“Encounter killings” — extrajudicial executions by police or the army allegedly done in self-defense — have become increasingly familiar in India at large, including in its most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. As per records, 119 suspects have died in so-called encounters in the state since the Bharatiya Janata Party won the state election in 2017.
The Uttar Pradesh government and police consider these figures a glowing achievement and have not shied away from showing them off on public platforms like Twitter. Most recently, the Uttar Pradesh police on July 10 killed 56-year-old gangster Vikas Dubey, with more than 60 criminal cases against him, in an encounter.
The police’s version of the events that led to Dubey’s death is eerily similar to a case that took place in Hyderabad, the capital of the southern Indian state Telangana, in December 2019. In that case, four men accused of rape and murder of a woman, in an incident that shook the nation’s collective conscience, were shot dead by the police when they allegedly snatched a weapon and tried to escape during a crime scene reconstruction.
In both instances, public sentiment was overwhelmingly in favor of these extrajudicial executions, even as they did attract criticism from some quarters, led by human rights groups. People showered rose petals and paraded cops on their shoulders in the aftermath of the Hyderabad encounter. Pop culture, too, has played its part in glorifying the practice; massively popular police-centric Bollywood films – such as “Rowdy Rathore,” “Singham,” and “Dabangg” – regularly depict scenes in which the policeman-protagonist single-handedly kills the villainous criminal in a heroic climax.
When extrajudicial killings are encouraged by politicians in power, celebrated in popular culture, and enabled by the general public, it cannot really come as a surprise that the police conduct these operations with complete impunity, utter disregard for due process of law, and even a visible lack of effort or creativity in trying to cover their tracks. This emboldenment becomes a slippery slope that allows the police to take matters into their own hands more and more, implicating and executing innocent people and deciding for themselves who deserves what punishment. The impact of these enabled police excesses has been felt by those who peacefully protested the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), especially in Uttar Pradesh.
Police vigilantism is apparently being used as a tool in the hands of political parties and politicians in power to further their own agendas. There is no doubt about the police-politician-criminal nexus that exists in India, but just in case we had forgotten, the aforementioned Vikas Dubey case put it back in the spotlight. When the gangster was not engaged in land grabbing, extortion, and attempted murder, he was being photographed with and approached by politicians across party lines for support during elections. He was even planning to contest state assembly elections himself in 2022.
This close connection with politics granted Dubey an almost invincible protective shield from the law. In fact, a week before his death, eight police personnel were brutally gunned down by his men when they had gone to his village, Bikru, to arrest him. He managed to do this because he had received a tip-off from a mole within the police force itself. Had Dubey been put through the mandated judicial process instead of being killed in a so-called encounter as he was, it is possible that important information about this dangerous nexus could have been exposed. In cases such as this one, then, encounter killings are seemingly used to protect powerful people and hide information of high public interest.
The practice of encounter executions has been employed by the police and the armed forces for decades, both during conflicts or insurgencies and in “normal” circumstances. In fact, they have “virtually become a part of unofficial state policy,” as the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) stated in 2004. The situation in conflict areas, including different parts of northeast India and Kashmir, is further complicated by the application of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which grants the army special powers to “maintain order.”
In the past, gallantry awards and out-of-turn promotions have routinely been given to officers who conducted these operations, thus incentivizing the tactic. The Supreme Court put a stop to this in a judgment in 2014, stating that no such reward would be given until an independent inquiry establishes the “gallantry of the concerned officer” beyond doubt. In the same judgment, the Court laid down a 16-point procedure to be followed in the investigation of encounter deaths. This included immediate registration of a First Information Report (FIR, or a police complaint), magisterial inquiry, and an independent investigation by the Criminal Investigation Department or a team from another police station with supervision of a senior officer.
But the NHRC’s appeals and the Supreme Court’s directives to curb the problem and ensure a free and fair probe into these matters have clearly not been enough of a deterrent. According to a report by The Indian Express, magisterial inquiries have been carried out in 74 cases of encounter deaths in Uttar Pradesh since 2017. However, the police have gone scot-free in each and every one of them.
Although some convictions have been made in the long history of encounter killings in India, these are few and far apart. In 2016, 47 policemen were sentenced to life imprisonment for having killed 11 Sikh men in fake encounters in Uttar Pradesh in 1991. This judgment, given by a special Central Bureau of Investigation court, came after 25 years of the families of the deceased being labelled as “terrorists,” even in their own state of Punjab. Twelve of those convicted are now out on bail, and the compensation due to the victims’ families is still awaited. In most instances, even this half-baked justice is a distant dream.
The current provisions are evidently not enough to root out something so widely accepted and deeply entrenched in the system. With so much overlap between those investigating and those being investigated, the likelihood of impartiality is compromised. As a short-term quick fix, the legal provisions to investigate these murders need to be strengthened and implemented more seriously.
But a more permanent solution will involve a larger overhaul of the criminal justice system. A choked judiciary with years of backlog and no coherent plan to improve the situation – through increased funding or judicial infrastructure, for example – is the most often cited reason for citizens’ lack of trust in due process of law and subsequent support for police encounters. The discussion on police reforms, too, needs to open in a big way, particularly to divorce the institution from the political executive and protect its independence under law.
Encounter killings are an extreme manifestation of illegitimate exercise of violence by the establishment. If the state wants to retain its precariously perched moral high ground, someone is going to have to take responsibility.
Tarini Mehta is a journalist for StoriesAsia.