By Madeeha Fatima
UTTAR PRADESH — As the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rule nears the end of its tenure in Uttar Pradesh, questions concerning extrajudicial killings remain unanswered amidst the chaos created by political oratory and action in the state. The staggering number of ‘encounters’ in the region during chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s term only make true his 2017 statement—rather an undeclared policy of “knocking down criminals if they did not mend their ways.”
The rhetorical statement, if not derision of the chief minister’s constitutional status, has produced the somewhat desired effect on criminals in Uttar Pradesh. As data points out, the state’s police have injured at least 3,302 alleged criminals in 8,742 ‘encounters’ from March 2017 to July 2021. The encounters have resulted in a death toll of 151, in addition to leaving the alleged criminals with various injuries in other cases. However, worth noting is the fact that these police actions are entwined on and supported by the hardened stem of a tree rooted in governmental policies and operations commonly hurled as achievements in political speeches.
But before making an attempt to comprehend the power politics behind these ‘encounters’, it is crucial to decipher the motives backing such police action.
Motives behind action
Encounters, in conjunction with being an easy option, have always been facilitated as a tool to help the police camouflage superficial investigations. Time and again, officials have taken this measure in an attempt to close cases down and cover botched up investigations. Moreover, encounters have also been used to altogether avoid any investigation to be done in certain cases.
Given the fact that they are revered and applauded by the public, encounters have become an acceptable measure taken by law enforcement agencies against what they call “hardened criminals.” The political and administrative glorification of the killings in the guise of rewards and promotions is another motivation for these encounters, whether it be the killing of dacoit Gauri Yadav carrying a cash reward of 5.5 lakh on his head, by the Special Police Force, or the encounter of Meerut’s Chand Mohammad with a cash reward of 1.5 lakh.
Reinforcements, or in fact the state’s open lure, in the form of promotions have also acted as stimulants to propel police officers to carry out encounters. This can be easily understood in the light of an incident where a Sub-Inspector of the UP police, who had shot a 25-year-old man in Noida, was found to have told his colleague that the ‘encounter’ would earn him an out-of-turn promotion. However, instances like this continue to prevail in spite of NHRC’s guideline of not bestowing any out-of-turn promotions or gallantry rewards soon after the occurrence of such a killing.
Different prey, same strategy
Encounters or simply extrajudicial killings for that matter, however, celebrated, reveal the face of a collapsed legal framework in any society. The numbers of police killings in the state of Uttar Pradesh do not fall short of unveiling the same. Just by examining or looking closely at some cases, one can figure out the set procedure of the killings termed as encounters or retaliatory firings. Almost all of these occurrences share the same setting, commonly a background story of a face-off after the police find criminals on motorbikes or cars trying to escape by firing at the police, who in turn retaliate which leaves the criminals injured or dead.
A painstaking and elaborate report by the Youth for Human Rights Documentation (YHRD) found that in the 17 cases of extrajudicial killings investigated by it, 16 shared the same story of police chasing criminals on motorbikes or cars followed by their vehicles losing balance, leading to firing from the other side and finally counter-firing by the police in self-defence. Furthermore, the FIRs in all 17 cases state that while one criminal gets injured due to police firing, the other accomplices managed to escape. Also, each of the accomplices who escape, leave
behind their vehicles in all cases, and their weapons in many.
The statement of the absence of public witnesses offered with a justification that the incident took place in the wee hours or at late night, usually at sites away from human dwellings, is another common element in these cases. From Mansoor Ahmad’s killing in 2017 to Vikas Dubey’s encounter in 2020, no eyewitnesses have claimed to be found, thereby benefiting the police’s narrative. Another similarity amongst these cases is the inconsistency with legal standards in terms of registering multiple FIRs against the deceased victims by the police. The YHRD report finds a certain pattern in the FIRs registered in many of the 17 police killings investigated. Despite the law stating that only one FIR is to be registered for each incident other than in a few exceptions, the state’s police have been found to register at least three FIRs in most of the cases; the first carrying charges of attempted murder against the deceased victims; the second filed for carrying unregistered arms; the third bearing a charge of committing a crime before the shootout.
Public acknowledgement: a key to ultimate power
What is more alarming is the perfunctory nature of police investigations following such extrajudicial killings. Once it is publicly established that the police have the authority to kill criminals, it becomes easier for the force to take on and perform functions that it has otherwise not been vested in. This breach of power can be understood by the initial investigation, carried out by the superintendent of Shergarh police station, in the killing of an alleged criminal named Qasim in a 2017 encounter that involved officers from the same police station.
Moreover, as evident by YHRD’s report, in cases where an ‘independent’ investigating team of a different police station looked over the matter, no investigation was conducted on the role played by the police and whether the use of force was necessary and proportionate. In most cases, the plea of self-defence by the police team in the FIR was accepted by the investigating team without question, in addition to overlooking factual inconsistencies in the police’s narrative.
Crisp contrast and the licit illegality
The matter of presentation of evidence and post-mortem reports in many of the encounter cases in Uttar Pradesh is also fraught with discrepancies with the police’s version of the encounter. In the case of Ikram, an alleged criminal killed in an encounter in the town of Kandhala, the post-mortem report showed fractured ribs, knees and an injured scalp along with five blackened bullet-wounds in the lower part of the body (suggesting firing from a close range), all in stark contrast to the police’s narrative of retaliatory firings.
In many such cases, the police have also claimed to be shot at while presenting bullet-proof jackets with bullets as evidence. However, in most cases, there has been little effort in connecting the bullets found with those allegedly fired by the criminals.
Besides, the role played by judicial magistrates has been inadequate in many cases. Of the 17 cases investigated by YHRD, judicial magistrates have not questioned the abject lack of public witnesses in any. Also, in all these cases, the magistrates overlooked the fact that the police investigating team made no attempts to investigate the circumstances under which the police team opened fire and caused death, or whether any offences were committed by them. Moreover, closure reports in 11 of the 16 cases presented by the police were accepted by the concerned magistrates without any enquiry.
Like most actions undertaken in the guidance and supervision of chief minister Yogi Adityanath, his “thhok do” (knockdown) policy does not fail to have a direct effect on Muslims in the region. In all encounters carried out from March 2017 to August 2020, nearly 37 percent of the alleged criminals killed were Muslims (constituting less than 20 percent of the state’s population). As per data, in the first year of the Yogi Adityanath government, 16 out of 45 persons who lost their lives in police encounters were from the Muslim community.
Raids on slaughterhouses and cow protection laws have further made Muslims in the region vulnerable to being targeted by law enforcement agencies. Many alleged cow-slaughterers and smugglers have been injured and even killed in encounters carried out by the police. Besides, many other cases of encounters of Muslim men have taken place over issues of dacoity, burglary, loot, theft, attempt to murder, altercation among others, leading the deceased victims’ families with facts mostly belying police’s chronicles.
Unsurprisingly, no action has been taken by the state to look into these matters, leave alone ensure that such instances do not happen in future. In fact, the Government of India is yet to respond to OHCHR’s 2019 letter expressing alarm about the extrajudicial killings by police in the state of Uttar Pradesh, most of them concerning individuals from Muslim communities living in poverty.
Also not different has been the predicament of Dalits in the state. Out of the 124 people gunned down in encounters from March 2017 to August 2020, 58 belonged to the backward castes, Scheduled castes, Scheduled tribes, vaishya and Thakur communities. Not to mention, the number of Dalit undertrials is the highest in Uttar Pradesh among all states.
Nonetheless, in a land full of cries and sorrows of families left behind by the ones shot and killed in what the police and the state term ‘encounters’, politicians do not forget to exalt these killings and augment the pride of the ones who carried them out. What’s more is that Yogi Adityanath is constantly talking of an improved law and order situation during his tenure as chief minister in his electoral speeches.
This story first appeared on twocircles.net