Sidharth Varadarajan, New Delhi.
28, October 2006
Virtually every newspaper in India today has front-paged the police account of an 'encounter' with two terrorists in Mysore. According to the official version, the two alleged terrorists — Mohammad Fahad and Mohammad Hussain — were travelling on a moped on the outskirts of the city around midnight on October 26/27 when they were asked to stop by a police picket. Whereupon they opened fire on the police with an AK-47, injuring two constables before being captured. The police subsequently raided the flat they were renting and recovered incriminating material suggesting the duo — who are being described as operatives of the al-Badr terrorist outfit — were planning attacks on the state legislature and other high-profile targets.
There are, however, some parts of this story of police derring-do which simply don't add up.
First up, both The Hindu and the New Indian Express report that the landlady who rented the flat to Fahad and Hussain says the police had taken the alleged terrorists into custody more than two weeks ago.
"I have not seen my tenants ever since they were taken away by the police 20 days ago," the Hindu quoted a woman named Suvarna as saying. In the New Indian Express, the landlady's name is given as Kanthamma and she is quoted as saying the police picked up her tenants "two weeks ago".
According to the New Indian Express, Kanthamma further clarified that the two men did not own a Hero Puch [moped] and that they always came home at night. One of them was always at home, she said. The newspaper continues:
Meanwhile, asked how they carried an AK 47 on a moped, DCP Balakrishna said the accused had hid the gun in a bag and carried it on their thighs. The DCP reiterated that the militants had fired three rounds from the weapon. The local police did not clarify how the militants entered the ring road around 11.45 pm when the police had already barricaded the road around 11 pm.
In another report, the same newspaper points out that the policemen supposedly injured in the shootout were not bandaged when they subsequently turned up to "search" the house of the two alleged terrorists. And in a reference to the usual police practice of thoroughly working over a suspect before announcing his formal arrest, the newspaper said: "Another factor that did not go amiss was that the encounter took place at midnight and the police held a press conference at 6 am. Normally the terrorists are subjected to tough interrogation and then the arrest is announced the next day."
So what is going on here?
While it is impossible to pass judgment on the strength of the police case against the two suspected terrorists — they are supposed to be Pakistani citizens and members of al-Badr — it is fairly clear from the foregoing that the encounter never occured. I am fairly certain, the duo were arrested around two weeks ago and thoroughly interrogated. They may well have been hatching the kind of plot the police say they were but the encounter story simply does not add up.
This, in turn, raises the question of why the police prefer to stage these dramatic incidents.
Often, these encounters end in the death of the suspected terrorists — this is what happened in the infamous Ansal Plaza incident in November 2002 or the Pragati Maidan encounter in 2005, or the encounter outside the RSS headquarters on 1 June 2006.
Are the police trying to make out that they are braver and more intelligent than they really are? Are they trying to scare the public by exaggerating the imminence and proximity of terrorist threats? Are they planting evidence on terror suspects, such as an AK-47? Suvarna/Kanthamma said nothing about the police carrying away boxes of material from the flat of the two men when they were arrested two weeks/20 days ago and the police have not spoken of the pair having some other safe location. So where was the AK-47 kept all this time? If a gun can be planted, what about other evidence?
The New Indian Express speculates that local politics might have prompted the dramatic encounter — the desire to divert news space away from the allegation that the Karnataka Chief Minister's son had been involved in a drunken brawl in a Bangalore hotel.
Slowly, perhaps, the real story will filter out. Then again, it might not.
Sidharth Varadarajan is the Deputy Editor of The Hindu News Paper