Say a Firm and Loud NO to 'Encounter Raj'

IN Gujarat, Narendra Modi had consolidated his rule first by giving a free hand to the Sangh brigade to carry out the infamous Gujarat genocide and then by manipulating the state machinery to engineer a string of extra-judicial killings. And to legitimize this total subversion of the tenets of rule of law he used to invoke the tested and trusted rhetoric of aggressive provincial chauvinism (Gujarat Gaurav) and anti-Pakistan jingoism (his election speeches often used to target Miyan Musharraf). Halfway through his first term Modi seems to be repeating the same trusted tactic on a countrywide scale. The Gujarat model is now truly being sought to be replicated aggressively across the country.

Let us take the case of the Bhopal encounter. On 31st October we all woke up to the news of a daring jailbreak by 8 undertrial prisoners belonging to the SIMI from the high security Bhopal central jail. We were told that the prisoners had made good their escape by slitting the throat of constable Ramashankar Yadav. Within a few hours television channels broke the news of all those eight undertrials having been killed by the MP Police in an 'encounter'. While for large sections of the media the encounter became a cause for celebration of a 'quick and smart retribution' by the police forces, it soon became clear that the versions put out by different responsible sources were simply not adding up to any coherent narrative, the holes were just too many, and too glaring and gaping at that.

The MP jail minister accepts her responsibility for lapses in jail security and says CCTVs were not working which means there would be no footage to back the jail escape narrative. The home minister has gone on record that the undertrials were unarmed, a fact which is clearly substantiated by the various video clippings of the encounter that have surfaced so far. The IG however claims that the undertrials had sharp weapons with which they attacked the police. The sarpanch of the local panchayat where the encounter took place said the undertrials only pelted stones at the police. Even otherwise, the presumptions of eight undertrials breaking the jail with the help of sheer plastic spoons and wooden keys and then leisurely embarking on a collective trip to acquire fresh clothes and climb up a hillock from where they would be visible to all have the makings of a crude Bollywood thriller that thrives on the credulity of a lazy and captive audience.

The fact that the Vyapam-tainted Shivraj Singh Chauhan establishment of Madhya Pradesh did not even bother to put out a slightly more coherent and credible narrative of the entire episode shows the level of brazenness of the rulers in the Modi era. They know they can always rely on the services of a pliant and complicit media and the aggressive rhetoric of hyper-nationalism of the thuggish Sangh's brigade to adamantly insist on their otherwise loophole-ridden story. Already two central ministers have jumped in to justify the encounter. Union Minister of State in the PMO, Mr. Jitendra Singh has called the Bhopal encounter a morale-booster for the nation. And Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Mr. Kiren Rijiju has asked Indians to stop the habit of doubting and questioning the authorities and instead trust the police version of the story.

Bhopal is however no aberration, it only defines the new 'normal' in matters of 'law and order', it is the Modi model of 'minimum government, maximum governance' at work. Just a week before Bhopal we had Malkangiri where a squad from the 'greyhound' force of Andhra Pradesh stormed a Maoist conclave in an Odisha jungle to kill reportedly three-dozen-odd Maoist leaders and activists and local villagers (nearly half of those killed being Adivasis). If the Maoists were all armed and the killings happened as a result of a genuine armed encounter, the police would have also had to sustain major casualties, the report of which is conspicuously missing from the Malkangiri narrative. The NHRC and the Supreme Court have laid down clear judicial and administrative guidelines to deal with encounters claimed by the state, but in the cases of both Bhopal and Malkangiri, the powers that be are contemptuously ignoring the NHRC/Supreme Court mandate. Encounters aside, we can also see an alarming rise in the incidence of killing of unarmed people in unprovoked police firing, not only in 'disturbed' border states of Kashmir and the North-East, but also in a state like Jharkhand where at least seven peasants, workers and students have been killed in three incidents - Gola, Barkagaon and Khunti - in less than last two months.

Following the much discussed post-Uri 'surgical strike', banners were seen across poll-bound Uttar Pradesh lauding the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister and issuing a brazen warning: 'We will kill you and kill you for sure but with our gun, our bullet, at our time of convenience but at your place.' It now clearly turns out that the 'you in your place' need not be some unknown people in unknown locations beyond our borders, but could be any of us Indians in any of our places if the rulers so desired. If we raise any question we will be charged with insulting the army or lowering the morale of the police. There has never been a clearer trend of politicisation of the army and militarisation of politics, and but for the period leading up to and during the infamous Emergency, India as a country has never appeared closer to the chilling reality of a police state.

It took India a determined popular resistance to rescue parliamentary democracy from the eclipse of Emergency and win back a modicum of press freedom and civil liberties. Today Modi and Bhagwat and their men want us to give up this 'habit of democracy' and accept a police state and all-pervasive fascist thuggery as the new normal and celebrate it as 'national glory' in the era of 'Achchhe Din.' Democratic India cannot accept this autocratic order. The challenge of waging a determined defence of democracy has to be upheld here and now. Even as we mourn the loss of lives suffered by the Army or paramilitary or police forces, we must insist unfailingly on truth and justice. The truth of Bhopal and Malkangiri must be brought to the fore through Supreme Court monitored judicial investigation. Justice cannot be allowed to be hijacked by the police and the media cannot be reduced to the Public Relations agency of the government or propaganda instrument for the RSS agenda.

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