Thus spoke Kiren Rijiju, the Honourable Minister of State for Home Affairs for the largest democracy in the world, when asked about the extra-judicial killing of eight undertrials by policemen during a jailbreak in Bhopal on Monday, October 31.
But first the context:
Eight suspected members of the banned Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) were lodged in the high-security Bhopal jail and were awaiting trial on various serious charges including armed robbery and the killing of policemen. Some were part of a group that had earlier escaped from Khandwa prison. The prisoners were lodged together and plotted their escape on the night of Diwali when security was supposedly expected to be lax. They killed one guard outside their cell with a sharp weapon and then scaled the prison walls using bed sheets. They were not stopped anywhere within the prison complex by guards and nor were any alarms raised since the CCTV cameras were malfunctioning.
The details from here on get hazy. Villagers say they apprehended the eight strangers and informed a nearby patrol. In any event, policemen caught up with the men who were on a nearby hillock in the presence of villagers. What followed was this: the eight men were shot dead by policemen. Post-mortem reports show most gunshots were above the waist; entry and exit wounds establish that all were shot at close quarters.
The Inspector General of Police of Bhopal went on record to say four firearms were recovered from the men who had fired six rounds at policemen. A video recording of the encounter (veracity not yet authenticated) shows clearly that the men were unarmed and had their backs to the police who are heard telling each other to shoot the men in the chest. Sanjeev Shami, the head of MP's anti-terror squad, however, has gone on record to say that the men were unarmed. When informed that this was at odds with the IG's version, he stood by his own statement and justified the killings by saying "even if the police are not being fired at, they can use such force".
As of now, almost 72 hours after the incident, no proof has been provided of the supposed firearms that the men were carrying, or of the bullets fired by them. No policemen sustained gunshot wounds though three were apparently injured by sharp weapons. When questioned by the media on the classic signs of an "encounter-killing", senior policemen and government functionaries aimed to throttle any voices of doubt about the official version of events, muddled as it were in parts.
First, the Honourable Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan: he claimed the opposition is trying to politicise the incident and that "these men were dreaded terrorists...We have no idea what terror they would have spread. Yet for them, so much fuss..."
Second, the Honourable Home Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Bhupinder Singh: he claimed that the prisoners "were planning a huge terror attack," and that a "big network" made their jail break possible. "If such terrorists had managed to escape, it would have been a great threat to national security. The Madhya Police managed to trace and kill them in a short time," he added for good measure.
Third, the Honourable Minister in charge of Prisons, Madhya Pradesh, Kusum Mehdale: "You should praise us for killing the accused even though they escaped...they were stopped from carrying out more dangerous acts," she said.
To each of you honourable representatives and to the Honourable Minister of State for Home Affairs - may I point out a few rights accorded to each and every one of us by the laws of this great land we feel proud to call home? And yes, we love this country even though we may occasionally have the temerity to disagree with you.
It does not matter if the person is a criminal or a dreaded terrorist - he or she still has to be dealt with in accordance with law. An under-trial cannot be pronounced guilty except by a court, and any punishment, let alone the taking of life, can only be meted out by the judiciary after a finding of guilt for a crime which invites the death penalty. This is what differentiates us from barbarians, separates the civilised from the junglee, and protects order from utter chaos. Article 21 declares that no citizen can be denied his life and liberty except by procedure established by law. Our founding fathers fought a long and painful struggle to give us the rights and liberties enshrined in our constitution and we will fight till death to protect the right to question anyone who rides roughshod over them. So yes, Mr. Rijiju, doubting you is in my culture. And thank God for that.
You say the policemen acted in self-defence. Well then, make public the evidence to indicate that the policemen were in danger of losing their lives unless they killed these men who were not carrying firearms (as evidenced by the video footage and corroborated by the head of the ATS) by shooting above the waist. The due process of law guarantees everyone the right to life and does not give the unlimited right of self-defence to anybody. On the contrary, enforcement agencies like the police are under a higher duty to protect life and to ensure that the use of force in self-defence is not disproportionate to the perceived threat. What threat to their life could they have faced from men who did not carry firearms? They were under a duty to apprehend them and produce them before a court of law. The crime of jail break is punishable by only a two-year sentence, not with death. The punishment for the crime of the killing of the jail warden would have been decided by a court. Why then were most gunshot wounds to the men above the waist if not to kill? That is precisely what is called an extra-judicial killing.
Mr. Rijiju, Sir, you hold an office most citizens can only aspire to. Please have the grace to accord it due respect. We need to question why and how, why not and what next. Do not let your chair sink into this morass of absolutism where to question is to be unpatriotic, to disagree is to be seditious and to protect our constitution is to make us all into terrorist sympathisers. We know you can do better than this. Yours is also to question why.
(Mahua Moitra is a member of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly and General Secretary of the West Bengal Trinamool Congress.)
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