[In April 2015, India got a series of brutal reminders that custodial torture, rape and murder by the country’s police and armed forces are the norm rather than the exception. In this feature, we look closely at some of these recent episodes, to make the point that police reform is indeed needed – but such reform must first and foremost mean an end to the culture of impunity, and stern accountability and action against police men who violate civil liberties and constitutionally guaranteed rights. And draconian laws like AFSPA must be scrapped, as must laws like MCOCA, the Gujarat COC Bill and so on, that are an invitation for custodial torture. – ed/]
In the Seshachalam forest in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh, near Tirupati, the Andhra Pradesh police killed 20 tribal people whom they claimed were ‘smugglers’.
The TDP-BJP Government is defending the massacre brazenly. The spree of arrests of tribal people continues unabated, and the Government has also slapped draconian cases against human rights activists who went in a fact-finding team to the massacre site.
Below, we reproduce excerpts from the submission of the Human Rights Forum, Andhra Pradesh, to the NHRC, relating to this case.
In respect of the Seshachalam killings, the highest number killed in any single “encounter” in these two States (AP and Telangana – ed/), we were pleasantly surprised by the NHRC’s direction to the Andhra Pradesh government to constitute an inquiry by a judicial first class magistrate under Section 176 (1A) of the Criminal Procedure Code. The Commission has also asked the government to submit the names of all police and forest personnel of the Special Task Force who were involved in the alleged encounter. The AP police were also cautioned against tampering with any evidence or documents and were also asked to keep all weapons used by the STF and by those killed in safe custody.
However, these directions, though timely and highly welcome, do not meet the full requirement of the law. For that to happen crimes against citizens must be fully investigated and those engaging in criminal acts must be punished by law. In the Seshachalam case, the HRF has, as it does in most cases of “encounter” killings, constituted a fact-finding team to look into the veracity of the police claim of “firing in self-defense”. Apart from a visit to the two sites, located close to Tirupati, where the bodies were found, we also met with relatives of seven of the deceased labourers in Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu.
The STF version is that before day-break on April 7, two of their combing parties of about 20 men came upon well over 100 smugglers at Satchinodibanda and Cheekateegalakona in the Seshachalam sanctuary of Chandragiri mandal, Chittoor district. The official version is that the smugglers were carrying red sanders logs and when asked to surrender they attacked the STF with sickles, stones, axes and country-made weapons. This forced the STF personnel to resort to ‘random firing’ in self-defence resulting in the death of 20 smugglers while the rest fled.
It is our considered opinion that the incident is a case of deliberate and cold-blooded murder by the STF. A perusal of the two sites where the alleged encounter took place is enough to demolish the police version. In fact, the site visit only confirms what almost everyone thought about the Seshachalam incidents: That they were plainly murders by the STF. The two sites are Sachinodibanda, where 11 labourers lost their lives and Cheekatigalakona, about a km away, where 9 labourers bodies lay. The 2 spots are about 20 km from Tirupati and close to Srivarimetta. Both sites are clearings, and more or less accessible from a kutcha and jeepable road.
At both places there was clearly no evidence of the “deadly attack” on the STF by smugglers forcing the former to resort to firing in self-defence. The bodies, from what we were able to reconstruct, were strewn across a radius of about 10 to 15 meters at both the spots. There is absolutely no evidence of any stray bullet pock marks in the area, either in the sparse shrub that dominates the landscape or the sand and clay mounds. Not a single bullet hole. This was fantastic precision shooting in the dark by the STF. Every single bullet found its mark! There was no scattered blood marks as one would except from random firing. No spatter of blood except a thick patch where the bodies lay indicating that they were shot at close range and immediately collapsed and died on the spot. According to media reports quoting a doctor who conducted the autopsy and several others who had seen the bodies, most injuries were on the upper and frontal portion of the bodies. There were also many exit wounds indicating short range firing.
There are barely any stones at Satchinodibanda. But going by the STF version, the smugglers were carrying a very heavy load and throwing deadly stones and sickles at an STF party -- armed to the teeth with automatic weapons -- which had to resort to extremely aggravated firing resulting in the death of 20 persons! The other smugglers, it was stated, managed to flee.
The bodies were not lying among the shrub or spread all over the space, as one would expect in a random encounter. They were very found lying next to each other, conveniently, in two clearings inside the forest with logs by the side. This was evidently done to create the impression of veracity. Which raises the question: Whatever happened to the other logs those who escaped were said to be carrying. Surely, they could not have managed to escape with such heavy loads? Also, most of the red sanders logs found next to the bodies had markings that indicate they were from an earlier seizure. They certainly did not have the look of logs recently felled.
The NHRC has recorded testimonies of three persons, Sekhar, Balachandran and Illangovan, who have come forward with very convincing versions about how their relatives and friends were picked up by police on April 6, the day before the alleged encounter. Their testimonies reveal that most, if not all of the 20 deceased were in detained by the police the day before. Their accounts totally demolish the police concoction of an encounter.
In all, what was evident at both the spots was that the labourers were shot at from close range in two groups of 11 and 9. This was no spontaneous shooting in self-defence but a calculated pre-meditated execution by the STF.
Also, all 20 labourers were poor and by no stretch of imagination “well-heeled smugglers” as is being made out by the police and sections of a very unethical Telugu media. While 12 of them are from various villages in Tiruvannamalai district, seven are from Dharmapuri district and one is from Salem district. HRF visited the village of Balachandran. He is resident of Arasanatham, a village amidst the Kalrayan Hill Forest in Papireddipatti panchayat of Dharmapuri district. All residents are adivasis belonging to the Malayali tribe listed as Scheduled Tribes in TN. (In fact, 13 of the 20 deceased labourers are STs, belonging to the Malayali tribe). According to them, Balachandran had gone along with his father Harikrishnan and six others from the village on April 5 for work. The next day, as they were waiting for a bus, Balachandran went to get a drink at a government liquor shop and hence missed the bus in which the others left. He was later informed by one of the labourers that the group was taken into custody and he had better go back. Balachandran then told his brother Prabhakaran that he was returning and they both contacted an advocate in Tirupati who said she would apply for bail and asked them to get the necessary identity cards etc. They were in the process of collecting them in the village and leaving for Tirupati when they learnt that the 7 were killed by the STF.
The HRF is of the view that in all such ‘encounter’ cases, following upon the very report of the police officer who has committed the killing and who thereupon goes to the local police station to give his report, a case of culpable homicide amounting to murder and other appropriate sections of the IPC has to be booked against him as well as all members of the police party, if any, that he was part of. Further, the case has to be investigated fairly and impartially by an agency as independent as possible of the perpetrators of the offence; and the final decision whether life has been taken or injury has been caused by them in permissible circumstances that would exonerate them has to be that of a competent Court and not that of the executive, namely the police themselves, much less the killer himself.
Undertrials: Over the past several years there have been widespread arrests of well over 2000 persons accused of cutting down and transporting red sanders. Needless to add, a majority of them are those from marginalised and poor sections and mostly from TN. Not many of them have managed to obtain bail. A large number of them are lodged in the Central Prisons at Kadapa and Nellore, the Chittoor District Jail and the Special Sub-Jail, Tirupati. A few are also in the Rajahmundry Central Prison. In fact, it is common knowledge that it is the labourers who are the principal targets of the State’s anti-smuggling operations while those further up the smuggling chain including very powerful persons are left untouched.
The killing of five Muslim undertrials in Alair by the Telangana police is another instance in which the police’s ‘self-defence’ story appears entirely incredible. The five youth were being taken to Court, where there was a high chance that they would be acquitted of the acts of terrorism of which they were accused. Photographs and videos show that their hands were handcuffed to the seats of the police vehicle, and guns seems to have been planted in their hands. These photographs tell a tale of open, shameless murder by the police. Below are excerpts from the submission of the Human Rights Forum, Andhra Pradesh, to the NHRC, relating to the Alair killings.
The killing of 5 persons in an escort van by the police at Kandigedda Thanda near Tangutur village on the Warangal-Nalgonda border in the limits of Alair police station (Nalgonda) needs no detailed explanation. It is a brazen liquidation of five unarmed Muslim undertrial prisoners eliminated enroute a court hearing in Hyderabad in broad daylight on a prominent National Highway in Telangana. The police story is that one of the undertrials asked the vehicle to be stopped for a toilet break. Upon getting back into the vehicle he grabbed a rifle from a policemen and fired some rounds at a sub-inspector who, however, managed to escape. Following this, the other policemen, sensing immense danger, opened fire resulting in the death of the five undertrials.
While there were strategically placed logs in the Seshachalam case, here it is an INSAS rifle planted on a person firmly chained to the bus seat! The pictures of this incident are self-evident. It is plausible that a genuine encounter could be like the one at Janakipuram under Mothkur police station in the same Nalgonda district a few days before (April 4) during which a constable died on the spot and an SI later on in hospital and the two persons with alleged terror links responsible for their deaths were also shot dead.
We believe the April 7 killings at Alair were in the nature of revenge for the death of four policemen in all during the preceding week in the same Nalgonda district. In fact, the deceased were apprehensive they would be liquidated and one of them had even petitioned the court asking to be shifted to Hyderabad as they feared they would be killed en route while being taken from Warangal.
What is striking about both these extra-judicial massacres is that the police of AP and Telangana are not even making too much of an effort to put out a plausible story to explain such a large number of dead. This is a brazenness that can only come from clear sanction from the political establishment.
Invariably, the police narrative is the same -- that the duly handcuffed person asked to answer call of nature, then proceeded to grab the gun of the escort policeman and in self-defence had to be shot! This is not the first time that the police have liquidated persons in judicial custody while being escorted to court and subsequently put out such ludicrous stories. The NHRC has itself considered complaints by the HRF in the past in respect of such killings in Kurnool and Guntur districts of Andhra Pradesh and even recommended compensation to the families of those killed. But the brazenness of the Alair killings is a first. This was a daylight murder of five undertrial prisoners on a National Highway between Hyderabad and Warangal (NH 202 from Hyderabad to Bhoopalapatnam in Chhattisgarh).
HRF does not believe that these killings are the result of some trigger happy policemen but that they are part of a calculated operation having clearance at the highest levels. The police are only as lawful or lawless as the political dispensation wants them to be. And State impunity is a matter of extreme concern. Time and again, police personnel have escaped judicial oversight for plain murder. We are a democratic, civilized nation, not a police State where those endowed with the responsibility of investigating crime and maintaining public order can merrily escape judicial scrutiny. Such staged encounters mock at the rule of law and constitute a gross violation of the right to life, a tenet enshrined in the Indian Constitution as well as international human rights law.
On 5th and 6th April 2015, Army personnel posted in Dokmoka, Karbi Anglong, Assam, raped several women and minor girls in two villages. Many other women were molested and injured.
AIPWA Vice President Comrade Pratima Engheepi met the survivors when they were brought to Diphu for treatment. Karbi Nimso Chinthur Asong (KNCA), Students and Youth Council (SYC) have been at the forefront of the massive protests in Diphu demanding justice for the rape survivors, prosecution of the accused, and scrapping of AFSPA. Thanks to AFSPA, the Assam police is yet to avoid arresting the accused Army jawans, on the pretext that AFSPA requires sanction of the Central Government for investigation and prosecution of Army personnel. Instead, the victims are being pressurized and terrorized into withdrawing their complaints.
The Justice Verma Committee had observed, “Systematic or isolated sexual violence, in the process of Internal Security duties, is being legitimised by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which is in force in large parts of our country.” The Verma Committee had recommended that the continuance of AFSPA in the law books be reviewed. The Committee had also recommended that the requirement of central government sanction for prosecution of armed forces personnel should be specifically excluded when a sexual offence is alleged.
Not only that, the Verma Committee had recommended that complainants of sexual violence in conflict areas must be afforded witness protection, so that they can give witness without fear of reprisal by the Army against their families; and special commissioners should be appointed in conflict areas to monitor and prosecute for sexual offences.
The UPA Government, rejecting the Verma Committee recommendations, had then orally claimed to women’s movement campaigners, that AFSPA in fact did not apply to rape cases, and there was no question of letting rape-accused hide behind AFSPA. But that claim was obviously a false one. Rape and molestation by Army personnel enjoys widespread impunity, and police do not arrest or prosecute rape-accused Army men. The failure to appoint special commissioners and offer witness protection further means that the victims are extremely vulnerable and fearful of giving evidence against the mighty Army that can not only rape but also kill without fear of facing any case.
Karbi Anglong is one of the hill districts of Assam, the site of an agitation demanding autonomous statehood that has lasted several decades. In Karbi Anglong, following the rape case, the Army and Ministry of Defence is seeking to distract and confuse the anti-rape agitation, claiming that the ‘rapist’ can committed suicide inside the Army camp.
The protesters in Karbi Anglong continue their agitation – they have said clearly that a suspicious ‘suicide’ inside the Army camp is not justice.
The Central Government must of course answer as to why AFSPA is not only being allowed to remain it is being extended to Arunachal Pradesh. It must also answer as to why it is yet to give sanction to the Assam police to file a rape FIR against the accused Army personnel in Karbi Anglong. Why instead is the Army being allowed to try and influence the justice process and intimidate witnesses?
But the Assam Government also cannot claim helplessness. After all, it is the State Government that has responsibility for the safety of its citizens. Why isn’t the Assam Government at least seeking permission to prosecute the rape-accused Army personnel? Why can’t the Assam Government at least order an independent judicial enquiry, instead of allowing the Army to tamper with evidence and witnesses?
Below is a first-hand account by Dr. Mongve Rongpi, who on behalf of the SYC has been one of the leading figures in the anti-rape agitation in Karbi Anglong, and who was part of a team that visited the village where the rape took place.