Fake encounter

Published : May 18, 2007 00:00 IST

Sohrabuddin Sheikh, who was killed in the fake encounter, and his wife Kauser Bi, who was murdered later.-

Sohrabuddin Sheikh, who was killed in the fake encounter, and his wife Kauser Bi, who was murdered later.-

Top police officers are in the dock over a death in an "encounter" that the Gujarat government now admits was faked.

ON a dark, dusty highway near Belgaum in Karnataka, a tourist bus cruised over the bumps and passengers were hurtled in and out of sleep until the bus suddenly braked in the middle of nowhere. A jeep overtook the bus and forced it to stop. Two men pulled open the door and forced their way in. They claimed to be policemen and started searching the bus.

Three more men stormed in with revolvers and identified their target. They dragged Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife Kauser Bi and Tulsiram Prajapati off the bus. Three days later, on November 26, 2005, Sohrabuddin was killed in a "police encounter". Kauser Bi has been `missing' since then. One year later, Prajapati was killed in an encounter. They said he was extorting money from a marble merchant.

Gujarat's Anti-Terrorist Squad headed by D.G. Vanjara was triumphant. It was the work of "deshbhakts" (patriots), he told the press. They had killed yet another "terrorist" with "links to the Lashkar-e-Toiba [LeT] and the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence]". Another plot to kill Chief Minister Narendra Modi had been foiled.

It seemed like a glorious ending, but for one little detail - "terrorists" have families. Sohrabuddin's brother Rubabuddin wrote to the Supreme Court asking for the "missing body" of Kauser Bi. The court asked the State and Central governments for explanations. The Gujarat police started an inquiry by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), headed by Geetha Johri. She filed her interim report in December 2006 and with it the Gujarat government's credibility crumbled. It admitted to the Supreme Court that the encounters were fake.

The State Home Ministry tried hard to scuttle Johri's investigation when it became clear that it would be hard to conceal the State's involvement in the killings. Eventually, it removed Johri from the case. But the evidence was damning. Her successor, Rajneesh Rai, unearthed more tales of reckless killings, phony investigations and zero accountability.

Finally, on April 24, 2007, the law caught up with the killers. Three police officers who carried out the encounter - D.G. Vanjara (Deputy Inspector-General of Police, Border Range, Gujarat), Rajkumar Pandian (Superintendent of Police, Intelligence Bureau, Gujarat) and Dinesh Kumar (Superintendent of Police, Alwar, Rajasthan) - were arrested and charged with murder. Soon after Vanjara's fall from grace, the Gujarat police admitted to the Supreme Court that the encounter team killed Kauser Bi.

Sohrabuddin Sheikh lived in Ujjain in Rajasthan. He had a criminal record - extortion, murder and kidnapping, but no known terrorist links. Prajapati was his associate, who turned on him and tipped off Vanjara's team that fateful night. Gujarat Congress leader Arjun Modhvadia alleges that a few industrialists in Ujjain from whom Sohrabuddin extorted money asked their politician friends to help eliminate him. No evidence of this has been made public yet.

"It's true that Sheikh was a small-time crook, but not a bigger criminal than the police officers who murdered him and his wife," says Mukul Sinha, human rights lawyer from the Jan Sangharsh Manch.

This is not the first time that the Gujarat police's gory human rights record has been exposed. The controversial killing of Ishrat Jahan from Mumbra in Mumbai and Sameer Khan Pathan - both allegedly terrorists who wanted to kill Modi - were also suspected to be fake encounters. In all, Vanjara oversaw nine encounters in which 15 people were killed.

A public interest petition in the Supreme Court, filed by veteran journalist B.G. Verghese, has asked for an inquiry into 21 encounter deaths between 2003 and 2006. It points to several irregularities in the police's story. "In none of the cases is there any reference to a post-mortem report," says the petition. And not one of them was produced before a magistrate after being arrested.

"No encounter can take place without the consent of the Chief Minister and the Home Minister. We want a CBI inquiry into these killings. Why has the government tried to thwart the investigations by Johri? What are they afraid of?" asked Arjun Modhvadia, Leader of the Opposition in the Gujarat Assembly. The Gujarat Congress has demanded that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) investigate the role of the Chief Minister and the Home Minister, Amit Shah, in the killings.

"There is an encounter in Gujarat every two months. The police's explanation for all of them is the same - LeT terrorist, ISI links, Dawood associates who have come to Gujarat to kill Modi," Modhvadia said. "This is done to create insecurity amongst people, garner public sympathy and project Modi as a hero against terrorism."

"Those who are saying it was politically motivated are themselves politically motivated. I will only resign if my party or Chief Minister asks me to," said Amit Shah. "You should direct all questions to the police chief. Criminal investigations are not in the hands of politicians. I never interfered in Johri's inquiry. Hers was a preliminary report. After that, the task was given to a special investigation team. This is the normal administrative procedure." Asked whether an inquiry would be launched into the other encounter killings, he said, "If we get any complaints, we will investigate them."

"Now it is an undisputed fact that in many of the alleged `encounters' the victims are already in the illegal custody of the police and they are tortured to sign various documents against them while they are illegally confined," says Rohit Prajapati, an activist with the People's Union of Civil Liberties, Vadodara. "While claiming to counter `terrorism' the state is becoming a grossly powerful terrorist itself through self-empowerment of indiscriminate authority. These encounters should be considered state terrorism."

The encounters are only one indicator of the Gujarat police's atrocities. The State is second only to Andhra Pradesh in the number of custodial deaths, according to the National Crime Records Bureau 2005.

The true nature of the criminal justice system in Gujarat was exposed during and after the communal pogrom in 2002 when police looked away and told those pleading for help, "We have no orders to save you." They refused to file complaints, and arrested eyewitnesses instead. The cops hid the bodies of "missing" people in mass graves in order to conceal evidence.

Half of the 4,252 communal violence cases were closed as "true but undetected". The Supreme Court later ordered that these cases should be reviewed. The police have reopened 1,958 cases, filed 15 new cases and arrested more than 800 accused.

The father of Haren Pandya, BJP leader and Modi opponent, who was shot dead in September 2003, does not trust the Gujarat police's investigation into his son's death. He too has been demanding a CBI inquiry.

Soon after the Godhra massacre and Haren Pandya's assassination, several people were falsely arrested as "terrorists" and denied bail. The Gujarat police have been heading down a dark road. If one were to search, many more skeletons may emerge.

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