Thursday, December 01, 2011

Punish the murderers in uniform

A Special Investigation Team set up by the Gujarat High Court has confirmed what has long been known: That 19-year old Ishrat Jehan, her employer, Javed Shaikh, and two others were murdered on June 15, 2004 by the Gujarat police, rather than being gunned down in an encounter as the police claimed. A magisterial inquiry in 2009 conducted by S.P. Tamang, too, came to the conclusion that the four were killed in cold blood. So shoddy was the effort to pass off the murder as an encounter with terrorists that the police party left a trail of evidence.

Besides the fact that the four had been killed by weapons of a calibre that the police did not possess, not one of the 70 rounds fired by the police in the alleged encounter was recovered. Worse, the police claimed that they shot out the left tyre of the car in which the four were travelling and it thereafter hit a divider on the right; actually, had they done so, it ought to have swerved left.

Mr Tamang has determined that the four had actually been kidnapped on June 12 from Mumbai by a Gujarat police squad and brought to Ahmedabad and murdered, and their bodies were later taken to the spot of the alleged encounter. Even now, there is need for a more detailed inquiry as to how the Gujarat police was able to abduct people from another state and get away with it. Further, we need to know how Jehan and Shaikh were linked up to two possibly Pakistani nationals about whom not much seems to be known, except the police charge that they were Lashkar-e-Tayyeba militants from Jammu & Kashmir.
Former Home Secretary GK Pillai insists Jehan and Shaikh were working for the LeT, and were being used to provide cover to the militants whose mission was to kill Narendra Modi. The police also cite the fact that Jehan and Shaikh were initially hailed as martyrs on the LeT website and then the post was hastily taken off. It is difficult to take them at their word because of their many lies, not only in this, but other Modi and Gujarat linked cases.
Even assuming that Jehan and Shaikh were LeT sleepers, they were, by no means, outside the pale of the Indian law. They were not even, as is alleged in the case of Sohrabuddin,  well-known dangerous criminals who had to be shot at sight, rather than arrested.
There are many, including Modi in the Gujarat State Assembly elections of 2007, who have argued that Sohrabuddin was a criminal and ‘deserved to die’. They conveniently overlook the murder of his wife, Kausar Bi. Needless to say, they see no irony in the fact that arrogating to yourself the right to kill, allegedly for a higher cause, is exactly the argument that terrorists give.
It goes without saying that in any civilised country, the right to kill is one that is exclusively reserved for the state. While in war time, and through special legislation like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, it is delegated to its armed forces, in normal circumstances it is only exercised through the judiciary and that, too, through judicial due process. Here, as we have seen in India, it is exercised in the “rarest of rare” circumstances.
Unfortunately, the Indian political system has tolerated extra-judicial killings and fake encounters for too long. They have seen it, as the Mumbai police have, as a means of getting rid of dangerous underworld figures who, notwithstanding draconian laws like the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) of 1999, are difficult to keep behind bars. Police personnel in insurgency-ridden states have seen it as a way of getting rid of dreaded terrorists who if left in jail would pose a threat to the police personnel and their family.

But this argument is not quite accurate and the problem is much worse. The Asian Centre for Human Rights has, on the basis of reports to the National Human Rights Commission, pointed out that there have been 14,231 custodial deaths in police and judicial custody in India in the 2001-2010 period.
Of these the highest number, 250, is in Maharashtra, then comes Uttar Pradesh, 174, Gujarat, 134, Andhra Pradesh, 109, West Bengal, 98, Tamil Nadu, 95. As can be seen, a number of these states are neither afflicted by gangsterism or terrorism. Most of the deaths, the ACHR points out, are a result of torture. More than anything else, it reflects not the anger of people against terrorism or crime, but the casual way in which we treat human life in this country.
The reason for this state of affairs is the cover given to these murderers in uniform by the establishment. They are hailed as “encounter specialists” who put their lives on the line. Awards are showered on cops who have done nothing more than shot unarmed men. It is not surprising that virtually no policeman ever loses his life, or even gets a scratch, in the many alleged encounters that they have participated in.
The motive of the political class is to ride the “tough on terrorism” plank. No one has been more adept at this than Narendra Modi. Not surprisingly, the maximum number of fake encounters are related to people killed in the process of plotting Modi’s killing.   Besides Sohrabuddin, Ishrat, Javed and the two alleged Lashkar men, we also have Sadiq Jamal who was shot dead, allegedly while plotting to kill L.K. Advani in Gujarat and Samir Khan Pathan who was killed while trying to escape, again after his arrest for a plot to kill Modi in 2002.

Modi could not but have known that many of these alleged conspiracies were not really authentic. But he has chosen to ride the communal tiger. It began with his cynical decision to exploit the post-Godhra killing of Muslims to win the 2002 State Assembly elections, and was continued till the 2007 arrest of
D G Vanzara, the deputy commissioner of police in Ahmedabad for the Sohrabuddin and Kausar Bi murder. It is perhaps too late to expect Modi to uphold the ideals of ethical conduct expected of the chief minister of a state. His failure to observe Raj Dharma was manifest even in 2002.
But India can and must rid itself of the shame of being a country where the rule of law is only selectively employed, and where people can be deprived of their life and liberty at the whim of the police. For this reason, the state must make an example of the people involved in the Ishrat murder and use the opportunity to take Indian policing to the 21st century from its rather barbaric past.
The Indian police system must develop the moral outrage needed to root out any sympathy for those who carry out fake encounters. The policemen involved must be seen for what they are—murderers. And being in uniform, they deserve much more severe punishment than is meted out to your run-of-the-mill killers.
Whether or not the judicial system takes a long time to convict and execute criminals or not, is not the concern of the police, and neither have they been appointed the official executioners of the Indian state.
India is at the cusp of a moral revolution. Across the country, the people are showing that they are tired of political corruption. This is the time when we need to draw up new norms of police conduct as well, with tough rules that outlaw torture and extra-judicial killing.
Mail Today November 24, 2011

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