Last December, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) called the Uttar Pradesh (UP) police “an organized gang of criminals”, quoting a half-century-old Allahabad High Court observation.

At the time it was hearing a 2014 case of wrongful detention and sexual assault of a woman in a police station. Her husband was also charged with kidnap and rape for marrying her, despite a city court ruling that they were adults and their marriage was perfectly legal.

UP, India’s largest state, now witnessing a spate of killings during “police encounters”, a euphemism that was ushered into the public consciousness in the 1980s.

Back then, militancy in the state of Punjab produced scores of “police encounters”. The city of Mumbai, then known as Bombay, was where an organized mafia thrived, but a concerted effort by the Bombay police led to a spate of encounters that targeted mafia and organized gang members until their numbers dwindled. The term became popular after Hindi cinema lionized police officers who led encounters.

In modern-day UP, police encounters are back and appear to be the preferred tool to take on organized gangs. However, as observers and legal experts note, the state’s law and order machinery remains abysmal.

“There is not a single lawless group in the whole of the country whose record of crime comes anywhere near the record of that single organized unit which is known as the Indian police force. The police force in Uttar Pradesh is an organized gang of criminals. This case is a reminder that this pungent observation made almost 50 years ago is still valid and relevant,” the NHRC noted in December, quoting late Justice A N Mulla. Few in UP were shocked by the NHRC’s remarks.

On September 29, Lucknow residents woke up to chilling news that a prominent and well known executive – Vivek Tiwari, a 38-year-old area manager with the multinational technology firm Apple, was shot dead by two cops while he was traveling by car with a woman colleague in the early hours.

The motorcycle cops allegedly demanded a bribe after threatening to falsely accuse them of committing an “obscene act in a public place”. They then shot and killed Tiwari when he tried to speed away. Tiwari’s companion in the car, Sana Khan, revealed that her colleague tried to protect her from the two cops by continuing to drive on despite having been shot.

Seniors cops quickly swung into action in an apparent bid to cover up the case by claiming that the dead man had attempted to run over the police and their motorcycle.

“(The) destruction and fabrication of evidence, intimidation of eyewitnesses and weak probe all come naturally to UP police. That’s why senior cops supported the ‘self-defense theory’ cited by their subordinates who had claimed that Tiwari attempted to run over their bike even though neither of them sustained any injury, and nor were their bike nor Tiwari’s car damaged. (However) both the vehicles were found to be damaged hours later,” says Sharat Pradhan, a senior journalist from Lucknow.

Anil Tiwari, head of a crime-based news web portal, says, “Such is the defiance to law that the accused were allowed to address the media in the police station premises even as Lucknow police chief had earlier claimed that both were arrested and locked up.”

After a major public outcry over the killing, the embarrassed Yogi government not only sacked the accused officers from service but also set up a special investigation team to probe the case. However, the damage was already done, says Pradhan.

Those who know UP police well are skeptical about the probe. Anil Tiwari says, “apart from hiding the chain of events before and after firing, the senior cops have kept the lone eyewitness under undeclared house arrest, filed a weak first information report, messed up the probe by delaying inspection of the crime scene and collecting crucial evidence. Both the accused are likely to walk free sooner or later.”

Meanwhile, several cops have extended all-out support to the accused through social media prompting the government to act quickly to nip the rebellion within the force.

Trigger happy cops

Tiwari is by no means the only victim of trigger happy UP cops. In February, four officers shot gym trainer Jitender Yadav (25) in Noida in an apparent bid to carry out an “encounter”. Yadav was paralyzed in the incident and is now confined to a wheelchair.

Police personnel in UP claim that they have killed over 70 “criminals” ever since the BJP took power in the state a year and half ago. Police are not shy of publicizing these killings. A week ago Aligarh cops shot dead two alleged criminals in a controversial “on camera” encounter . The cameras were manned by journalists “invited” in advance to film the encounter.

Pradhan says, “Half of the encounter victims faced petty charges and are thought to have been eliminated in staged encounters. Moreover, cops are misusing patronage in threatening innocents and small-time criminals to extort money. (Some) cops are killing criminals in exchange for money from their rivals.”

The encounter spree in the crime-prone state has already attracted the scrutiny of the Supreme Court and the NHRC. Even Bisht’s cabinet colleague Om Prakash Rajbhar alleged that many of these encounters were fake and committed by the police to target lower castes and the poor.

As well as extra-judicial killings, several UP cops battle charges of sexual assault. This week, a constable posted in UP-100, a dedicated task force to help people in distress, was suspended over charges of sodomizing an eight-year-old orphan for several days in Hathras police station.

Yet still, encounters continue to be presented as a major achievement of the government, especially because law and order was the BJP’s main plank during the state election campaign two years ago. On the completion of six months of Bisht’s government, the police released data claiming to have eliminated 15 “criminals”. Five of them were people on trial from poor families.

Bisht mentioned the killings on the same day, “Today, the people are secure and safe. Earlier the police used to be scared to act against criminals. Now, they lead from the front.” A little later, he announced that all criminals will be sent to jail or killed in encounters.

UP accounts for 45% fake encounters in India

According to information made available in response to a Right To Information (RTI) Act query, 1,782 cases of fake encounters were registered in India between 2000 and 2017. UP accounted for an alarming 44% (794 cases) of encounter cases, says the NHRC data. The state also recorded an alarming 365 out of a total 1,530 custodial deaths and six of 19 fake encounters in the country between April 2017 to February 2018, according to data available from Parliament.

Shrikant Sharma, BJP leader and power minister of UP insists, “Tiwari’s killing was an unfortunate incident. It wasn’t an encounter. Both the cops were dismissed from the service immediately and are being prosecuted.”

On a review of the controversial encounter policy and charges of fake encounters, Sharma said, “There is no question or review or softening the stand on encounters. Charges of fake encounter are politically motivated. Encounters have helped to control law and order. The equation was the other way around during the tenure of the Samajwadi Party government, when cops were killed for doing their job.”

Clearly, his government is not yet rolling back the policy to let loose trigger-happy cops.

(This is the first of a two-part series)