The theatre of encounters

The unravelling of the circumstances around the death of Ishrat Jahan and three other men does send a chill down your spine.

DNA/Monobina Gupta

Even though the narrative is familiar in a generic sort of way, the unravelling of the circumstances around the death of Ishrat Jahan and three other men does send a chill down your spine. The staging of this encounter -- inexplicable as it may sound -- has come to represent more evil than the countless others preceding it. Many have asked why. One simple answer may well lie in the relentless 24x7 media focus, the tense prime time debates, screeching politicians flinging abuse at each other -- trying to stare one another down in this play of adding and subtracting body counts. The BJP protagonists attempt to fix the Congress with cold reminders of fake encounters staged on the party`s watch over the years and decades across the country. But they are powerless in shaming the Congress into apologising or expressing contrition. The party continues to do what it usually does on high-voltage prime time shows: drag the Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi and his trusted aide Amit Shah under the strobe light. Lest my comment be misunderstood, let me clarify that I`m not arguing for deflecting that much needed critical gaze from the Gujarat duo who are now attempting to move to the national political arena.

But is this continued mudslinging all we can expect from this significant debate, one that should have happened a long time back and in the highest political forums of the country? Not merely ear shattering, the political cacophony generated by the Ishrat debate is also depressing. Dehumanising and slandering Ishrat, and attempting to leverage her terrible death to score political points, the conversations that have been happening over the past few days urge serious reflection on the psychology of the political class and the lawless functioning of the state machinery.

The question repeatedly rose: was Ishrat Jahan a terrorist? By implication: if so, the fake encounter -- even if considered rash -- may well have been a deserving end for the 19-year-old. Yet another line of perverse argument asked why Ishrat was travelling with three other men. Implicit again was the suggestion that travelling in the company of men one is not related to is in itself a crime serious enough to deserve punishment. The fundamental principle that criminals, even if caught red-handed, have to be produced in court, prosecuted and not simply eliminated on the sly by the state and its agencies, seems to have been given a casual go-by.

The debate around Ishrat has descended into a pit. More the politicians speak, the less there is a reason to hope for sane, compassionate conversations around the violent subject of fake encounters. It`s no exaggeration to argue that architects of fake encounters have been on the rampage throughout the country. Till now it was the "jholawalas" and human rights activists -- tagged conveniently as bleeding hearts and anti-nationals -- who in vain, tried to draw the attention of the state and civil society to this bloody narrative. What the Ishrat Jahan case has done is to rip apart official silence and break the government`s stodgy refusal to engage with the narrative of state-sponsored violence, routed through its various agencies -- police, army, intelligence bureau -- which are presently at war with each other.

For a long time, under the indifferent gaze of politicians and governments, bodies have been piling up in different corners of India, the families of the dead slowly giving up hope of claiming justice. Over the years people in Kashmir and Punjab have disappeared without a trace. From time to time mass graves have surfaced at these sites of conflicts. From Uttar Pradesh and Chhatisgarh to West Bengal and Manipur, states ruled by different protagonists at different times have witnessed unlawful killings with impunity. Fake encounters have become an accepted -- and dare I say a `legitimate` -- part of state practice for dealing with `others` perceived as insurrectionists and terrorists.

A vast repertory of cinema and literature has evolved around the gory fake encounters that dotted Bengal at the peak of the Naxal movement during the 1960s and 70s. Many films have since captured the image of Naxalites in police custody, freed and then shot in the back while walking away. Amidst the present furore, Punjab`s sub-inspector Surjit Singh has confessed to killing more than 80 people in fake encounters under directions from a senior police officer. He has now approached the courts seeking protection from senior officers trying to restrain him from making an "honest confession." A Supreme Court commissioned probe earlier this year found security forces guilty of killing seven persons, including a 12-year-old boy, in six fake encounters in Manipur during 2009-10.

The state has come to rely more and more on such killings of innocents or otherwise. A whole new genre of discourse has been developed by those supposed to uphold the law who end up justifying extra-judicial actions by attaching the labels like "terrorist" or "Maoist" to individuals and groups. Wary of being perceived as hurting national security, the courts prefer to shelve these cases rather than book the culprits responsible for subverting the fundamental rights of citizens.

In his novel on Kashmir, The Collaborator, author Mirza Waheed evokes this culture of impunity in these moving words: "Many disappeared like that from time to time: I guess those who went to the city were luckier. My friends, all my friends, went away too…Because the army people, the protectors of the land, have decided that there is only one way of dealing with the boys; catch and kill. Catch and Kill."

The author is National Editor, Edit Page, dna

(The story was first published on July 08, 2013 in DNA newspaper)