Bhopal encounter is so obviously staged: Manisha Sethi
Manisha Sethi is an authority on the political economy of counterterrorism. Her book Kafkaland delved into the ugly underground of “counter-terrorism operations” exposing the collusion of ultra-nationalism and financial interests. Professor Sethi teaches at the Centre for Comparative Religions and Civilisations, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. In a candid chat with Nidheesh J Villatt, she shares her concerns as well as raises some pertinent questions about fake encounters in the context of the Bhopal “encounter”. Sethi argues that elevation of Narendra Modi as the prime minister has created a conducive atmosphere for institutionalising encounter killings.
As an academic closely following fake encounters in the name of counter-terrorism, what is your first response to the Bhopal encounter?
That it’s so obviously staged. The photographs, video, and now the audio evidence all point to the fact that the killings have been executed in cold blood. The story – or rather the stories, given the many contradictions in the official statements – is simply too fantastic. The great escape using wooden keys, spoon and plate weapons, the fact that the escapees were dressed in new clothes, had suitcases lying strewn next to their bodies, all point to something amiss. There are local eyewitnesses now who say that the eight killed were unarmed. But, of course, the government and the police establishment have responded predictably, dismissing all demands for an enquiry. The only enquiry announced so far is to probe the jailbreak, not the killings.
How would you place the Bhopal encounter in the larger political context?
It represents a new moment in the already brutal trajectory of state violence. That those defending the encounter are not even bothering to say that the police fired in self-defence, marks a shift from earlier discourse. It is amazing that the ATS chief nonchalantly says: so, what if those killed were unarmed? It is the brazenness which is chilling. Even the fig leaf of the pretence of observing the rule of law is gone. The current political and public discourse is saturated by militaristic and jingoistic nationalism. I think it was hoped that the encounter killings would generate a reaction similar to that seen in the case of so-called surgical strikes. That did happen when you see the killings being celebrated on social media, and at least a section of the news media refusing to ask any questions even in the face of compelling evidence.
The repeated warnings by the Union ministers to the media and to the public that they should not ask questions – that they should give up being citizens and become pliant subjects – all point to very dark days ahead.
You have interacted with the close relatives of the some of the victims. Could you recall some of the experiences?
Our team had first visited Madhya Pradesh after the so-called sensational arrests in Khandwa in June 2011. The Khandwa police had claimed that they had raided Aquil Khilji’s house at midnight and busted a SIMI meeting where Khilji and others were planning a terror strike. Among those ‘arrested’ were Khaleel and Amjad, also killed in the ‘encounter’. While all the media was agog about this great busting of SIMI module, the families of those arrested showed us papers which told a different story. Families of Khaleel and Amjad had moved applications in the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s (CJM) court complaining that the police had picked up and detained their sons between 10th– 12th June, failing to produce them before the magistrate even after the lapse of 24 hours. In response to these applications, the City Kotwali police submitted to the CJM that though Khaleel had been called to the police station on June 10, he had not been detained thereafter. The police also claimed that Amjad had not been traceable and could not be questioned. These responses are dated June 13. So, these foolhardy and senseless ‘SIMI’ activists had decided to convene a meeting the same night – in the middle of being questioned and searched by the police – to plan a terror strike. Was it believable?
We also discovered that across the state of Madhya Pradesh, cases against Muslim youth had been booked under UAPA, for allegedly furthering the activities of SIMI. Almost all the cases pertained to possession and distribution of unlawful literature rather than any act of violence, but it had the effect of criminalising a community.
Narendra Modi’s track record on encounter killings when he was Gujarat CM has been under the scanner. Do you think Modi’s elevation as PM created a conducive atmosphere for more brutal encounter killings?
The culture of impunity is well entrenched in the country, and it has existed for a long time. Do remember that as early as 1977, the Janata government had asked Justice Tarkunde to enquire into scores of encounter killings of alleged Naxalites that had taken place in Andhra Pradesh during the Emergency. We’ve seen encounter killings as state policy in Northeast, in Kashmir and in Punjab during the 1980s and 90s. Chhattisgarh has emerged as another theatre of these state-sanctioned kills. What we’ve seen over time is how these policies practised and perfected in the ‘disturbed’ or conflict zones are then absorbed into other parts. In Maharashtra, it was used – to great public applause – to supposedly eliminate the underworld. In the process, the encounter specialists also turned into extortionists.
With the new phase of counter-terrorism policies, starting with the 2000s, the ban on SIMI etc, we see a new phase of encounter killings, which feed directly into building political brands. Gujarat, of course, is the model, which saw a series of encounter killings, including that of Sadiq Jamal, Ishrat Jahan, Sohrabuddin and many others. It was claimed that those killed were terror operatives on their way to assassinate Modi. Each of these encounters was said to have burnished the image of Modi as the Hindu Hriday Samrat. Recall Modi’s rally in Gujarat where he asked the crowd as to what should be the fate of the likes of Sohrabuddin. The crowd screamed back: kill him, kill him.
An elected leader effectively sought to replace the Rule of Law with summary majoritarian verdicts. No less than his Home Minister and his right-hand man, Amit Shah, was arrested for an encounter killing (though he was discharged when the BJP came to power). So naturally with them at the helm of the country’s affairs, the sense of impunity is bound to get stronger.
You can, of course, see Shivraj Singh Chauhan mimicking Modi when he too sought a public seal of approval for Bhopal encounter and taunting if terrorists should be served biryani in jail, rather than being eliminated.
Photo: Vijay Pandey