Thursday, August 05, 2010

Wrong Side of the Law

There was consternation over the encounter killing of Hemchandra Pande along with Maoist spokesperson Azad in the jungles of Adilabad in north Andhra Pradesh in the first week of July. While the police contend that Pande was a Left ultra himself, Pande's wife Babita insists her husband was a freelance journalist who wrote for many papers. Obfuscated in this debate is that Pande possibly a Maoist sympathiser and not a hardcore ultra was gunned down in an encounter after allegedly being picked up from Nagpur, roughly three hours drive on the National Highway 8 from Adilabad.

As Maoists run amok in large parts of the country and extremists from across the border try to disrupt peace, sections of the Indian middle class paranoid at this increasing threat to the republic have begun justifying extrajudicial killings. They argue that since the judicial system is not quick and effective, summary encounters are the only way to curb militancy. Though encounter killings are not part of official state policy, police and other agencies armed with this civil society sanction have been increasingly resorting to encounters and abrogating to themselves the role of judge and executioner. It will not be an exaggeration to say many encounters are cold-blooded killings. This has terrible consequences for democracy and rule of law. It also perniciously affects the police's performance, a development that does not augur well for the country. The following example will demonstrate this point effectively.

In December 1999, three central committee members of the Maoist party were liquidated in an encounter by the Andhra Pradesh police in Karimnagar district. Three IPS officers were awarded the police medal for gallantry for their role in this encounter. This medal entitles an awardee to get a free land site and free lifetime 1st class travel by train, among other goodies. But an anonymous complaint led to an inquiry which revealed that the gallant trio were nowhere near the scene of encounter that day. In 2008, nine years after the encounter, the officers were served a "charge memo" asking why they should not be punished. But internal police pressure in the home ministry ensured the file lost its way in the meandering bylanes of North Block.

This is not the end of the story. One of the 'gallant' officers, an SP then and now a DIG, was posted as the CRPF's boss in Dantewada earlier this year, presumably because he was a gallant man eminently qualified to take on the extremists in this Maoist-infested area. What happened next is history: 76 men of the CRPF were ambushed and gunned down by the Maoists on April 6 in an event that shook the nation. An official inquiry by a former BSF director general revealed that there was "command failure" and "standard operating procedures" were not followed. This was responsible for the CRPF men falling to the hail of bullets from the ultras. The DIG in question was sent packing from the area, but only after the damage had been done. The point is that he would never have had an exalted status if not for the gallantry award for a false encounter.

The unfortunate thing is that not only are officers rewarded for false encounters, but officers resisting such encounters end up in the doghouse. Ask Harvinder Singh Kohli, an artillery colonel whose regiment was deployed in south Assam in 2003 to track down militants. At the end of an operation in August 2003, Kohli's men captured five militants from the Assam Commando Force.

On hearing about the operation, his senior, the brigadier, ordered him to bump off these militants since all that mattered in the eyes of the bosses were "kills". The brigadier also indicated that his boss, the major-general, was in the know of things. The colonel resisted and quickly handed these militants to the police to ward off further pressure. But the brigadier would not relent, he told the colonel to photograph a staged encounter. The colonel chose the lesser evil. So five men were made to lie on the ground with ketchup sprayed on their bodies and their pictures taken to show that there were 'kills'. But the lid soon came off with a complaint and the colonel was court-martialled and sacked.

Later the brigadier was also discharged from the army, but the major-general was allowed to retire. On appeal, the brigadier, who commissioned the activity, was reinstated with loss of seniority and a reprimand. But Kohli now an ex-colonel wearing the media-given label of 'ketchup colonel' is waging a Herculean battle to clear his name. There is, however, nobody to bell the cat and reinstate an officer who actually had the moral courage to refuse orders to execute a false encounter. Interestingly, defence ministry officials noted on the file reviewing Kohli's case that an unofficial policy existed to assess the peformance of units involved in counter-insurgency operations in terms of number of kills.

A dispensation where officers resorting to false encounters get encomiums and those resisting are jettisoned can only lead to the brutalisation of security agencies, with individual policemen using the gun to also eliminate petty criminals and other suspects. This process has actually begun in many places. The consequences can be well imagined since, in a civilised nation, lawlessness cannot be countered by lawlessness.

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