The trouble with opposition generated and media sustained hype about anything that could be used to embarrass the government is manifold. First, there seems to be no issue too serious, no institution too sacrosanct to avoid politicisation and sensationalizing. We recently witnessed major opposition parties casting serious aspersions on the credibility of the army by asking the government to furnish proof of the operations that the DGMO briefed media about. One regional leader of the major opposition party even went as far as to call the operations fake, and instead of chastising him, his party Vice President built on that argument and accused the government of pimping the blood of soldiers. Secondly, hype is sought to be built up around catchy phrases with scant regard to the connotations. Shallow arguments are built around superficial information just to grab eyes and ears. These are turned into gospel truth merely by frequency of repetition. And what is worse is that those responsible for speaking on behalf of the government also fall into the trap, trying to counter the narrative built to target them rather than demolishing it to build a more cogent one closer to reality.
Latest in this cycle is the storm being kicked up about the gunning down of eight fugitives from Bhopal jail belonging to the banned militant organisation SIMI and under trial for charges including terrorism, conspiring to murder and a previous jailbreak. They escaped from the prison in the middle of the night after killing a jail guard, and were killed by the police the next day in what is widely being touted as a ‘fake encounter’. The arguments being forwarded and theories being propounded range from absurd to bizarre, and converge towards a narrative that is being sought to be built, that the entire episode was a pre-mediated plot on part of the authorities to kill innocent Muslims. What is being implied is that either they were deliberately allowed to escape so that they could be followed and killed, or maybe they were just picked up from the prison and taken to the place of the encounter and shot dead in cold blood. Grainy video footage of a few seconds from unknown sources are being purported as substantive evidence that the killing was in cold blood.
But if we step back from the noise and rhetoric to examine the facts, a clearer picture emerges.
Fact 1 – All the eight were under trial for heinous crimes including terrorism. Yes, they were not convicted criminals, but four of them had previously escaped from jail, a crime which doesn’t require much to prove in a court of law.
Fact 2 – While escaping this time around, they had murdered a jail guard in cold blood. Unless those making vague references to conspiracies are also alleging that the murder victim was a sacrificial goat in the elaborate plan by the authorities, the fugitives were also facing fresh charges of murder.
Fact 3 – The information about the presence of the fugitives near the encounter site was given to the police by villagers, with the sarpanch being on record on video asserting this. Scores of villagers witnessed the ensuing encounter from a distance. As per eyewitness accounts on video, the police asked the fugitives to surrender and also fired in the air. It was only when they refused to surrender, and started pelting stones that the police fired at them.
Fact 4 – One video shows one policeman firing into the supine body of one of the fugitives from close quarters.
If we piece together these facts, we can dispassionately arrive at some logical conclusions. There were definitely major lapses on the part of the jail administration, who don’t seem to have learnt anything from the previous escape by four of these under trial terrorists. But the eight had definitely escaped and were on the run. When confronted by the police at the encounter site, they did not surrender. Therefore, by no stretch of imagination can this be called a case of ‘fake encounter’, which implies that the whole incident was stage managed. That the police either picked them up from the prison, took them to the site and then killed them in cold blood. Or that they surrendered, and instead of arresting them, the police shot them. Neither of these versions are borne out by the facts listed above.
What the police can possibly be faulted for is ‘use of excessive force’. And how much force can be considered excessive while dealing with hardened criminals and suspected terrorists is a matter of the judgement of the person in charge on the spot. The fact that they had already killed a policeman while escaping would have been a factor in making this judgement. One of the primary responsibilities of the commander on the spot is to avoid casualties to own men, and the fugitives had already demonstrated the intent to do so. Whether they had the means to do so was not something that was easily discernible at the spur of the moment.
Another factor in deciding whether the force was excessive or not is the possible outcome if such force wasn’t used. Since it was obvious that the terrorists had no intentions of surrendering, failing to shoot them could have led to their escaping, and possibly carrying out terrorist attacks in future leading to death of innocent citizens.
Politicians with an axe to grind may go ahead and use the incident to castigate the police and target the government, even choosing to ignore or twist facts. But we, as ordinary citizens must realize and appreciate that such actions by the police and other security forces are aimed at protecting us. If we can’t give them even the slightest margin of error in decision and action, it is at our own peril.