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Home > Human Rights > Delhi ’encounter’ raises tough questions

Delhi ’encounter’ raises tough questions

by Praful Bidwai, 27 September 2008

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The News International, September 27, 2008

India is witnessing an increase in the incidence of both anti-minority violence and terrorism. Christians are under attack in Orissa, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and now even Kerala, long held up as a model of pluralism. Leading the attacks are Hindu-extremist groups like the Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Shiv Sena, which don’t bother to disguise their identity.

The Indian state has failed to protect Christians and punish their tormentors. The Orissa and Karnataka police seem to have bought the myth that most Christians are victims of unscrupulous proselytisers and must be helped to "re-convert" to Hinduism, although that may not have been their religion in the first place. Worse, the police seem to have fallen for the ludicrous idea that the church in India is primarily devoted to religious conversion, when official records show education to be its most important activity.

The response of India’s political leadership to the communal violence has been appallingly inadequate. It has failed to reassure the religious minorities that the state is committed to protecting their rights as citizens. The state acts as if it wanted to shield majoritarian groups.

In parallel with this, and reinforcing it, is the state’s attitude to terrorism violence. Under the influence of people like National Security Adviser MK Narayanan and myopic intelligence agency chiefs, the state has come to view terrorism largely through a religious-communal prism. This was earlier linked to Pakistani secret agencies’ plans to foment trouble in India. Although the Pakistan angle has receded into the background, the state’s anti-terrorism strategy remains strongly Islamophobic. State agencies virulently malign and harass Muslims.

The term "terrorism" is never used in respect of Hindu-extremists like the Bajrang Dal, VHP or the Shiv Sena despite their self-confessed killing of hundreds of innocent non-Hindu citizens. Hindu extremists have been repeatedly found making/planting bombs in Nanded in Maharashtra, Tenkasi in Tamil Nadu, and Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh.

Typically, the instinctive, knee-jerk presumption of the authorities in respect of a terrorist attack is that it must be the work of Muslims. The police round up and interrogate Muslims, especially young Muslims, and detain them for long periods—in total violation of guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court, which stipulate that a person being arrested must be told the reasons, his or her close relations must be immediately informed, and he/she be produced before a magistrate within 24 hours.

As the Indian government comes in for increasingly neurotic and hysterical attacks by the Bharatiya Janata Party for its "weak-kneed" attitude towards terrorism, it’s tempted to display machismo by taking ever-stronger measures against Muslims—to the point of staging fake "encounters" in which suspects are simply bumped off by the police.

Many states have set up anti-terrorist Special Cells, with dozens of "encounter specialists", each with a licence to kill and huge sums of money to obtain "sensitive" information.

The BJP’s shrill demand for tough anti-terrorist action has reached a crescendo. The government’s reactive, but irrational, response has been to arbitrarily arrest hundreds of Muslims without warrant, interrogate them by using third-degree methods, and extract false self-incriminating confessions. This has created a climate of intimidation, insecurity and terror.

This is starkly evident in Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, and now, Delhi and even villages in UP’s much-maligned Azamgarh district..

Take the alleged September 19 "encounter" in the Batla House area in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar, in which two terrorists, Atif Ameen and Mohammed Sajid, were killed, one more was arrested, and two escaped. The Delhi police say Atif was the top leader of Indian Mujaheedin, which has been behind all the major recent terrorist bombings. The Mumbai police contradict this and say the "mastermind" is Mohammad Sadiq Shaikh.

This "encounter" occurred less than a week after Delhi’s multiple bomb blasts. It conforms to a familiar pattern like the Ansal Plaza and other encounters figuring Rajbir Singh, who became notorious for corruption and extortion, and was gorily killed, probably by a colleague. The Batla House story would have provoked a sceptical public response but for the fact that Special Cell Inspector Mohan Chand Sharma was also killed.

However, the Delhi police version is inconsistent. It claims Atif was the mastermind behind the recent bomb attacks in Varanasi, Jaipur and Ahmedabad. But the police in the concerned states name other individuals: respectively, Waliullah, Shahbaz Hussain, and Abu Bashar and Abdul Subhan Qureshi alias Tauqeer, recently publicised as the "IM mastermind".

The Delhi police say that Atif led a shadowy existence and recently stashed away Rs3 crores in an Azamgarh bank. But media inquiries with the bank say his account had Rs1,400.

Atif recently rented an apartment in Batla House. He registered the deed and got it verified and duly stamped by the police. It stretches credulity that a "terrorist mastermind" would practise such openness and transparency—especially because the police had been stalking and observing the area for a week before the incident. The police accuse Atif’s associate, Saquib Nissar, of having planted bombs in Ahmedabad on July 26. But records show that Saquib took an MBA examination in Delhi from July 22 to 28.

According to an eyewitness account of the "encounter", there was an altercation when the police entered the 4th floor apartment where Atif and Sajid lived. They dragged the two unarmed men down to the ground, where several heavily armed Special Cell policemen, including Sharma, were present. They severely beat up the two after cordoning off the area. In the ensuing resistance and scuffle, a policeman’s gun went off and three bullets hit Sharma in the back and exited his body from the side/front..

After this, the police apparently went berserk and fired at Atif and Sajid from a point-blank range. A picture of Sajid just before he was buried shows one large bullet wound each in the shoulder and chest, and at least four bullet holes in the front portion of the skull. Even one bullet in the head would have proved fatal. But the assailant pumped more, presumably out of vengeance.

The post-mortem reports on the three dead men, obtained by a private TV channel, disprove the police claim that Sharma was killed in frontal firing by Atif and/or Sajid as he entered their apartment. Newspaper pictures showed that the front of Sharma’s white shirt wasn’t bloodstained. Atif and Sajid’s autopsy reports show severe internal bleeding from beatings. The police claim that two terrorists escaped. But given the layout, with just one narrow entry/exit point, nobody could have escaped.

Even assuming that Atif and Sajid were terrorists, there’s no reason why they couldn’t have been cajoled or smoked out of the apartment, properly interrogated, tried and punished. All this calls for a ruthlessly independent judicial inquiry.

It’s a matter of shame that India’s anti-terrorist police cells haven’t managed to rise above the suspicion that they prefer brutal and even barbaric methods over due process of law. Unless their anti-terrorist strategies and operations undergo radical reform, the minorities whom they selectively target will never feel secure or part of the national community as full citizens.

And that’s the last thing India can afford if it is to have a modicum of social cohesion, and respect for human rights and the rule of law.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: prafulbidwai1 at yahoo.co.in