Bhopal Encounter Killings And Rule Of Law


The fact that the Madhya Pradesh state government has shed even the pretence of fair-trial, a cornerstone of the rule of law, has emerged as the only uncontested truth four days after the incredulous police encounter that resulted in the killing of 8 under-trial jail escapees. The circumstances of the reported jailbreak from the supposedly highest security prison in the state, and all that followed, are still fuzzy.

Police claims about the circumstances of the jailbreak are downright bizarre. Think about it for a moment: under-trials, belonging to a proscribed group – Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) – escaped after killing an armed guard with spoons and steel plates, unlocking themselves with the keys made of wood, and scaling three layers of jail walls, the last being 25 feet high, undetected, as not a single close circuit television camera installed in the jail was working. There is humour somewhere here in this story.

One cannot laugh at what followed after this reported jailbreak however. An Inspector General of Madhya Pradesh Police (IGP), in charge of the Bhopal area, claimed that the escapee under-trials, spotted on a cliff with no escape route, some 8 kilometres away from the jail, were armed with country made pistols. The Home Minister of the state, who is responsible for all law and order issues, supported the claim. Another IGP, the Chief of Anti-Terror Squad, however, claimed later that the escapee under-trials had no firearms with them at the time of the “encounter”. Cops under his command conducted the “encounter”.

The message is clear. The IGP, Bhopal, tried to justify the killings as unavoidable: blaming the slain for firing at the police parties closing in on them. The IGP (ATS) believed in no such pretense. He asserted on camera that the under-trials were unarmed and added, “so what”! “Even if the police are not being fired at, they can use such force.”

The problem is that the law of the land disallows police from using such lethal force against unarmed persons, even those accused of having committed heinous crimes. The Supreme Court of India has repeatedly criminalised use of such force against those causing no threat to the life of others and have recommended stringent sentences with death penalty for such “trigger happy” cops indulging in such extrajudicial executions; for example, in cases like Prakash Kadam & Etc. v. Ramprasad Vishwanath Gupta & Anr. (Criminal Appeal Nos.1174-1178 of 2011) and the People’s Union for Civil Liberties v. State of Maharashtra & Ors. (Criminal Appeal No. 1255 of 1999).

The Supreme Court of India has also devised a detailed guideline for police “encounters” resulting in deaths. The guidelines ask for immediate registration of a First Information Report in the deaths, the institution of a probe, and no out of turn promotion to the cops involved until the probe is over, and submission of six monthly status reports to the National Human Rights Commission. Evidently, either the IGP (ATS) is unaware of the law or is absolutely certain of the impunity the cops enjoy in the state!

The actions of Madhya Pradesh government in the wake of the encounter suggest the source of this confidence, despite the flouting of clearly established legal procedures. Forget taking punitive action against the those responsible, for allowing the killing of unarmed undertrials, as per IGP (ATS’) own admission, and in that being the case, against IGP (Bhopal) for concocting evidence, the Chief Minister of the state went on to facilitate the cops involved in the encounter. He did that on Madhya Pradesh Foundation Day, the day after the killings. He also announced a cash reward of Rs. 2 lakh each to the cops who participated in the encounter and Rs. one lakh each for those who participated in the search operation. Worse even, he asked the audience if it was not the right way to deal with the ‘terrorists’, perhaps deliberately hiding the fact that they were just undertrials, not convicts!

Of course, he later ordered for a judicial probe into the encounter, as is mandated by the Supreme Court! The fate of this probe launched after the State government already rewarding the cops involved in the extrajudicial killing of the under-trials is anyone’s guess!

Is it not high time for the Supreme Court to step in and stop the farce by taking suo moto notice and instituting a probe, monitored under its purview? If it cannot do that, it might consider exempting Madhya Pradesh from the need of enforcing the law of the land, including the rights the Constitution guarantees to the citizenry.

Samar is Programme Coordinator – Right to Food Programme Asian Legal Resource Centre / Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong

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