Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s flagship crime control operations have come under scrutiny with difficult questions being raised about the legitimacy of police encounters.
Allegations of “fake encounters” of people from socio-economically marginal groups in this key North Indian state could hit the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s prospects in the run-up to national elections next year.
A fact-finding team probing the encounters says the “crime control” program is an “eyewash”. It alleges that the Uttar Pradesh (UP) Police carried out “pre-meditated extrajudicial executions”.
The Adityanath-led BJP government came to power in UP in March 2017. In the 14 months since, as many as 50 people have been killed in 1,478 police encounters, most of them Muslims.
However, the police said, “Encounters are always fortuitous and never a part of State policy.”
A fact-finding report published on Tuesday by Citizens Against Hate has drawn attention to alleged discrepancies in police accounts of encounters, plus police violations of laws and guidelines laid down by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). Nine families have complained to the commission that their relatives were gunned down in extrajudicial killings. They want the rights body to order impartial probes into these cases.
The fact-finding group, consisting lawyers and social workers, went to the west of the state, where most of the encounters have taken place, and spoke to 16 families of people killed, as well as the police, and obtained First Information Reports and post-mortem reports on as many cases as possible.
They said First Information Reports filed by the police against the deceased in multiple cases “use exactly the same text, hinting at use of a common template by state police to record the[ir] version of the incidents.”
The Citizens Against Hate report also noted that there were similarities in the pattern of weapons recovered from the people killed, as well as the number and type of weapons found.
“A certain community has been targeted, especially in the western region of UP, where they’re concentrated. They [the police] are trying to shape a narrative that this community is [made up] of criminals,” Rajeev Yadav, a member of the Rihai Manch rights group in UP, said.
Pattern of encounters
The report says police claim that most cases were “spontaneous” shoot-outs between assailants and their officers. They also claim to have had a tip-off about the culprits in most cases, generally involved in or about to commit a crime. Despite a heavy police presence at the encounter site, one or two assailants always managed to escape. And, while the police claimed they were shot at indiscriminately, they only sustained minor injuries, although they often had a bullet or bullets “grazing past” them.
Families of those killed were not given legal documents like copies of First Information Reports or post-mortem reports, as required by law. Waseem, the cousin of Mansoor, a victim from Saharanpur district, said they couldn’t acquire any of those documents despite trying to do that several times.
The report said most of the people killed were put on the police’s “most-wanted” list after the encounter. Waseem said their family did not know there was a Rs 25,000 bounty on Mansoor’s head. “He has been living in his home for two years and everyone knew that. If the police knew he was wanted, why did they not nab him before?” he told Asia Times.
Mansoor, 30, had been to jail previously for getting into a fight with a cousin, his mother Javeda said. “After he came back from jail, he was mentally ill. He would curse anyone and everyone, even in the mosque,” she said.
Her son was picked up last September by two close acquaintances who put him “forcefully” into a car and took him away. Later, his body arrived home with a bullet hole in his chest. The family was told about his encounter not by police, as the rights body insists, but by a friend who saw it on the news, Waseem said.
The police report said that Mansoor was found with another person on a bike, trying to loot a WagonR car in Meerut. In the pattern found in other cases, Mansoor and the other person started shooting at police and officers shot back “in self-defense”. The other accused escaped by jumping a wall. Mansoor succumbed to his injuries on the way to hospital, the police claim.
Mansoor’s mother said there were marks around the bullet wound. The post-mortem report accessed by the fact-finding team said the same and noted that Mansoor was shot from close range, which caused the burn marks and that he had died immediately.
“Most bodies had [gunpowder] marks and blackening of skin around bullet holes, indicating that the shooting had taken place at very close range, and could not be attributed to bullet marks in a shoot-out,” the report observed.
Suspicion of ‘fake-encounters’
Another victim, Shamshad, had black marks on his body similar to Mansoor, his wife Saliha claims. She saw his body after he was killed and said it “looked two to three days old” and had marks suggesting he was beaten around the neck and elsewhere. Shamshad was accused of escaping from custody while being taken to a court hearing.
Saliha believes police tortured and killed Shamshad before telling her later about an “encounter”. The autopsy report, accessed by the fact-finders, said the body had bone fractures and appeared to be one to four days after the man’s death – while police claim he died the same day.
According to NHRC guidelines, an encounter death has to be reported to the deceased’s family as soon as possible.
Advocate Mangala Verma, from Citizens Against Hate, said four of the 16 cases they looked into had post-mortem reports citing fractures, which indicated that those people weren’t killed in a shoot-out. “The victims were mostly shot above the waist. But in self-defense, you [the police] have to shoot below the waist. We found victims were clearly shot in the heart and head.”
Gurmeet Singh, another victim, died in a private hospital after surviving bullet wounds for 22 days. His sister Mamta told Asia Times the doctor told them Gurmeet was shot from close range and had bullet wounds under his chest and left leg. The family suspects the police conspired with doctors to kill him in the hospital. “Why was he transferred to a private hospital from a government one? They [police] would not let us see him or talk to him. He was getting better before the doctor said he had an infection from his wounds. The police were inside when he died and they did not let my mother in,” Mamta said.
Meanwhile, families attempting to file complaints about their concerns faced threats of being charged in false cases or having another family member set up in an “encounter” with police, the report said.
The UP Police maintained that they have followed all law and guidelines. “In the event of any specific complaint, the UP Police will follow the stipulated guidelines and take legal recourse if anyone is found transcending the law,” said Rahul Srivastava, public relations officer to the Director General of Police in UP.
Uttar Pradesh CM Adityanath is at the center of the controversy, as he has repeatedly encouraged encounters to arrest and try criminals. In September last year, he was quoted as saying: “Police in UP will now respond to a bullet with a bullet.”
The National Human Rights Commission is well aware of these concerns. It sent a notice to the UP government last year saying: “The reported statement of the Chief Minister tantamounts to giving the police department a free hand to deal with criminals at their will and, it could possibly result in abuse of power by public servants.”