Gujarat's shameful 'encounter' killings
From time to time, the Indian public is offered traumatic evidence that not all's well with its greatest gain -- democracy. The latest instance is the Gujarat government's chilling admission in the Supreme Court that its police killed a man (Sohrabuddin Shaikh) in cold blood in November 2005 and passed it off as an "encounter” with a Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorist.
The Modi government, notorious for its scant respect for legality, had no choice but to admit to the disgraceful killing once its own senior police officers investigated the case and concluded that three elite Indian Police Service officers, including D G Vanzara, Rajkumar Pandian and Dinesh M N, were guilty of the crime.
Some other gruesome facts have since come to light. The same policemen also killed Shaikh's wife Kausar Bi and police informer Tulsiram Prajapati. The motive was to destroy evidence by physically eliminating witnesses to Shaikh's detention and interrogation. This only increases the officers' culpability.
Kausar Bi was reportedly raped and then poisoned to death. She was cremated in Vanzara's presence and her ashes scattered over his farm. Prajapati's killing took place barely three weeks after Inspector-General Geeta Johri had concluded that Shaikh had been killed in a staged "encounter”.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, which rules in Gujarat, has tried to brazen out the episode by claiming that Shaikh had 60 cases pending against him. However, Shaikh was never accused of terrorism. Nor does Indian law permit extra-judicial killings, no matter how grave the crime.
Yet, the Gujarat government demands credit for arresting the three IPS officers. It wants to resist a central police inquiry into the episode. It's a measure of the moral and political depths to which the BJP has sunk that it should advance such arguments. If the BJP thinks that it can take shelter behind "patriotism” for fighting "terrorism”, it's profoundly mistaken. People know that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.
The episode raises several disturbing issues. It points to the continuing vitiation of Gujarat's political climate, five years after Independent India's worst state-aided butchery of Muslims. It exposes the extreme criminalisation and communalisation of its top police officers, which alone explains why Vanzara became a celebrity as an "encounter specialist” and enjoyed impunity from scrutiny. And it reveals a nexus between anti-terrorist operations and perverse forms of "patriotism”.
Vanzara was a highly politicised officer close to both Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. Vanzara could commit any number of crimes, including using faked Andhra Pradesh car number-plates, abducting Shaikh and Kausar Bi from a Hyderabad-Sangli bus, taking them to Ahmedabad, and using a stolen motorcycle to stage an "encounter”. Each step had illegality writ large on it.
Vanzara is responsible for 13 "encounter” killings -- faked on the specious ground that "terrorists” were plotting to kill Modi. Vanzara obviously took special delight in murdering people and in boasting that "the [Modi] government is ours”, and that "there will be no evidence… to ever nail us because I am smarter than the human rights people.”
Vanzara was "well-connected” all the way to the top. He even got his brother, a forest department officer, posted to the state Human Rights Commission, so no complaints against him would see the light of day.
Vanzara comes from a dirt-poor semi-nomadic tribal family. He was supported by his village neighbours -- 60 per cent of them Muslim -- through school. But he soon morphed into a viciously communal, crafty operator. He now owns a 20-room three-storeyed mansion, and reportedly has investments exceeding Rs150 crores. His is a pathologically disturbed personality.
Yet, there's no way that Vanzara could have indulged in fake encounter killings without Modi's active support and collusion. Various anti-terrorism police outfits can operate in India the way they do only because of support from the highest quarters, including access to huge amounts of money, with which to fund "special” operations and patronise informants.
Typically, such informants are hardened criminals keen to settle scores with their rivals. They exert a deeply corrosive influence on the police. Often, the line of demarcation between the police and criminals gets blurred.
Anti-terrorist police, citing "secrecy”, defy all accountability and become a law unto themselves. That's the story of countless "encounter specialists” -- from Maharashtra (Praful Bhonsle and Daya Shetty), Delhi (Rajbir Singh), and elsewhere, who have all been disgraced because of corruption and resort to extortion and intimidation.
But a difference sets Vanzara aside. This is his repeated claim to deshbhakti, love for the nation, and the depiction of gory killings as "patriotic acts”. Indeed, Vanzara turned deshbhakti into a synonym for fake encounters. He would commandeer official vehicles, saying he needed them for deshbhakti. He attached a sacred or mystical significance to his murderous ventures.
The link between murder and an odious concept of nationalism constitutes the most frightening aspect of Vanzara's operations. This concept of nationalism separates the nation from, indeed opposes it to, society and human rights. It justifies the snuffing out of life on mere suspicion, sometimes not even that.
Surely, Vanzara knew that most of those whom he killed in "encounters” were not terrorists. Typically, they only possessed primitive country-made kattas and tamanchas.
It would be a huge surprise if Vanzara didn't concoct "plots” targeted at killing Modi -- to curry favour with his political boss. Vanzara certainly threatened many POTA detainees with "encounter deaths” unless they signed confessional statements. This was convincingly established by two families from Gujarat during a citizens' hearing on POTA, which I attended two years ago.
Vanzara and those who shielded, mollycoddled or encouraged him, must be given exemplary punishment. They must be prosecuted by officers of high integrity for direct and constructive responsibility. It's not enough to punish the police alone; their political masters too must be brought to book. The prosecution must establish their communal bias, and secure severe punishment for it.
Indian courts must condemn the deshbhakti proposition and enunciate a clear legal doctrine, which criminalises the equation of patriotism with murder. Far too many crimes have been committed against innocent citizens in our part of the world in the name of the nation, or for reasons of state.
These monstrous practices must end. Tolerance for them is utterly unworthy of a society that aspires to democracy. Democracy loses its meaning if the most basic right, the right to life, is jeopardised.
A corollary of this is the abrogation of obnoxious laws like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and Disturbed Areas Act, which not only permit security forces to kill suspects, but also exempt them from prosecution.
India has seen horrifying examples of such abuse in Kashmir. This is now becoming evident in the Northeast, and increasingly, in anti-Naxal operations in the heart of India, staged by shady state-supported outfits like Salwa Judum in Chattisgarh.
A final word. Gujarat has witnessed 21 "encounter” killings in the past three years. It is high time the Supreme Court and National Human Rights Commission ordered high-level inquiries into these, and returned to the virtually abandoned task of ensuring justice for the long-suffering victims of the Gujarat carnage.
They must stipulate a code of conduct for "anti-terrorist operations”, and outlaw any abuse of state power. Nothing else will meet the ends of justice.