MADKAM DEVA walks about 20 paces off a dirt footpath that cuts through a verdant forest, finds the place where large orange ants crawl over a dark, decomposing maroon stain, then points to another a few metres away. This, he claims, is where he saw one villager, then a second, cut down by police bullets and collapse on to the forest floor. “I’m scared they’ll come after me now,” says Deva, who doesn’t know his age but guesses he is around 20.
His account of what happened in this remote corner of eastern India on January 8 boils down to this: police rounded up 24 villagers, told them they were going to a nearby station for questioning, then lined them up for execution en route. Five, including Deva, escaped.
Deva’s story is backed up by the others who escaped, by villagers who say they saw police dressed in fatigues and carrying automatic weapons sweeping through their homes that morning, and by the parents of the victims, who describe their children being dragged away.
Superintendent Rahul Sharma, the most senior police officer in the Dantewara district of Chhattisgarh, provides an equally vivid account of what happened, but one that is completely contradictory to Deva’s. “It was a very genuine encounter,” says Sharma, who recounts how his men came upon a group of armed Maoists and engaged in a firefight. None of the police died, though he says one officer took shrapnel from a grenade to his hand.
Two very different sides of the same story – one that is taking place with increasing frequency in India. Now numbering in the thousands every year, ‘encounters’ or ‘encounter killings’ are shoot-outs between the Indian police or army and any criminal element, from terrorists to petty thieves. Human-rights activists claim that encounter killings can also be stage-managed – when police place a gun in the hands of a dead person, leading to what is known in this part of the world ‘fake encounter killings’ – and that these are used to bolster the statistics for police response to the tide of terrorism that is sweeping India. India is second only to Iraq in the number of deaths from terrorist attacks (see panel, overleaf).
Encounter killings not only highlight an increase in terrorism, but also the widening gulf between those who have and those who do not. As increasing numbers of Indians migrate towards the mega-cities, many seem to accept that civil liberties must take second place where public safety is concerned. And, with encounter killings, it tends to be the civil liberties of the poor and those in rural areas that are most at risk.
India’s limited forensics capabilities make investigating the claims of either side – if two sides are even left standing – hard to verify. And the national media often parrots the police version of events, allying itself with a middle class that is increasingly fearful of rising crime and the threat of terrorism.
Determined to see a strong Indian security apparatus flex its muscle, the Indian media lionises ‘encounter specialists’ – police who specialise in shootouts. Although there are many films that portray villagers as the heroes, Bollywood is also taking its cue from the media in its treatment of encounter killings. One of the most famous is Ab Tak Chappan, in which an honest cop, Sadhu Agashe, makes a name for himself by killing criminals in sting operations instead of locking them up in prison. And while the glamorised film version is a box-office hit, it is a far cry from the reality of encounter killings – especially this recent one in Chhattisgarh.
Human-rights activists say the killings are not only a violation of the rights of the poor but also a major challenge to the integrity of India’s legal system. “Encounters are staged,” says Vrinda Grover, a New Delhi-based lawyer and human-rights activist. “It is the only way (for police] to get awards and promotions.” He says that when an investigation proves a shoot-out was a ‘fake encounter’, it can take between five and seven years for the culpable officers to be arrested. “The courts do not give priority to these matters,” says Grover.