Fake encounters: Cops no more holy cows

Encounters between police and alleged criminals have now moved from being plain controversial topics and are resulting in a rising number of cases wherein policemen are being hauled up for notoriety and convicted for extra judicial killings under the garb of bringing offenders to book.

Shwetank Shekhar Dubey/ Zee Reasearch Group

Encounters between police and alleged criminals have now moved from being plain controversial topics and are resulting in a rising number of cases wherein policemen are being hauled up for notoriety and convicted for extra judicial killings under the garb of bringing offenders to book. The death sentence given to the former station house officer of Shastri Nagar police station in Patna by a local court on June 24 for a fake encounter has added yet another case to the growing number of convictions in recent times.

The case has brought to the limelight about the past catching up with policemen who had misused powers granted to them for upholding the law. In this particular case, three students were shot dead by cops 12 years ago, on December 28, 2002, claiming they were dacoits. Seven others, including constable Arun Kumar Singh, were sentenced to life imprisonment till death. A total of 33 witnesses were examined during the protracted trial. The case was first investigated by the local police, then CID and subsequently handed over to the CBI.

Within the past two months, this is the third case wherein policemen have been found guilty of fake encounters and sentenced to imprisonment. On June 6, a CBI court convicted 18 Uttarakhand policemen for the 2009 fake encounter of a 22-year-old MBA graduate Ranbir Singh. Seven convicts were found guilty of murder, while 10 others were sentenced for criminal conspiracy.

On May 9, a district court found three ex-cops of Punjab Police guilty of abducting and eliminating Shaheed Bhagat Singh’s kin Kuljit Singh Dhatt 25 years ago and sentenced them to five years imprisonment each. A former sarpanch of Ambala Jattan village and director of Bhogpur sugar mill, Dhatt (35) was picked up by Hoshiarpur police in July 1989. Additional sessions judge Poonam R Joshi declared retired DIG SPS Basra and dismissed cops Jaspal Singh and Sita Ram guilty of criminal conspiracy, abduction with an intent to kill, and illegal confinement. Jaspal is already undergoing life sentence in the fake encounter case of human rights activist Jaswant Singh Kalra.

Earlier, in May 2011, the Supreme Court had dismissed an appeal field by police and upheld the conviction and life sentence of 10 Delhi policemen in one of the most highlighted fake encounters that took place on March 31, 1997. A Delhi Police Crime Branch team led by ACP SS Rathi had fired indiscriminately at a car in Connaught Place suspecting two Haryana-based businessmen, Pradeep Goyal and Jagjit Singh, were Uttar Pradesh-based gangsters.

What started as a process of stopping militants by the Army and paramilitary forces in disturbed areas like Naxal-affected States and the north east was soon adopted by police of various states, who claimed that such tactics brought down the numbers of criminals.

Government figures show that between 2009 and 2013, 555 fake encounter cases were registered across India, with majority being reported in Uttar Pradesh (138), followed by Manipur (62), Assam (52), West Bengal (35), Jharkhand (30), Chhattisgarh (29), Odisha (27), Jammu and Kashmir (26), Tamil Nadu (23) and Madhya Pradesh (20). Only 144 cases, out of 555, have been solved so far.

Human Rights Watch, the Amnesty International, has even gone ahead and spoken about criminalisation of the police force owing to the over thousand people who were killed in fake encounters between 1993 and 2008.

The Director of Asian Centre for Human Rights, Suhas Chakma, said whichever cases regarding alleged fake encounter are registered, they are mainly due to National Human Rights Commission’s (NHRC) intervention. The state police always try and hide such cases and the Centre has no control over states or a mechanism to deal with such cases.

The NHRC has noted that in cases of killing by police by firing, prima facie the ingredients of Section 299 of IPC are satisfied and Section 157 of CrPC is attracted calling for investigation.

The fake encounters have been seen by many upholders of law as an offshoot of a non-functional criminal judicial system. Former BSF Director General Prakash Singh, who has also headed Uttar Pradesh and Assam police, had earlier argued that criminals posed a threat to the nation’s security and got away by taking advantage of loopholes in the judicial system.

The 2006 encounter of Ramnarayan Gupta alias Lakhan Bhaiya, who was considered to be underworld don Chhota Rajan`s close aide, dealt a blow to Mumbai Police when on July 12, 2013, a sessions court awarded life sentence to 21 people, including 13 cops who had been convicted for killing Lakhan Bhaiya. Three policemen were convicted of murder and 10 for aiding and abetting the encounter on November 11, 2006. The court, however, had acquitted on July 5, 2013, Mumbai Police cop Pradeep Sharma, who has 112 encounters to his ‘credit’, in the same case.

Singh had also told DNA earlier that encounters are sanctioned as an unwritten policy approved by politicians, bureaucrats and to some extent, by society as well. “When you provide blanket sanction to execute encounters, some unjustified killings are bound to happen,” Singh claimed.

Authors of the 2013 NHRC journal, Chaman Lal and Savita Bhakhry, had also told DNA: “Fake encounters are considered an operational necessity, legally impermissible, but morally justified by most police personnel. Fake encounters are occurring with such sickening frequency that occasional reports of genuine encounters are viewed with suspicion.”

Another cop, IPS officer D G Vanzara, who is in Sabarmati Central Prison for the last seven years for fake encounters, is slated to retire on June 28 after being in service for 34 years. Vanzara, 59, was jailed after being arrested by the state CID in March 2007 for the alleged fake encounter of Sohrabuddin Sheikh. When he was arrested, Vanzara was serving as DIG of Police of Border Range. Later, he was also made the accused in fake encounters of Ishrat Jahan, Tulsiram Prajapati, Sadik Jamal and others.