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Piecing together an encounter

By: P.K. HORMIS THARAKAN | November 5, 2016 (Ref: thehindu.com)

There is a crying need to impress upon our young officers that there is no gallantry involved in shooting at people who cannot shoot back

The true hero of the momentous events of October 31 in Bhopal relating to the prison break-out and eventual killing of the eight undertrials belonging to the banned organisation, Students Islamic Movement of India, was Head Constable Ramashankar Yadav. He was a proud representative of that tribe of uniformed men who wear khaki and carry out some of the most difficult and despised jobs day after day hardly noticed by the public and the press unless they commit an error. Though his job was to keep under control some of the most violent people in the country, he was lightly armed, if at all. He represented the might of the nation as he endeavoured to stop eight dreaded prisoners who were seeking to escape. He and his colleague were overpowered and he was killed, but Ramashankar Yadav upheld the glory of the khaki uniform that he wore that Deepavali night, as the rest of the country celebrated the festival of lights.

Murky episode

What followed was also truly noteworthy. The eight prisoners are reported to have scaled the walls of the high security prison in the very early hours of the morning. Local villagers were alerted and the fleeing desperadoes were located before mid-day. The police killed them in an encounter.

Upto this point, the story unfolds as a glorious operation based on people-police cooperation, which is the ideal model that the police and civil society have been seeking for decades to put in place. If this kind of amazing police-public cooperation could be replicated in every village of India, the hands of the police would be immensely strengthened and would-be escapees from prisons would realise the futility of attempting such misadventures.

However, the story gets somewhat murkier thereafter, casting shadows on what should have been a glorious chapter in the history of Madhya Pradesh Police. Doubts are being expressed about the police claim that the eight fugitives were killed in a genuine encounter. These doubts are being expressed on the basis of some video recordings that are making the rounds.

In the days after, there is not much clarity about the facts of that eventful day. Hence it may still be early days for pronouncing judgment. I would only look at some of the principles that seem to be emerging as we try to understand this complicated business involving the death of a prison guard, escape of dreaded criminals from a prison, their death at the hands of the police and the consequent debate which has legal, administrative, intellectual and political ramifications having a bearing on the nation’s internal security policy.

Working at the grass-roots

I think the first lesson is that as we seek to ensure the nation’s security, we need to strengthen the lowest rungs of the national security architecture, namely, the police stations and prisons. These are institutions that are firmly in the civilian, and not in military, arena where the focus on national security mostly falls. Strengthening does not necessarily mean giving more powerful arms to policemen and prison guards, but ensuring that security measures put in place are enforced properly. The former Chief of the Madhya Pradesh Prisons Department is on record saying that clear standard operating procedures (SOP) had been laid down in the Bhopal Central Prison for the operation of the CCTV system, for keeping the barracks of the SIMI undertrial prisoners under surveillance, for not allowing them to mingle, for locking of individual cells, etc. Obviously, these SOPs were very clear but not followed scrupulously. This raises questions about the quality of leadership, and whether the right person had been posted to superintendent the prisons. Ironically, Bhopal Central Prison is ISO-certified for the correctional and rehabilitation facilities, besides the standard of living conditions it provides to the inmates. Though the certification does not cover high-tech security infrastructure required to ensure expected standards for a high security detention centre, it is a matter of great regret that such an incident happened in a prison of such high reputation. All the more reason to check whether the State government had taken sufficient care to find the right person to manage the affairs of the Bhopal Central Prison. The point I am trying to make is that if a State wants to be known for its proactive approach to national security, it is such apparently trivial matters that it must pay close attention to.

Now, on the defensive

At the same time, it is clear that at least some of the doubts that are being raised about the genuineness of the breakout need to be dismissed outright. In an incident where a prison guard was done to death, it is heartless to raise an allegation that he was killed in a staged jailbreak. As I said earlier, the speed with which the police managed to track the fugitives down with the help of local people was truly remarkable. But the doubts expressed regarding what happened thereafter certainly need to be looked into, especially in view of the reported assertion of the chief of the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) that though the fugitives were unarmed, the police were legally empowered to kill them.

He is obviously relying on Section 46 (2) and (3) of the Criminal Procedure Code which says that if and when a person forcibly resists the endeavour to arrest him, or attempts to evade the arrest, such police officer or other person may use all means necessary to effect the arrest, including causing the death of a person if he is accused of an offence punishable with death or imprisonment for life. Hence the ATS chief’s defence is probably that it would not be against the extant law if force has been used to the extent commensurate to the requirement in the given circumstances, as perceived by the policemen on the scene and their assessment. However, it is inevitable that the judgment of the officer on the spot would be called up for review either in an inquiry or a judicial proceeding. In the instant case, conflicting claims by various people in authority about the fugitives having been armed with guns lead to confusion about what exactly is the defence of the police.

Handling the pressure

But the real pity is that in a case such as this, where the police could have covered itself entirely with glory, it seems to have been forced to be on the defensive. Facing an inquiry, whether by an executive or a judicial body, is an ordeal for any policeman. Yes, when loss of lives is involved, it is only natural and just that there be an inquiry to ascertain the facts. But, those entrusted with the task of conducting inquiries are rarely familiar with the pressures under which police officers in the field function. There are certain occasions when passions run high, especially when one of your own has been killed. In a war situation, a nation’s army avenging a colleague’s death is perfectly permissible. In an internal security situation, you have to abide by the law of the land, which limits the extent or the scope of your reaction. The problem of the officer in charge is to ensure this compliance in a heavily charged atmosphere, which cannot be understood or grasped by those who have not been in the field under conditions of immense pressure. Hence in most inquiries the police officer finds it immensely difficult to answer questions as to whether he complied with every little letter of the law as he led his men into an encounter with an enemy who observes no rules.

There is a growing impression in the government that it is necessary to encourage policemen and security personnel in general to be more aggressive in dealing with terrorism.

If the government wants the police to take strong action against terrorists, it should empower them through legislation, and not leave them to fend for themselves in courts after eliminating them through questionable encounters. There are many young officers who have had their careers cut short in recent years on account of their misplaced sense of valour.

We must also remember that one of the most significant breakthroughs in criminal investigation of terrorist cases happened because Ajmal Kasab, who had killed hundreds in Mumbai, was caught alive through the supreme self-sacrifice of ASI Tukaram Gopal Omble. Had at least one of the escapees in Bhopal been captured alive, so much of intelligence regarding their means of escape and the help, if any, they received from outside could have been generated, which would have contributed immensely to the pool house of information which is the backbone of national security.

In the ultimate analysis, there is a crying need to impress upon our young officers that there is no gallantry involved in shooting at people who cannot shoot back, either because their hands are already tied behind their back, or because they are already dead.

P.K. Hormis Tharakan is a former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing.

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