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Bhagalpur to Prayagraj, why India has a dangerous love-affair with police encounters

Lakhi Mahto would have seen the torturer’s toolkit descend slowly toward him: A sewing needle, a nail file, and a syringe filled with the sulphuric acid that would be pumped into his eyeballs. Arrested with eight other men on suspicion of planning a robbery, Lakhi had been beaten all night in the police station before he was hog-tied and laid out in the courtyard. Inspector Muhammad Wasimuddin tore a hole in one eye, and sub-inspector Mankeshwar Singh followed up on the other. Finally, sub-inspector Binda Prasad poured acid into the wounds.

Eighty-seven prisoners were later found to have been blinded by the Bhagalpur police in the course of what it called Operation Ganga Jal, but most managed to save one eye. Anirudh Tanti, arrested along with Lakhi that summer night in 1980, even managed to save both. The Bhagalpur resident’s wife, journalist Arthur Bonner recorded, managed to rustle up ₹150 to bribe the police, the price of emerging from the police station with his eyes.

Like they have this week, following the controversial assassination of ganglord-turned-politician Atiq Ahmed on 16 April, many ordinary people cheered. “There was no public disapproval at all,” journalists Farzand Ahmad and Dilip Bobb reported from Bhagalpur. Then Bihar Chief Minister Jagannath Mishra noted that angry mobs had helped police gouge out the eyes of suspected criminals. After all, following the 2022 extra-judicial execution of suspects in a Telangana rape-murder case, residents showered rose petals on accused police officers.

The love affair with the encounter tells an important story about the country. Large parts of India exist in a state of endemic lawlessness, where the power of elites is experienced through the medium of terror. Lacking meaningful access to protection from the criminal justice system, the spectacle of the extra-judicial killing offers many in India the consolation of something lesser: A thing called retribution.

Also read: Gang lords like Atiq eliminated regularly in UP—It only cements ‘long-live’ mafia tradition

The story of the encounter

From the 19th century, colonial authorities began battling criminal bands allied with local feudal rulers, who had used them to collect revenues and dispense justice. The growing territorial power of the East India Company, historian Mark Brown has noted, brought it “into direct competition with these semi-nomadic bands of trader-plunderers.” The Thagi and Dakaiti Department—set up in 1830 and the kernel from which the modern Intelligence Bureau was born— used brutal force to assert imperial authority

The cash-strapped post-Independence State found itself facing much the same problem.  In a 1953 report, the Intelligence Bureau lamented that the rural police, the backbone of the criminal justice system, had “disappeared” as an effective force. “The old fear which the police used to inspire amongst criminals has largely dissipated,” it went on.

Former Punjab Chief Minister Pratap Singh Kairon was not exceptional in being reputed to patronise dacoit gangs to maintain his power. On one occasion, prosecuting police officers shot dead a group of criminals alleged to have been responsible for the murder of three children. Large parts of rural Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh were, for all practical purposes, ruled by local landed elites through criminal groups.

Led by KF Rustamji, the Inspector-General of Police in Madhya Pradesh, the state began reasserting its authority in the 1960s. Large-scale massacres, often enmeshed with regional caste tensions, threatened to set the nation-State on fire. Law enforcement efforts, though, relied on a simple tool. “Since there is little hope of getting admissible courtroom evidence against a captured dacoit,” the scholar George Floris dryly noted in 1962, “the police are believed to be disinclined to seize and prosecute live prisoners.”

Following a series of brutal executions of landlords in West Bengal by Maoists, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi again ordered the use of terror. Kashipur and Baranagar in Kolkata have reportedly seen massacres where young men were dragged out of their homes and shot in cold blood.

The same story played out in Maharashtra. From the alleged extrajudicial killing of gangster Manya Surve in 1982, several hundred men with links to crime syndicates were shot dead. “The encounter policy was not only not questioned at the time,” journalist Debashish Panigrahi wrote, “it was warmly welcomed as a necessary step in breaking the back of the underworld.” Every police department worth its salt needs its hit-men, former police officer Maxwell Pereira candidly recorded.

Few of these cases ever ended in the criminal prosecution of police officers. Arjun Goswami, the first prisoner to complain of being blinded by the Bhagalpur police, was denied legal representation by a sessions judge. Fifteen officers were suspended for their role in the blindings after the intervention of the Supreme Court—but only three were convicted.

A senior police officer involved in the extra-judicial killing of a criminal told the anthropologist Beatrice Jauregui: “The people in the towns and villages he had been terrorising were so happy! They threw marigolds on me and put me on their shoulders and carried me around. They queued up by the thousands at the station to thank me for doing what the courts could not.”

These realities influenced the counter-insurgency campaigns of the 1980s. Late in the summer of 1987, Rajinder Singh, and 11 other members of his family, were shot dead by pro-Khalistan terrorists. Fearing for his own life, the sole survivor, Joginder Singh, refused to identify the perpetrators in court, even though he had lost every single member of his family. Lawyer KTS Tulsi, who prosecuted the case, later wrote that the police “challenged the evil in the open fields in a rain of bullets but stood crestfallen on the doorsteps of Indian courts.”

Farooq Ahmad Dar, known on the streets of Srinagar as Bitta Karate, lived a happy and quiet life in Srinagar after bragging that he executed Kashmiri Pandits; hundreds of people showed up at his wedding in 2011.

The dilemmas presented by counter-terrorism were starkly illustrated by the extra-judicial execution of alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists Ishrat Jehan Raza and Pranesh Pillai in 2004. The incident was driven by a complex series of operational decisions, including concerns for the safety of intelligence sources. The decision to kill was sanctioned at the highest levels of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

Following each exposure of extra-judicial killings, there has been moral and judicial outrage but little genuine introspection or accountability. Following the prosecution of decorated Punjab Police officers in 1996, ThePrint editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta asked this question: “It is perfectly valid to question the methods used by the security forces, but isn’t it more important to ask who is ordering them to do so?”

Also read: Who benefits from the killing of Atiq? Upcoming dons, politicians

India’s criminal justice crisis

Liberal norms and laws were not designed for polities where savage violence burns down the processes of criminal justice: The collapse of State institutions is among the first features of all true crises of violence. The philosophers Mirko Bagaric and Julie Clarke, among others, have argued that torture and extra-judicial killings are justified to protect the State from collapse. Experts like Ian Turner disagree, arguing that extra-judicial murder and torture corrupt the foundations of liberal States.

The problem in India is a more complex one: exceptions that might be justified in the small wars of Punjab or Kashmir have become embedded as part of the normal fabric of policing. The emergency has become the everyday,

Evidence shows that extra-judicial killing doesn’t solve the underlying crisis of violence. For all the ‘Thok Do’ aggression of policing in UP, gun-related offences have gone up steadily over recent years, as Nikhil Rampal revealed in ThePrint. And even where extra-judicial killing has restored order, it has corrupted police forces and hollowed-out criminal justice institutions, imposing severe long-term costs on the economy.

The answer lies in giving India’s chronically understaffed and under-resourced criminal justice system the personnel, training and technology they need. The state and central governments are instead conspiring – as available data suggests – to degrade whatever little remains of police institutions. The question is: will a criminalised political class ever build modern policing institutions that would, after all, contribute to their own undoing?

The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

Source: The Print

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