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Unanswered questions about the 'encounter' of SIMI activists and the politics of Hindutva

Police officers and Special Task Force soldiers stand beside dead bodies of the suspected members of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India. Photograph: (Reuters)

WION Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh, India Nov 07, 2016, 12.55 PM (IST) Srinivas Rao Battini

Eight alleged activists of SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India) were killed on the morning of 31 Oct 2016. The night before, a constable in Bhopal Central prison was also killed. According to Madhya Pradesh (MP) police, the eight SIMI men had killed the constable while escaping from the prison. The police cornered the eight escapees ten kilometers away within hours. All eight of them were killed in the ensuing encounter. 

Within hours of the public statements by MP police and ministers, two video recordings, one of them by the Sarpanch of a village neighbouring the encounter site, were being circulated in the social media. These clippings show police shooting at what appear to be dead bodies in jeans and shoes. On 3 November, audio recordings of what is believed to be exchanges between police control room and the police force involved in the encounter came out in the public domain. A talk of 'farzee action' (fake action) and 'tamam kar do' (finish off) can be heard in these recordings. MP government has ordered an enquiry on the jailbreak, but till recently was refusing to institute a separate enquiry for encounter killing. According to latest reports, it has agreed for a judicial enquiry. 

 

A talk of 'farzee action' (fake action) and 'tamam kar do' (finish off) can be heard in these recordings.
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 A number of questions have been raised about the jailbreak and encounter. How could prisoners locked in different parts of the prison get together for the jailbreak? How could eight inmates scale a 30 feet wall? How could they evade the surveillance of watch towers and security cameras? MP ministers have claimed that they made keys out of toothbrushes, which seems far fetched. If nothing else, the escape of men accused of terrorism charges from a high-security prison indicates gross negligence. MP administration appears to be giving contradictory statements about whether escapees had firearms when killed. 

Moreover, it would be highly amateurish of claimed hardened terrorists to remain together for hours after the escape. According to video footage, at the time of their killing, the escapees do not appear to be threatening the police personnel. Catching them live could have given important clues to their contacts outside who, the police claims provided prisoners with clothes and weapons. If the audio clip is authentic, it seems MP police was intent upon killing them, rather than following the law, or apprehending important sources of anti-terror intelligence.   

 

It seems MP police was intent upon killing them, rather than following the law, or apprehending important sources of anti-terror intelligence
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 For any understanding of the sequence of events and their evaluation, it is essential to distinguish between different sets of events, separating unsubstantiated claims and assumptions from known facts. The jailbreak and murder of a prison guard are separate from the encounter killing. Even if it is found that SIMI activists did murder the guard while escaping, this is no ground for killing them. Law of the land is clear on this point. 

The police, which has been given constitutional responsibility to protect citizens from crime, can kill only in self-defence, or when there is an immediate threat to people at large. No police personnel received even minor injury during the supposed shootout with prison escapees, and the place they were cornered had not habitation. What were the real reasons behind killing them? 

Indian police force is notorious for custodial torture and fake encounters. Two years back five under trial Muslim prisoners were killed in a similar encounter at Aleir near Hyderabad by the Telangana police. The 22 May 1987 Hashimpura massacre in which 42 Muslim youths from Hashimpura were shot by Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) and their bodies were dumped in water canals. 

 

Two years back five under trial Muslim prisoners were killed in a similar encounter at Aleir near Hyderabad by the Telangana police.
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According to a newspaper report (The Hindu, July 15, 2013), there were 555 fake encounter cases during the four year period from 2009-13. Such large-scale extra-judicial killings are a blot on Indian democracy. 

Health of any democracy is indicated by the respect shown to every  citizen's legal, political and social rights. It is well known that mostly the poor working class people belonging to lower castes and minorities face the brunt of police brutality in India. 

 The political dimension of the Bhopal encounter too can not be neglected. The BJP has been ruling MP since 2003, and lately, the state has become an open Hindutva laboratory.  According to a newspaper report (Indian Express, 17 October 2016), even police are scared of the ire of RSS functionaries, after state government filed charges against police officers for arresting an RSS pracharak. In 2014, Dalits in Shivpuri district were arrested for converting to Islam, without taking permission from the administration. A number of communal riots have rocked small towns of the state. 

 

In 2014, Dalits in Shivpuri district were arrested for converting to Islam, without taking permission from the administration
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Charges of terrorism have emerged a convenient political stick to beat the Muslim community with. While condemning the questions raised by human rights group on the recent Bhopal encounter, state's chief minister has claimed in a public speech that terror suspects are fed chicken biryani in prison while waiting for trials. The claim is obviously a lie, but its political purpose is to link the minority community with terrorism. 

Minorities living in India have suffered decades of human rights violations at the hands of the government and security forces. Despite being around a quarter of the population, the Dalits, tribals and Muslims make up for most of India's prison population, most of whom are in prison without a conviction. Muslims, in particular, have to deal with the stigma of being regularly labeled as a terrorist or terrorist sympathiser; this is what makes it particularly easy for authorities to get away with oppressing them. Such is often the case when it comes to fake encounters.

While encounter killings and minority targeting are old practices in India, the creeping shadow of fascism can not be neglected. Fascism is a politics of targeted threat and violence. It demands blind allegiance and feeds upon social anxieties to generate politics of hatred. It is antithetical to any notion of democracy. Yet, its distinguishing feature is precisely the mass support it is able to garner. 

 

While encounter killings and minority targeting are old practices in India, the creeping shadow of fascism can not be neglected.
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In India, Hindutva fascism is trying to mobilise Hindus by targeting minorities as their enemies. It is shamelessly threatening others who do not agree with its politics as anti-national. It is using 'surgical strikes' against Pakistan, and  encounter killings of SIMI members to project the BJP as the only party of muscular strength that can save India. While in reality, its policies are leading the country towards war and greater internal violence. 

History has shown that societies which get sucked into the fascist trap are able to come out of it only after wholesale disasters. The only antidote to fascism is mass democratic consciousness and actions, which mean people fighting collectively, not against imaginary enemies, but real problems of poverty, exploitation and caste , gender, religious discrimination and oppression. 

Disclaimes: The author writes here in a personal capacity. 

Srinivas Rao Battini

The writer is the national convenor of People's Alliance for Democracy and Secularism.

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