terrorists, how many were really civilians, killed in fake encounters, how many were innocent?” asked Ganguly. “We just don’t know.”
But suspicions are strong.
Major protests forced the authorities into action in Kashmir where seven policemen have been charged with the murder of a carpenter they claimed was a Pakistani militant.
Police are investigating at least four other cases in which security forces allegedly killed innocent civilians and pretended they were militants in return for rewards and promotions.
A demand for information on the whereabouts of thousands of missing people in the Himalayan outpost gained momentum after authorities exhumed the bodies of the five missing people in February.
Indian rights groups say up to 10,000 Kashmiri Muslims have disappeared — most of them after being detained by security forces — since the insurgency against New Delhi’s rule began in 1989.
Government figures put the number of missing at between 1,000 and 3,900 in a revolt that has claimed more than 42,000 lives while separatists put the figure as high as 100,000 dead.
In western Gujarat state, three policemen and three senior officials have been arrested for their alleged role in the murder of a Muslim couple.
The April-May arrests came after the Gujarat government admitted in court that a man falsely accused of plotting to murder the state’s chief minister had been killed in a fake gunbattle.
The government later told the court that Sohrabuddin Sheikh’s wife had also been killed and her body burned to destroy evidence.
In Mumbai, five elite policemen dubbed “encounter specialists” killed more than 350 alleged gangsters over 10 years in a bid to clean up the streets of India’s financial and entertainment capital.
Former Mumbai police chief Julio Ribeiro justified shoot-on-sight policies, saying the public supported extrajudicial killings.
“There is public support for these kind of measures because the middle classes feel threatened by the criminals,” Ribeiro told The Hindustan Times, which is running a campaign headlined “Killers in Uniform”.
“The judicial system is flawed and often people have little faith in getting justice through legitimate means.”
“Even Amnesty International has commented that there is public approval for extrajudicial killings in India,” he added.
Profiles of eight “encounter specialists” — or police with a licence to kill — appears in the latest edition of Outlook magazine alongside their kill tallies. Three boasted 100 killings or more.
“Are our encounter specialists super-cops or ruthless killers?” the weekly asked, describing the men as “a law unto themselves”.