On July 23, 2009, Chungkham Sanjit Meitei, a former member of the banned Manipuri insurgent group, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), was killed in broad daylight in the heart of Imphal, the capital of the restive northeastern Indian state of Manipur.
The government claimed that Sanjit was armed, had resisted the security forces and was killed in an exchange of fire but Manipuris knew otherwise. They believed that he was killed in a ‘fake encounter.’
A few weeks later, their fears were confirmed when Tehelka magazine published a series of photographs revealing an unarmed Sanjit being taken into a pharmacy by a heavily-armed detachment of the Manipur police commandos. A few minutes later, his lifeless body was brought out into the street.
Six years later, irrefutable evidence has emerged confirming that Sanjit was indeed executed by the Manipur commandos. Late in January 2016, head constable Thounaojam Herojit said to Indian Express that Sanjit was “not armed” and that he had “shot him” on “an order” issued by the then additional-superintendent of police of the area, Akoijam Jhalajhit, to “finish him off.”
Herojit’s confession has triggered calls for investigations into the killing of Sanjit and many others in Manipur, who are believed to have been eliminated in ‘fake encounters.’ This state alone is said to have witnessed 1,500 killings in alleged fake encounters.
Fake encounters are extra-judicial killings. They refer to the gunning down of alleged criminals, militants and terrorists, even innocent civilians by Indian police and security forces. Such killings are often dressed up subsequently to look like the outcome of an exchange of fire when these are, in fact, cold-blooded executions.
‘Fake encounters’ are not rare occurrences in India. While they are more numerous in India’s insurgency-wracked areas – legislations like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that are in effect in ‘disturbed areas’ bestow extra-ordinary powers on the armed forces to search, arrest and shoot to kill, enabling them to escape accountability – such killings are common in other parts of the country, as well.
Police in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, are known to have eliminated underworld dons in fake encounters. Several Muslims were killed in such encounters in Gujarat; they were subsequently described as ‘dreaded terrorists,’ who were killed by police in self-defense. The northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh tops the country for the highest number of fake encounters.
Police carry out fake encounters for several reasons. They often do so to please their political masters. This was the case in Gujarat, for instance. There are awards and promotions too for eliminating terrorists. Herojit, who is said to have killed 133 ‘terrorists’ in encounters, is winner of a gallantry award. There are economic benefits as well. Cops in Mumbai are reported to have made fortunes by killing gangsters in staged encounters on the request of their rivals.
Successive governments have announced “zero tolerance” towards extra-judicial killings. India’s Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that such killings are inconsistent with democratic principles. In 2014, it issued elaborate guidelines on deaths in police encounters.
In 2015, in a historic step towards ensuring accountability of armed forces in conflict zones, six army personnel were given life sentences by a court martial for the killing of three Kashmiri youth in a fake encounter in Machil in north Kashmir.
While the conviction of those who kill in fake encounters is a step in the right direction, their political masters, at whose behest such killings take place, must be hauled to the courts as well.
In his resignation letter in 2013, Gujarat Deputy Inspector General of Police D. G. Vanzara, allegedly involved in several high-profile fake encounter cases and lodged in a Mumbai jail for nearly seven years, wrote that those investigating extra-judicial killings should “arrest the policy formulators also as we, being field officers, have simply implemented the conscious policy of the government.”
As Vanzara pointed out, it is on the orders of their political masters that police often kill in staged encounters.
Herojit has claimed that Manipur’s chief minister Ibobi Singh and the then director-general of police, Yumnam Joykumar, had reportedly given Sanjit’s killing the “go-ahead” signal. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in opposition in Manipur, is calling for Ibobi’s resignation. Ibobi belongs to the Congress party, which is in power in Manipur.
The BJP is right. Ibobi Singh’s role in the killing of Sanjit must be probed and appropriately punished.
But will the BJP show similar enthusiasm in probing and punishing the political masterminds behind the encounter killings in Gujarat? That would mean bringing India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was Gujarat’s chief minister between 2001 and 2014, to face the courts for the fake encounters for which Vanzara was jailed.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org