Bhopal "encounter"

Hollow claims

Print edition : November 25, 2016

At the funeral of Mujeeb Sheikh, one of the eight SIMI members who were killed, in Ahmedabad on November 2. Photo: PTI

The Central Jail in Bhopal. Photo: AFP

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan felicitates police officers and STF personnel who played a key role in the "encounter", on November 1. Photo: PTI

The official narrative around the “encounter killing” of eight SIMI members in Bhopal throws up more questions than answers and the State’s credibility has taken a beating because of its claims and conflicting statements.

THE writing on the wall is unmistakable and, considering the current political climate, may even appear to be radical. In large and bold black letters, written on the dull yellow background of the compound wall that runs adjacent to one of the two entrance gates, the following quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi welcomes visitors at the Central Jail in Bhopal: Apradh se ghrina karo, apradhi se nahi (Hate crime, not criminals).

For an establishment that exhibits such an enlightened perspective on crime at its gate, it may seem ironical that its internal premises became the starting point for a bloody and mysterious sequence of events that concluded with the killing of eight undertrials and one security official in the early hours of October 31.The broad contours of the official narrative about the purported jailbreak and encounter are by now well known. Eight undertrials and alleged members of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) facing serious terror charges opened the locks of their cells using keys carved out of utensils and toothbrushes, killed on-duty Head Constable Ramashankar Yadav and tied his colleague Chandan Ahirwar in a cell after coming out; scaled at least two high walls within the jail premises using bedsheets and then escaped through an open gate of the jail compound around 3 a.m. By 11 a.m., the undertrials were dead on a stone hill surrounded by farmland approximately 10 kilometres away in rural Bhopal after security forces located and gunned them down, with help from local villagers.

However, when Frontline closely scrutinised the claims made by security and prison officials about the purported escape from jail as well as the “encounter”, it was obvious that the official narrative throws up more questions than answers. It also became clear that several claims made by jail and police officials appear too hard to believe given the boast made by the prison administration about the international standards being followed by them. Painted in yellow and black on its main entrance door are the certifications granted by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) to the Bhopal Central Jail. Before the incident, it was assumed in security circles that the jail was the most secure in the State. However, the prison and police officials’ own claims about how the undertrials escaped raise questions about the prison management and the many hard-to-fathom coincidences in the fateful pre-dawn hours of October 31.

Some Ministers and a few Jail Department officials have been offering versions of how the purported jailbreak occurred. Frontline spoke with a senior jail administration official who said he visited the spot after the incident, a top police official involved in the post-jailbreak response of the security forces, and Home Minister Bhoopendra Singh Thakur to piece together this narrative.

The jail administration official described the sequence of the jailbreak thus: “They opened the gates [of their cells] themselves, they had the keys. Duplicate keys made out of wood and toothbrush. From there, they caught hold of the guy [Chandan Ahirwar], gagged him and put him in the room; killed one guy [Head Constable Ramashankar Yadav], climbed one wall, a second wall and at the third wall, they had a ladder made out of bedsheets. They climbed the wall on the ladder and escaped.”

When asked about the CCTVs (closed-circuit televisions) installed in the jail, he said they, which were installed outside their cells “at a safe distance” and on the walls they climbed, were “not working”. Two of the three walls are eight feet each in height while the third is about 26 feet high; some officials have estimated the taller wall to be 30 feet.

The Home Minister told Frontline that no watchtower, guard or CCTV camera could have spotted the escaping prisoners. “The area they had selected had no watchtower and didn’t have CCTV camera either. This is near the boundary of the outer side,” he said.

However, a visit to the jail’s outer boundary by this correspondent showed that the gate from which they escaped was not beyond the reach of the guards. Also, it is unlikely that the watchtowers within the premises of the jail complex would have missed it while the undertrials were scaling up the walls.

On his part, the Minister said there were no CCTVs outside but only in the cells of the undertrials, in contrast with what the jail official said. The lawyer of the undertrials, Parvez Alam, questioned this description of the events. “Climbing the wall of 30 feet is impossible. Assuming it was done, why will they break the gate of the smaller wall? Their claims are simply not believable. It was a cold-blooded murder. They [the undertrials] were all packed by the Anti-Terrorism Squad [ATS] in a vehicle and taken to the spot and killed. They have been given capital punishment before trial,” Alam said. Many questions have also been raised about the reduced staff deployment in the cells and the possibility of inside help to facilitate the “escape” of the prisoners. “We believe there was inside help from the jail administration staff to the prisoners,” the jail administration official quoted earlier said. A battle of claims and counterclaims continues to be made in the sequence of events surrounding the so-called encounter.

Acres of farmland stretch into the distance from the main road that leads to the Khijradev, Manikheda and Acharpura villages, which are the closest to the hill that was the site where the security forces claim to have engaged the eight “dreaded SIMI terrorists” in an “encounter”. No one here denies any knowledge about the events of that morning, especially when visiting journalists from Bhopal ask about it. The sarpanch of Khijradev village, Mohan Kumar Meena, was apparently the earliest among local residents to alert the police about the presence of the eight alleged terrorists in his village.

The Rashomon effect

“I received a call around 7 a.m. from the police alerting me about the escape of terrorists from the Bhopal jail. So we were all on alert. When I saw one of the terrorists initially in the river which runs through our village, I did not realise it was him, but steadily I saw the other seven gathering near him and realised it could be them. At 9:15 a.m., I informed the local thana in-charge. Around 10 a.m. the encounter began and they were dead in around half an hour or so. There was firing from both sides,” Meena said. When asked about the purported videos of the event and the possibility of the encounter being a staged killing, the sarpanch said he did not know about either, but added that he was not behind the videos and that some local youth who were there at the time of the encounter might have recorded it.

The sarpanch’s claims mirror those made by the State police officials. The senior police official quoted earlier said that after receiving an initial alert about the “jailbreak” at 3:45-4 a.m., four companies comprising the Special Task Force (STF), the Counter-Terrorist Group (CTG), the ATS and Bhopal police were deployed in the villages where local residents were alerted about what had happened at the jail. Together they comprised more than 300 security officials. However, the senior official also contradicted the sarpanch’s claim about the first time when villagers alerted them to the alleged terrorists’ presence. “Between 10-10:30 we received our first alert and a second one at around 11 about the location of the SIMI terrorists,” he said. When asked about Meena’s claim about having made the first call at 9:15 a.m., the police official claimed he was not aware of it.

Other villagers contradicted the Khijradev sarpanch’s claims. Kamlesh Meena and Shyam Singh from the neighbouring Acharpura village differed on one critical detail. Both said there was firing only from the police’s side. This important contradiction in claims of local villagers was reflected even at the level of the top security officials deeply involved in the entire “operation”.

A few days after the deaths, as three leaked videos —whose authenticity the government did not deny—showed the security forces firing at the undertrials shouting from atop the hill or lying injured but still alive without any weapons, ATS chief Sanjeev Shami told NDTV that the security forces were not fired at as the alleged SIMI terrorists did not have any weapons when they were killed. The use of force was still as per law, he emphasised. This statement was in direct contradiction with the claim made by Inspector General of Bhopal Police Yogesh Choudhary who said in the government’s first official announcement of the incident at a press conference on Monday afternoon that the forces killed the eight alleged SIMI terrorists in “retaliatory fire” and that two country-made pistols and knives were found on them.

On why contradictory statements came from the government, Bhoopendra Singh Thakur denied that was the case. However, he seemed to concede that some statements may have been made without adequate awareness. “ Dekhiye kya hai ki mauke pe toh koi tha nahi. Toh jisko jitni jaankari hai woh batata hai. Mauke pe toh koi tha nahi…jitni jaankari adhikariyon se milti hai utna fir political log, sarkar ke log brief kar paate hain. Toh usmain agar neeche se koi cheez aati hai toh woh brief hoti hai,” he said. (Nobody was there at the spot, so whoever got whatever information conveyed it. Since nobody (Ministers of senior bureaucrats) was there at the spot, with the information received from the officials, the political leadership or the government briefed [the media] accordingly. If any information comes from the lower rungs, then briefing is done.)

These conflicting versions and the surfacing of video and audio clips have contributed to the lack of credibility in the government’s claims. Thakur said two inquiries set up by the government for looking at the jailbreak and encounter separately will provide the full facts of the incident. However, a few hours after the Home Minister spoke with this correspondent, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan passed an order that said Justice S.K. Pande, a retired High Court, would conduct an inquiry into the entire incident, from jailbreak to the encounter. He had earlier said there was no need to probe the encounter and then stated that the intention was to get a probe done by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). Later, he said a Special Investigation Team (SIT) comprising mostly State police officers would conduct the inquiry. Then he mentioned a further probe by former Director General of Police Nandan Dubey. These were in addition to two other inquiries by the Sub Divisional Magistrate and the State Human Rights Commission.

Political mudslinging

Apart from the inconsistency of versions, the Chouhan government has been inconsistent on whether to probe the incident and later on who would conduct it. When the Home Minister was asked about this before the order of the probe under the retired judge came through, he said that a decision was taken by the Director General of Police to set up the SIT and that the Chief Minister had only explored the idea of a probe by the NIA but not made a decision. Some of the recent statements from Chouhan in the aftermath of the incident have been strikingly unexpected. For a man who was often found wearing white skullcaps and hugging Muslims in pictures splashed across the media in the 2013-14 election season, they marked a sharp U-turn in political rhetoric. This year, in the fallout of the purported encounters and in the context of the Lok Sabha byelection, Chouhan responded to Congress leader Digvijaya Singh soon after meeting the grieving family of the deceased jail constable Ramashankar Yadav with television cameras hovering around him. (Digvijaya had wondered why only Muslim inmates of jails ended up escaping.)

“It would have been good if they had said two words about the martyrdom of Ramashankar Yadav. But they are indulging in vote-bank politics. I condemn this politics,” Chouhan said.

At an election rally in Anuppur, playing on the Congress slogan, Chouhan declared: “ Congress ka haath aatankiyon ke saath” (Congress’s support is for the terrorists). Elsewhere, while talking about the need for fast-track courts to get suspected terrorists convicted, he rued that terrorists stayed in jail for long as undertrials and ate chicken biryani at state expense for years.

State political circles are abuzz with talk that Chouhan will stay with his “new” aggressive stance because he is under pressure from the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, which is seen as asserting itself in the State like never before. Like most political talk, this is hard to establish and may just be a matter of perception. Even so, a Chief Minister undergoing a shift in perception from being chiefly “pro-poor” and “welfarist” and trying to attract investments and industry to being “strong on terror” and aggressively “nationalist” in the Sangh scheme of things is itself an indicator of just how sharply the political climate has altered in Madhya Pradesh.

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