The perversity of extrajudicial killings

When the state acts with impunity, it erases the sharp line that separates the state from criminals


People attend the funeral of Mujeeb Sheikh, one of the eight members of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) killed in a police encounter. Photo: PTI
People attend the funeral of Mujeeb Sheikh, one of the eight members of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) killed in a police encounter. Photo: PTI

The enduring fiction about extrajudicial executions, euphemistically called “encounters”, had been that these were not planned, but sudden incidents necessitated by fast-moving circumstances, where the police shot, but always in self-defence.

The police were in hot pursuit of alleged criminals who posed a grave danger to innocent civilians (Mumbai’s underworld criminals, Uttar Pradesh’s dacoits, Sohrabuddin Sheikh, or now, members of a banned outfit like the Students Islamic Movement of India, or SIMI). The police were shot at; the police fired back in response, and the dangerous men and women were killed before they could be brought to trial. Each and every time, the police were left with no choice.

The videos that emerged on Monday, of Madhya Pradesh police killing eight SIMI members who were undertrials and had allegedly escaped from a secure prison in Bhopal, and who were armed with what is described as weapons made out of utensils, are deeply troubling. Police officers carry weapons for a purpose—to protect law-abiding civilians and themselves, and there are protocols in place setting out clear rules about when, how and under what circumstances the weapons can be used. The overriding aim has to be to arrest the persons—not kill them—and bring them to trial.

Those rules of engagement seem to have completely evaporated. To be sure, while pictures tell a story words cannot, shaky videos seen out of sequence do not tell the full story. I acknowledge that what we have seen is only part of the story. But those scenes are alarming for three reasons.

One, it seems the SIMI men wanted to talk. They are on a rock, not fleeing, nor advancing menacingly, and they seem to be keen to negotiate. Two, a man (presumably a plain-clothes officer) going through the dead bodies finds a large knife wrapped in plastic hidden in a band in the trousers. The blade does not have a sheath covering it nor a belt with which to strap it firmly around the dead man’s waist, and it is placed in such a way that it would be almost impossible for the man even to walk, let alone run, without wounding his thigh. And three, the police are firing on the bodies lying on the ground, after it is clear they are unconscious or dead.

Even more astonishing is the brazenness. It is as if the police have given up all pretence of respecting the law and the rights of citizens, even if they are suspects.

There was a time when the police would get indignant and embarrassed if reporters or human rights activists made allegations that they had killed people without due process.

Here, someone has filmed the incident, and the filming isn’t surreptitious. In one of the videos you see someone’s hand holding up a cellphone filming or photographing the incident, and nobody seriously tries to stop him.

Such impudence is not unique to the police in Madhya Pradesh. Just a week ago, in a scene that would have been appropriate in a farcical movie, policemen in neighbouring Chhattisgarh burnt effigies of author and academic Nandini Sundar, activist Soni Sori, former Communist MLA Manish Kunjam, and activists Bela Bhatia and Himanshu Kumar.

Journalist Malini Subramaniam, who was reporting on the plight of Adivasis and police atrocities in Chhattisgarh and then had to flee the state, was called a traitor. With self-righteous innocence, the local police chief called critics of his force “anti-national”.

Yes, anti-national; that word again. Broadcast journalist Rahul Kanwal was shocked to find that some channels which had access to the fake encounter video (which his network showed), chose not to run it, for doing so would be “anti-national”.

He added: “Exposing a fake encounter is not anti-national. Staying silent when you know that an encounter appears fake is what is truly anti-national.”

The media’s raison d’être is to reveal what the powerful want to conceal; it is not to comply with the wishes of the powerful and become a purveyor of propaganda. Journalists have been called worse than anti-national, of course, but in the post-Uri environment, many journalists are anxious to wrap themselves in the national flag lest their patriotism be questioned.

Challenging the government, or the uniformed authorities, is now not only wrong, it is an act of betrayal, even high treason. So networks are shy to challenge the official narrative, even dropping a scheduled interview with former home minister P. Chidambaram, as one network did, lest it be accused of undermining the army.

Extrajudicial executions are exactly what the phrase implies—killings by the state outside the purview of the law. When the state acts with impunity, it erases the sharp line that separates the state from criminals. It undermines democracy, it diminishes the nation’s founding values and it delegitimizes the state’s authority. It sends a message that it is all right to disregard the Constitution, that it is fine to act outside the law. Erosion of standards doesn’t matter; principles, norms, rules are for the soft-hearted weak-kneed lawyers, liberals, journalists and activists. Stuff happens.

But when policemen start filming themselves shooting at bodies already lying motionless, the perversity and audacity have reached a new low. It shows a state beyond shame.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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