Class, caste, religion decide who will be victim of fake encounters

There is a class, caste and religious angle to the fake encounters in India and now it's an alarming trend under the Narendra Modi-led government at the centre.

Class, caste, religion decide who will be victim of fake encounters

Some three years back, I was traveling through train to Mumbai from Kochi to attend a conference. The train was going to Gujarat via Mumbai. A Gujarati upper-middle-class businessman got into the train from somewhere in Karnataka. After exchanging initial pleasantries he asked me curiously ....“what are you reading”?

I was rereading Omar Khalidi’s classic book “Khaki and Ethnic Violence in India: Armed Forces, Police and Paramilitary Forces During Communal Riots”. I showed him the book. He glanced it for some time and asked me “Do you think Omar Khalidi is sensible”. I told “yes”. His immediate reply was “you journalists are against Modi and favouring Muslims”. I asked him “why”. “The book presents our Armed Forces and police in bad light and supports communal Muslims,” came his quick reply.

His facial expressions betrayed the loss of initial warmth he had towards me. I politely tried to reason out. I pointed that Khalidi’s important contentions like poor representation of Muslims in uniformed  forces of the country as well as biased behaviour of the Forces against Muslims during riots were vaild. “There is reliable data to prove this,” I added.

The Gujarati gentleman furiously reacted to it. He proudly presented then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi as a “classic master” in dealing with “Muslim menace”. He went on to celebrate all alleged fake encounters in Gujarat presided by Modi. “The more you kill them, the country would be more safe,” he asserted.

After a long time I recalled this train journey and conversation yesterday when news about the alleged encounter of eight Muslim undertrials in Bhopal broke. As a usual ritual of our times, there was a celebration of this latest ‘surgical strike’ in the Great Indian social media. In the celebration of this ‘surgical strike’, hatred against Muslims was masquerading as nationalistic fury. Some pundits felt that with this “SIMI” encounter episode, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the present 'Raja of Bhopal', has proved that he possesses enough mettle to get elevated as the Raja of Delhi.

All counter arguments that questioned the illogical and senseless narrative of Madhya Pradesh police were ridiculed and sidelined. The TV channels with some honorable exceptions were celebrating the hunting of “khunkar atankavadis” (deadly terrorists) and shamelessly reproducing the police version. The popular argument is that “terrorists” and “criminals” can escape from the clutches of law by making use of loopholes in Indian judicial system. So it’s not a great crime to kill those criminals using extrajudicial methods....

As a reporter covering the intricacies of rural and marginalized sections of Indian society, I had the opportunities to go into the details of social and political background of some of the fake encounter killings. Spending time with the close relatives of encounter victims as well as researching literature and documents related to encounters have convinced me that there is a class, caste and religious angle to most of the fake encounters that’s happening in India.

A basic content analysis of media reports on encounter killings in liberalised India would tell us many encounter victims are disproportionately Adivasis, Muslims and Dalits. Similarly, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) prison data for 2015 would tell us that more than 55 per cent of undertrial prisoners are either Adivasis, Muslims or Dalits. The same data also records that when it comes to convicts, the percentage of these marginalized communities comes down. For instance, Muslims constitute 14.2% of Indian population. But they constitute 20.9% of undertrials and 15.8% of convicts.

What does this hint? Is the Indian state is increasingly criminalizing marginalized communities by putting them in jail as undertrial prisoners? Most of them languish in jails for years. But in several cases their alleged crime cannot be substantiated by the procedures of judicial scrutiny. This explains the mismatch between percentage of undertrial prisoners and convicts from these communities. This also explains the disproportionate percentage of encounter victims from marginalized sections.


So comes the next question. Why is the state too keen on criminalising marginalized sections? One valid explanation is the increasing militarization of the state and accompanying political economy of securitization. When it comes to the business of branding and killing Muslim youths as terrorists, researchers like Manisha Sethi have demonstrated that it is organically linked to the profit motives of arms industry.

In her magisterial research on politics of counterterrorism, published as a book called Kafkaland, Sethi connects the manufactured discourse on terrorism with the increasing budgetary allocations for arms and securitisation. It is also very significant that discourse on terrorism helped the meteoric rise of ultra nationalist party, BJP into the political centre stage. Isn't it explaining the mystery of “Muslim terrorists” escaping and getting killed in encounters in states ruled by BJP?

My own field experiences in investigating fake encounters and threats of fake encounters in Adivasi/Dalit heartlands have convinced me that fake encounters are organically related to the dynamics of resource grabbing, displacement and militarization of the state. Paramilitary, police and forest officers stage fake encounters when marginalized sections assert their democratic rights.

Uniformed officers also get promotions in staging fake encounters and ‘taming’ crime. Getting promotions is a major attraction in instances of fake encounters where victims are from de-notified tribes. Popularly referred as “criminal tribes”, they constitute an easy prey for the police forces to show that law and order is maintained meticulously. I painfully remember faces of the close relatives of the victims of fake encounters from a de-notified tribe called “Korava” in Tamil Nadu. The women from this community told me that child births in Korava homes are celebrated by the police officers. For police, a Korava child is a “potential criminal” and a “material” for fake encounter which would result in brightening chances of promotions.

I was in the hinterlands of Sonbhadra district of UP in 2015 August investigating Adivasi struggle against forceful land acquisition for Kanhar dam. The dam would have affected not just Adivasis in Sonbhadra but also those in neighbouring villages of Jharkand and Chhattisgarh. The big corporates operating in mining and power sectors in this belt were keen to evict Adivasis by force.

Adivasis and Dalits resisted this attempt by mobilising themselves under the dynamic leadership of a young Adivasi called Shivaprasad. He was also the village panchayat president. The state responded by unleashing brutal violence, including police firing. When I went there I learnt that Shivaprasad was hiding and it’s not easy to meet him. I finally met him in his hideout.

I and my photographer Vijay Pandey spoke to him. From the beginning, it was clear that Shivaprasad was seriously concerned about his security. Once rapport was built, he told us why he is strangely insecure. The then district magistrate of Sonbhadra had threatened Shivaprasad that he would be killed in a fake encounter if he is actively involved in a struggle against land acquisition. “It is usual for the police and forest officers in this belt to threaten us with encounters. But it is unusual and frightening that a district magistrate who has the power and responsibility to monitor the illegal activities of uniformed forces threatens us with fake encounter,” Shivaprasad told me at his hideout.

Shivaprasad and his comrades would later tell me that our investigative report helped him from the real possibility of death in fake encounter. Reflecting on this incident after a year, I believe that the language used by the district collector (the supposed repository of constitutional spirit and morality in the district) mirrored the changing nature of Indian state. This change in the nature of the state sanctifies extrajudicial killings. So in this political climate, fake encounters do have a ‘political legitimacy’!