What on earth is a “fake encounter”? An “encounter” is a euphemism to describe “extra judicial killings” in which police or armed forces shoot down a suspected gangster or gangsters, not to speak of terrorists, in a gun battle. Now, a confirmed gangster with few or many charges against him, is not a public figure. One doesn’t expect him to have tea or lunch in a hotel or restaurant to become a cynosure of all eyes. He remains a strictly private person, totally out of sight. He knows he is a wanted man. But suppose the police get to know about his whereabouts, should they seek to capture him? All too often, while a gangster’s crimes are known, but not his whereabouts, the law-enforcers keep a look-out for him.
What is the need? The presumption is that a gangster or terrorist at large remains a menace- which cannot be tolerated in the larger interests of society. Capturing him and producing him before a Court can be unproductive. No law-giver can arbitrarily sentence a gangster without adequate supporting evidence. This is where the law enforcer’s dilemma begins. He is damned if he doesn’t take action and damned if he does.
Cops can’t arbitrarily put a man under captivity, even if he is well-known for crimes committed. But letting him go scot-free can also have its consequences, a bit more arguable though it may be. This is where “encounters” come in the picture. A situation is planned where the suspect is arranged to be seen as on the offensive for the cop to shoot him down. This is what is known as a “fake encounter” – so arranged as to give the cop or cops a sound excuse for having killed a man. Yes, the whole episode is stage-managed but the cops put forth a good reason: Should one known to be an active criminal be allowed to move freely, believing that any time he may go berserk, or should be eliminated for society’s future safety? One can argue both ways.
But of late “fake encounters” are coming to be challenged. The argument is that one cannot arbitrarily presume that once a criminal a person will remain a criminal for all times to come. That conception is understandably challenged. The alleged killing of Ishrat Jahan and three of her comrades has raised the shackles of our Human Rights Activists. Interestingly, in the 1990’s and the mid 2000s, the Mumbai Police in Maharashtra used “encounter killings” to cripple the underworld in the city and break down what was seen as a “rampant extortion racket”. The argument of police officers who came to be known as “Encounter specialists” was that in killing suspects they were delivering “speedy justice”. Is that an acceptable excuse for carrying out a murder?
We go on the presumption that all policemen are honest, clean, responsible and caring and they would not even kill a mosquito in the normal course of circumstances. But the realist will come forth with a counter-argument that even a good man may commit errors of judgment and in killing a suspect he is doing more harm in the matter of delivering justice, than is acceptable. Instances of “encounter killings” are getting too many to be dismissed lightly. According to the National Human Rights Commission of India there have been 440 cases of alleged ‘fake encounters’ in the country in five years between 2002 and 2007. Most of those happened in the states of Uttar Pradesh (231), Rajasthan (33), Maharashtra (31), Delhi (26), Andhra Pradesh (22) and Uttaranchal (19). Between 2008-2009 and 2011, NHRC reportedly recorded 369 cases of alleged fake encounters but it is also stated that by June 2011 the Human Right body had as many as 98 of these cases resolved. Good for it. It only shows that not all encounters are necessarily valid and may have been undertaken for extraneous reasons. Is that permissible? Can a police officer be taken as pure in character and reason and not directed either by personal or paid considerations?
Encounter killings actually began as late as 11 June 1982 when a gangster, Manya Surve, was shot dead by police officers in Wadala, a Mumbai suburb. The point made was that the killing would end urban piracy by dacoits. From that time until early 2003 the Mumbai police is reported to have killed an astonishing and unbelievable 1,200 alleged criminals. Just one police Inspector of Mumbai, Pradeep Sharma, was known to have killed 113 alleged gangsters. He was fired in 2008 for extortion of money from the underworld but was cleared of all charges in May 2009 and reinstated. He reportedly got involved in another fake encounter and is supposed to be serving a prison sentence since 2009. The case of Sub-Inspector Daya Nayak is well-known.
Significantly, according to NHRC figures, during 2002-2007 there were only four alleged fake encounters in Gujarat (out of 440 in all of India) but the manner in which the media has been taking on Narendra Modi makes one wonder what it is the media wants. The term “Police Encounter” was often used during the Punjab Khalistan insurgency between 1984 and 1995. It may similarly be remembered that Veerappan, the notorious forest brigand was killed by the Special Task Force also in an encounter on 18 October 2004. Veerappan had become a terrorist incarnate and thousands hoped that some day he will get his comeuppance. He did get it but some Human Right outfits claimed that the circumstantial evidence indicated that he was killed in a fake encounter after being tortured by the police. It is in such a context that one feels that a nation-wide poll should be conducted to judge what the great public thinks about ‘encounters’.
Is an encounter a wrong means to achieve a right end? Can the police take the law into its own hands and engage in an encounter with the best of intentions? It is a highly debatable issue. Police are as much human as the rest of us and some of them, as we all know, have been punished for what they did. There can’t be ‘just killing’ or ‘killing in good faith’ an oxymoron that is best avoided. Only the law can lay down the penalty of death, no matter how long justice is delayed, even if the argument is made that justice delayed is justice denied. It is not for the police to take the law into their own hands, no matter how noble their intentions.