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When the State Turns Rogue

Questions must be asked about the spate of encounter deaths in Uttar Pradesh.

The best way to eliminate crime is to eliminate “criminals.” This appears to be the formula that Uttar Pradesh (UP)Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is advocating to make UP a “safe” destination for economic investment. In the 10 days leading up to the recent UP investment summit, which was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and attended by 18 union ministers and leading industrialists, there were four “encounters” between the police and so-called criminals. These add to the figure of 921 encounters resulting in 33 deaths between March 2017—when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Yogi Adityanath took office—and January 2018. The high number of these killings had prompted the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to send a notice to the UP government in November, but so far the state government has not deigned to respond.

What is taking place in UP is not without precedent. Maharashtra is the pioneer to this kind of “encounter” killing. Between 1982 and 2003, 1,200 alleged criminals were similarly killed in the state by way of trying to eliminate criminal gangs. The policemen responsible for the maximum number of such killings were celebrated, called “encounter specialists,” and even had films made about them. It was only when human rights groups questioned these “encounters,” pointing out that even a suspected criminal had a right to a fair trial and could not be arbitrarily bumped off, were some of these policemen forced to answer for their actions. While a few were penalised, many got away. In fact, one of these “encounter specialists,” Pradeep Sharma, who was suspended in 2009 but thereafter acquitted in 2013, had boasted that “criminals are filth and I’m the cleaner.” He was personally responsible for 104 encounter deaths.

The UP police have had the public backing of the chief minister for their actions. Yogi Adityanath has publicly stated: “Police in UP will now respond to a bullet with a bullet. Unlike the previous government, I have given full authority to the force to deal with criminals in the most appropriate way possible.” It is worrying that this kind of carte blanche has been given to a police force not renowned for its sensitivity towards minorities or other marginalised groups. How do you establish that a person is guilty when the police have already gunned him down? The act of killing is a pre-judgment that makes a mockery of law and justice for all. It is a gross violation of an individual’s rights, irrespective of whether that person has committed a crime or not. In a civilised society, this can never be justified.

Apart from this strategy of literally eliminating criminals, the UP government has borrowed another page from Maharashtra’s experience. In December 2017, with barely any debate, the UP state assembly passed the Uttar Pradesh Control of Organised Crime Act (UPCOCA), based on a similar law passed in Maharashtra in 1999, the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA). Significantly, a similar law was sought to be passed under the chief ministership of Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in 2008, but was turned down by the then President of India, Pratibha Patil. It is more than likely that the current President of India will give his assent once the law is sent up to him.

The problem with laws like UPCOCA, and MCOCA, is that they permit for a wide ambit of misuse because of their draconian nature. As senior police officers have repeatedly emphasised, it is not as if the police do not have powers to deal with crime or criminals. There are stringent provisions in existing laws, enhanced by central laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967. Yet, instead of using what exists, states routinely try and bring in new laws to give themselves additional powers to deal with crime, or terror. More often than not, the enhanced provisions of these new laws are used to detain those without the ability to defend themselves.

In the recent UP encounter killings, several media reports have raised serious questions about the manner in which the individuals concerned were killed. Families have testified that their kin were picked up by the police and then reported killed in an encounter. But the state government has not heeded these concerns. Instead, it has boasted that these killings demonstrate its victory over the criminal world, even though the tentacles of UP’s criminal gangs are deeply embedded in the politics of the state.

It is important that the NHRC pursue its query with the UP government on the encounter killings. If the police fired in self-defence as they claim they did, they must prove this convincingly. If not, and if as some of the post-mortem reports reveal that the individuals were killed at close range, there is adequate reason to believe that the rule of law is being grossly violated by the very people enjoined with implementing the rule of law. When the state turns rogue in the name of eliminating criminality, it is the lives of innocents that are endangered.

Updated On : 7th Mar, 2018


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