Human rights

Norms to the wind

Print edition : May 15, 2015

The police holding talks with the residents of Vettagiripalayam in Tiruvannamalai on April 9 after they refused to cremate the bodies of those who died in the police action. Photo: C. Venkatachalapathy

Sekar, who has provided statements countering the Andhra Pradesh police's claim, at a press meet in Vellore on April 15. Photo: C. Venkatachalapathy

The National Human Rights Commission makes a forceful intervention in the Seshachalam “encounter” deaths.

IN March 1997, the National Human Rights Commission, responding to complaints filed by the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC) on human rights abuses by the Andhra Pradesh Police, framed a set of guidelines for the police to be followed in cases of death in “encounters”. Nearly two decades later, it seems little has come of these guidelines.

On the night of April 6, a joint operation carried out by the Special Task Force (STF) of the Andhra Pradesh Police led to the killing of 20 men allegedly involved in smuggling red sanders wood in the Seshachalam forest in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh. While the State government has been strident in its defence of the police action, the nature of the “encounter” has raised serious questions about the legitimacy of STF’s claim that the “encounter” was carried out in self-defence after the “smugglers” attacked them with stones and sickles. Also, the accounts of three witnesses who were allegedly picked up by the police and who escaped the encounter by a stroke of luck have cast serious doubts on the claims made by the police.

People’s Watch, a human rights organisation based in Madurai, filed a complaint with the NHRC on the basis of a fact-finding mission on the Seshachalam incident. Its team visited the scene of the alleged encounter, the police stations nearby, hospitals and post-mortem centres and also the villages of those killed in the encounter. They met three survivors—Sekar, Balachandran and Ilangovan—who were witness to the STF rounding up some of those killed in the encounter. The NHRC recorded the statements of these men on April 13. Sekar and Balachandran were accompanied to Delhi by Henri Tiphagne of People’s Watch and the human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover.

The statements of the survivors point to judicial killing by the police. Sekar, a 54-year-old daily wage labourer, said in his statement to the NHRC that a day before the incident, he, his neighbour Mahendran, and two other men, Murthy and Munusamy, were travelling on a bus from his village, Kollamedu, to Tiruvannamalai after he heard about a construction job opportunity there. At about 2-30 p.m., after the bus crossed Arcot, a man entered the bus and pulled Mahendran out. Sekar was too shocked to react. After a while he turned back from where he was sitting to find that Murthy and Munusamy were also missing. Sekar got off at the next bus stop and walked back to his village. The next morning, some policemen came to Sekar’s village and informed the residents that Mahendran had been killed in an encounter. He later learnt that Murthy and Munusamy were among the 20 persons killed by the police.

The second survivor, Balachandran, a 29-year-old wage labourer, was on his way to Puducherry in search of a job. He, along with eight men, including his father Harikrishnan, reached Alangayam on the night of April 5. An agent named Palani arranged for their overnight stay in a house at Nambiyampattu village further along the way. The next morning, while waiting for a bus to Arcot, Balachandran and one of the men went to the local government liquor shop to have a drink. When they returned to the bus stand, the others were missing. When Balachandran’s partner called up the agent, he asked them to come to Nagariputhur late in the night. However, later the agent asked them to go back and told them that they would be arrested if they went ahead. On hearing this, Balachandran made his way back to his village. The next morning he learnt that his father and the seven others with him were among those shot dead by the STF.

The statement of the third survivor, Ilangovan, who could not travel to Delhi for lack of any identity document, was recorded by an official deputed by the NHRC. According to his statement, Ilangovan and his neighbour Pannerselvam were on their way to find masonry work outside their village, Malakanavayoor, on April 6. At about 8 p.m., the two men reached Nagariputhur where they saw two policemen carrying rifles. Their autorickshaw was surrounded by about eight armed policemen who asked them where they were from. Then, they were thrown into a large lorry carrying about 30 people. The lorry stopped at the Rangers Office in Keezh Tirupati and the police took photographs of the men in the lorry. While the policemen were getting in and out of the lorry, Ilangovan jumped out of the truck, escaped into the forest and found his way back to the village. His friend Pannerselvam’s dead body was sent to the village that very night.

The complaint states: “Many facts that have since emerged seriously contest the ‘encounter’ version of the AP [Andhra Pradesh] Police—no member of the STF has sustained any serious injury; bullet marks have been found on the neck and upper part of the torso of the deceased; bullet marks are indicative of the deceased having been shot from close range; many of the bodies bear marks on the limbs which indicate the victims’ limbs were tied with ropes; the red sanders logs found at the site of the offence already bear the government stamp and number in white colour as is done in the case of logs only after being seized and stored in the godowns belonging to the Forest Department.”

Vrinda Grover said: “Such a brazen and arbitrary killing under the guise of an encounter calls for an urgent investigation that is independent and credible in order to dislodge the long history of impunity enjoyed by the police.”

The NHRC guidelines of 1997 were in response to the APCLC’s complaint accusing the police of shooting and killing some persons whom they suspected of being members of the outlawed People’s War Group. This and a number of other complaints to the NHRC at that time outlined a common practice in Andhra Pradesh by the police. In all cases of encounter deaths, the police took the stand that those killed had opened fire on the police and were therefore deemed guilty of attempt to murder under Section 307 of the Indian Penal Code. The police station would record the first information reports (FIRs) naming the persons fired at as the accused. No more investigation was carried out in these cases and they were deemed as closed in view of the death of the accused. Also, no attempts were made to investigate the claims of the police that they had fired in self-defence.

The guidelines of the NHRC require police officers to enter the information about such deaths in an appropriate register. Also, the information received is to be regarded as sufficient to suspect the commission of a cognisable offence and immediate steps are to be taken to investigate the facts and circumstances leading to the death and ascertain what, if any, offence was committed and by whom.

Later, in 2003 and 2010, the NHRC issued guidelines to be followed in cases of deaths caused in police action, according to which all deaths in police action are to be reported to the NHRC by the Senior Superintendent of Police or the Superintendent of Police within 48 hours. They also mandate the manner in which the post-mortem examination is to be conducted. While the Andhra Pradesh Police and the State government have supported the STF action, it is not clear if these mandatory procedures were followed.

According to the revised set of guidelines issued by the NHRC in 2010, encounter killings by the police are to be investigated by an independent investigation agency and a magisterial inquiry is to be held within three months. The complaint to the NHRC in the present instance states that it is not clear whether these guidelines have been complied with or the report received by the NHRC. Also, in October 2014, the Supreme Court, in People’s Union for Civil Liberties vs State of Maharashtra, reiterated the significance of the human rights of persons to be protected against arbitrary police action.

NHRC action

On April 13, the NHRC asked the Director General of Police, Tamil Nadu, to provide protection to the two persons whose statements had been recorded and to their family members.

The Commission also directed the Chief Secretary and the Director General of Police, Andhra Pradesh, to conduct a magisterial inquiry as laid down under Section 176 (1) (A) of the Code of Criminal Procedure. It asked for the names of all the Forest Department and police officials who were part of the STF to be submitted by April 22. It instructed that all the weapons used by the STF and the deceased persons be placed in safe custody. The police register, log books, general diary entries and any other documents were also not to be tampered with during the pendency of the NHRC proceedings, the Commission said.