Fake encounters of the murderous kind in India

An alleged staged gunfight in Kashmir is yet another example of the extrajudicial killings that have become standard practice in India, often with tacit support from the state.

Extrajudicial killings, often in the form of “staged” encounters, have been a regular feature of India’s counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir since the dawn of militancy in the late 1980s. New allegations of a fake encounter have thrown a fresh spotlight on the theatre of state violence and the culture of impunity under which Indian forces operate in this disputed Himalayan valley.

On 18 July, the Indian army claimed to have killed three militants during a brief “retaliatory” gunfight in south Kashmir’s Shopian district, in what seemed a routine encounter between the Indian forces and insurgents challenging Delhi’s rule in the region. Following the encounter, Indian army Brigadier Ajay Kotach said the military operation was launched after receiving information about the presence of Pakistani militants. 

“While the search party moved in, they came under fire and in the ensuing action three terrorists were neutralised,” he told reporters. The identities of the slain men were not divulged at the time, with Kashmir police saying that it was being ascertained.

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Three weeks later, the families of three missing men in the Rajouri area of the Jammu region refuted the army’s claim, stating that those dubbed “militants” were actually labourers who had gone to Shopian in search of work. The men were said to be relatives and were identified as Imtiyaz Ahmad, 20, Ibrar Ahmad, 16, and Mohammad Abrar, 25. 

Their families had lodged a missing person’s report with the local police after they had last spoken to their children on the evening of 17 July. When the families were unable to get in touch with them the following day as their phones had stopped working, they assumed the men may have been quarantined under Covid-19 measures. According to the families, these men had travelled from Rajouri to Shopian on foot in an arduous journey along the Pir Panjal mountain range that connects the two valleys.

On 10 August, the families came across the pictures of the three “militants” killed in the encounter on social media, only to realise that they were their missing children. The police had discreetly buried these “unidentified militants” some 100km away in a remote graveyard in north Kashmir that is reserved for foreign militants. 

Since April, after the lockdown imposed to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, Indian forces have introduced a new protocol according to which the bodies of militants are not handed over to locals, but instead buried in remote areas. This has raised concerns about accountability and criticism for violating basic human rights.  

Calls for an impartial probe

Following the families’ claims and massive public outrage, the Indian army instituted a court of inquiry to investigate the alleged encounter. It also placed an advertisement in local newspapers asking people to share “credible inputs” for its probe into the incident. The Kashmir police said they were also probing the claims of the families and had taken DNA samples for matching purposes.

The families, however, want an independent inquiry into what they say was a clear case of a “staged” encounter. Echoing this demand, several human rights bodies as well as regional political parties have urged that a time-bound, independent probe into the encounter must take place.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami termed the incident “a serious issue” and called for a judicial probe. “In the past also unfortunate incidents of civilians being killed in fake encounters for rewards and promotions have been reported in Kashmir,” he said. The Jammu and Kashmir National Conference noted that if what the families claim were true, “such extrajudicial killings in a democratic country like India was shocking and reflective of the culture of impunity”.

5 August 2020: A paramilitary soldier stands guard in Srinagar on the first anniversary of the abrogation of Article 370, which had guaranteed Jammu and Kashmir a measure of autonomy. (Photograph by Waseem Andrabi/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
5 August 2020: A paramilitary soldier stands guard in Srinagar on the first anniversary of the abrogation of Article 370, which had guaranteed Jammu and Kashmir a measure of autonomy. (Photograph by Waseem Andrabi/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The global rights body Human Rights Watch said the Indian security forces had long operated with impunity in Kashmir, and that army investigations in the past had been more focused on shielding those responsible for abuse than providing justice. “Any army investigation into the recent killings will be meaningless,” said the organisation’s South Asia director, Meenakshi Ganguly. She said there could be no end to the cycle of violence if the military forces are not held accountable for their abuses.

Amnesty International India also called for a probe by “independent civilian authorities”. “Civilian investigations and trials offer a degree of transparency and independence that is missing from the military justice system,” its executive director in India, Avinash Kumar, said in a statement.

Shielding the rights abusers

The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, which has documented cases of torture, enforced dissapearance and extrajudicial killings, said the killing of the three civilians was a reminder of the “deeply entrenched structures of violence” that are prevalent in the valley. “This crime is a continuation of the unaccountable nature of counter-insurgency measures taken by the Indian state in Kashmir for nearly three decades now. The case reveals that extrajudicial killings at the hands of armed forces is not an exception, as claimed by some, but a norm,” it said.

In Kashmir, Indian forces operate under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which effectively grants soldiers immunity from prosecution for serious human rights abuses. It also gives the military wide powers to arrest, shoot to kill and occupy or destroy property in counter-insurgency operations. In 2018, India’s Ministry of Defence, in a statement before Parliament, said that it had granted zero permissions to prosecute soldiers in the past three decades. In some cases, the soldiers had been accused of unlawful killings, torture and rape.

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Some of the most prominent cases of fake encounters in Kashmir include those at Machil in 2010, in Padroo in 2006 and the Pathribal army killings in 2000. In all of these cases, none of the accused was punished. In 2010, a massive uprising erupted in Kashmir after a police investigation found that Indian soldiers had killed three civilians in a staged gun battle and then said their victims were militants in order to claim a reward. In 2014, the army reported that a military court sentenced five soldiers to life in prison, but three years later the punishment was suspended by a military tribunal.

Amnesty International said it had repeatedly called for the repealment of the AFSPA because it facilitates immunity and impunity for human rights violations. “[The AFSPA] is an abusive law that feeds a cycle of impunity for human rights violations. The law grants virtual immunity to members of the security forces from prosecution for alleged human rights violations,” it said.

According to the United States-based legal anthropologist Haley Duschinski, since the 1990s, extrajudicial killings under the pretext of counter-insurgency operations have not only been justified but also considered necessary to tackle the law and order situation in the state. “The AFSPA essentially transforms the ‘dangerous and disturbed  region’ of Kashmir valley into a theatre of warfare, a hot zone inhabited exclusively by combatants whose lives can and must be destroyed in order to protect the  public in a period of emergency,” she said.

Duschinski notes that the killings are often followed by the official claim that the victim died in a legitimate military encounter with police or army forces. “In some cases, the victim’s identity is altered as the body is presented, along with an array of weapons, ammunition and other evidence of guilt ostensibly recovered from his possession, under the false name of a foreign, typically Pakistani, infiltrator, thus creating patterns of disappearances.”

Long history of lawless executions

Fake encounters are not exclusive to Kashmir. They are also used under the pretext of law enforcement cracking down on criminal and terror-related activities in other states of India.

Extrajudicial executions have become commonplace in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, ever since the right-wing government of Yogi Adityanath took charge in March 2017. As many as 119 accused have been killed in such encounters, with the police often saying that their crossfire in self-defence led to the deaths. 

In July, the Uttar Pradesh police claimed to have gunned down a wanted gangster, Vikas Dubey, in an alleged shootout. Dubey, who was wanted in connection with the murder of eight policemen, was shot dead while allegedly trying to flee. While questions were raised over the police version of the shootout, many perceived his killing as an attempt to deny investigators the opportunity to probe his connections with politicians and senior police officials.

A Right to Information request revealed that between 2000 and 2017 there were 1 782 cases of fake encounters registered in India, with Uttar Pradesh accounting for 794 (44.55%). The state is followed by Andhra Pradesh (94), Bihar (74), Jharkhand (69), Assam (69) and Manipur (63). Delhi reported 40 cases while Jammu and Kashmir reflects 22 cases during the same period.

4 August 2020: A man feeds his child next to barbed wire installed to enforce a curfew in Srinagar, the largest city in Jammu and Kashmir. (Photograph by Waseem Andrabi/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
4 August 2020: A man feeds his child next to barbed wire installed to enforce a curfew in Srinagar, the largest city in Jammu and Kashmir. (Photograph by Waseem Andrabi/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

In December 2019, police in the southern state of Telangana claimed to have killed four men, accused of raping and murdering a 27-year-old veterinary doctor, in an alleged encounter. The killing was led by Cyberabad police commissioner Vishwanath Sajjanar, known as an encounter specialist, who in 2018 had also killed three youths accused of throwing acid on two girls. In 2016, Sajjanar also claimed to have killed Naxal leader Mohammed Nayeemuddin when he allegedly tried to attack the police and escape. 

In 2017, the Supreme Court of India directed the Central Bureau of Investigation, the nation’s federal investigation agency, to investigate as many as 1 528 extrajudicial killings in alleged fake encounters between 2000 to 2012 in the insurgency-hit Manipur state. The AFSPA has been operational in the state since 1958 to counter the spread of militancy in that region.

Modi’s violent legacy

Journalist Neha Dixit argues that many of the extrajudicial killings carried out in Gujarat between 2002 and 2007 happened during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure as the chief minister. These included the killing of young Muslims such as Sohrabuddin Shaikh, his wife Kausar Bi and aide Tulsiram Prajapati. In 2004, the Gujarat police also killed 19-year-old Ishrat Jahan and three others for allegedly being operatives of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which had planned to kill Modi.

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Dixit, in a series of stories on extrajudicial killings in India, wrote that the former deputy inspector general of police in Gujarat, Dahyabhai Gobarji Vanzara, had revealed in his 2013 letter of resignation how he, along with 32 other officers in custody on charges of staging encounters, had acted in accordance with the policies of Modi’s government. He finally chose to speak about it after feeling abandoned by Modi, who used their actions as evidence of his uncompromising leadership.

A 2007 Human Rights Watch report showed how Punjab police were responsible for hundreds of fake encounters, extrajudicial killings, mass cremations of victims and enforced disappearances in the name of combating Khalistan militancy in the state.

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