A 600-kilometre road trip through the villages of Muzaffarnagar and Saharanpur districts with the #KarwaneMohabbat this week helps give images to the dry statistics of deaths of people, a majority Muslim, many Dalits too, in what are called police " encounters’. This is a term coined, obviously, by the police, endorsed by the government. No one wants to call them extrajudicial killings, much less executions.
Advocate Akram, a Human Rights activist, has moved the National Human Rights Commission to investigate 17 such cases in these two districts. The NHRC has not yet published its report, though its teams have visited the families of the victims. In almost each visit, they found the local police, the “guilty” party so to say, had reached the place before the team from Delhi, and was glowering at the family which was answering questions. Human Rights lawyers had to protest before the NHRC asked the police to withdraw and evidence be heard without fear. The NHRC observes that even if the law and order situation is grave, the State cannot resort to such mechanism.
Many of the dead are police informers, who began as petty criminals in village, were caught once perhaps, and then were forced to work for the police spying on others, and often helping the police trap people who were becoming inconvenient.
We discovered at least one person who was said to be deranged when he was shot, another who could have died in police custody and his body was pumped full of bullets to show it as an encounter three days after he died in police lock up, and a young man killed as he sat in the seat of a car.
For the Karwan team, the noxious environment became evident when they, and the lawyer, accomplice a widow to the tehsil headquarters to get her the death certificate of her husband. She is a widow, and needs the certificate for settling other matters, the lawyer told the officer. “Sonia Gandhi is also a widow. Should we give her a certificate also,” said the officer. The death certificate was not given saying she could try the municipal office.
A year ago, in January 2018, the police of Uttar Pradesh held a press conference to gloat over the new Chef Minister Adityanath’s success in controlling major crime. UP police gunned down 31 notorious criminals in less than a year. That meant an average of three ambushes daily.
While 196 criminals sustained injuries, at least 212 policemen have been also being injured, police had said. Four police officers were killed in actual encounters.
This region is frequently polarised. After the last major riots, a survey undertaken by Aman Biradari and Afkar India Foundation discovered as many as sixty-five refugee colonies, twenty-eight in Muzaffarnagar and thirty-seven in Shamli, housing 29,328 residents, described in the report “Living Apart”.
The Behet killing is a case in point. We reach the house in corner of village Pthanpura Jasmore, in Behet tehsil of Saharanpur district. This is where 27-year-old Mansur lived and from where he was picked up by the police on May 27 last year, to be shown later as shot dead in Meerut city. The police claimed that he was running with others after looting a car in Meerut city when they intercepted him, and shot him. Three others ran away.
Mansur’s house is thatched hut, almost the only such dilapidated structure in the village which otherwise has, for the poor, houses built in what was once called the Indira Awas Yojna. Mansur’s father, Akbar, is bent double with some backbone disease, and shuffles with the help of a stick. The talking is done by Mansur’s mother Zubeida Khan, dignified in her grief. Her daughter, married. Zubeida admits her son has gone into bad company once, and was frequently questioned by the police every time there was a crime in the region. In time, he had become friendly with the local police, who would pick him up, question him, and bring him back home, sometimes staying back to have a cup of tea.
But the frequent stays with the police in the lockup had impacted Mansur’s mind. He lost his mind, says the mother. He stopped all work, and even in the red of winter, would roam about in an undershirt and shorts. Often, he was found sleeping on the canal banks nearby.
No one was surprised when the police came again one day looking for Mansur. He was not at home. His mother called for him, his friends found in at the river. He came home, greeted the police, four of them in plain clothes. The family offered them refreshments. The police said he would have to come with him.
He did not return even next morning. The family was worried. And then some young women relatives started crying. The phone message gad said Mansur was dead. The police said he had been shot in Meerut city. They said he was dreaded criminal and had a Rs 25,000 reward on his head. We do not know if someone has claimed that reward.
The family received the body after the autopsy by the civil surgeon. They said his chest had a bullet wound.
Shameem, a construction worker from Sisona, Muzaffarnagar, was killed in an encounter on December 31, 2017 by Jansath police. He was shot in the head when he was sitting on the driver’s seat, His old father, an artisan who once was a specialist weaver of swollen coverlets, said he was picked up with the assistance of a relative, and later killed as the police had to fulfill quotas of encounters they had been given.
The father, Fakru, said his family is being pressurised by the Jansath Police to sign an affidavit exonerating the policemen involved in the encounters. His younger brother, Salman, has now been arrested for keeping illicit arms and drugs. .
Shameem’s wife has left home and is now staying with her parents.
(John Dayal is an author, Editor, occasional documentary film maker and activist. He lives in New Delhi.)