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Call it by its name

By Ali Khan Mahmudabad

In the Analects of Confucius, one of his disciples, Tsze-Lu, asks Master Confucius what the first thing he intends to do before administering the territory belonging to the Duke of Wei. Confucius replies, “What is necessary is to rectify names.” On being asked why this is important, he says a wise man “corrects names, for if language is not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried onto success.” Not calling things by names which reflect what they truly are is duplicitous. Both the ends and the means of achieving them, are then, premised on deceit. “Police encounters” are an instance of this deceit.

Recently, there has been a spate of encounters across Uttar Pradesh. These extra-judicial killings bypass due processes for quicker results. The primary change, in this case, that needs to take place is to not hide under labels that mask what an encounter really is — premeditated murder. In the rarest of rare cases, the police needs to be able to exercise their ability to apprehend a violent criminal. However, encounters are highly choreographed affairs where the alleged criminal is taken to a suitable spot and then asked to flee. As the criminal tries to escape, he is gunned down and incriminating evidence is placed to fulfill the technical requirements under which an armed officer can shoot a fugitive. A desi katta or country-made revolver is a compelling piece of evidence as there is no way to trace it. Over the years, several policepersons have become infamous as encounter specialists, a dubious honorific that almost implies that there is an art to the whole affair.

The fundamental problem with encouraging encounters is that they not only bypass legal due process, but also empower individuals to take justice into their own hands. Encounters have been misused to settle political scores and even to demonstrate that a particular government is tough on crime. According to the National Human Rights Commission, in the initial 10-month period of Yogi Adityanath’s government, UP topped the list of states when it came to fake encounters and custodial deaths.

The situation is so acute that, following Apple retail manager Vivek Tiwari’s recent killing by a policeman in Lucknow, Adityanath’s immediate impulse was to placate people that this was “not an encounter”. A few days before Tiwari’s killing, the police had shot and killed two young men near Aligarh, Naushad and Mustaqeem. Their “encounter” was even covered by the media who were especially invited to watch the spectacle. This act in itself begs the question as to how the police had prior knowledge of the movements of the two young men. According to the families of Naushad and Mustaqeem, the police forcibly picked them up from their home. Since the encounter, various other reports have emerged. The brother of the temple priest, allegedly killed by Naushad and Mustaqeem, has stated that he believes the two were not the culprits. Following the killings, both the police and goons who are allegedly connected to the Bajrang Dal have accosted and physically assaulted anyone trying to visit the young men’s village, Utrauli. Why were members of the Bajrang Dal, a group linked to the BJP, so keen to prevent visitors from reaching the families of the encounter victims?

People who are from more vulnerable socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to become victims of an “encounter”. Within this group, Muslims have become particularly susceptible. Across India, leaders of the BJP have used language that consistently reinforces the notion that Muslims are criminals, infiltrators, or worse still, a pathological disease in the body politic of India. This rhetoric has to be placed in the larger context of an atmosphere which thrives on the threat of the enemy within. The recent murder of Azeem in Delhi is a stark illustration of how violence has become normalised. The parallels with 1930s Germany are evident — it was precisely the paranoia propagated by the state against Jews that led to the common German citizen turning a blind eye to blatant injustice. Like the Muslims, Dalits, rationalists or anyone who dares to dissent today, the Jews were held responsible for anything which went wrong in Germany, then.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that Muslims and Dalits also tend to be the victims of most other forms of extra-judicial killings such as vigilantism and mob lynchings. The hyper-normalisation of communal violence in recent years has been so successful that lynchings hardly evoke the outrage that they should. In an atmosphere such as this, countering “police encounters” will barely seem like a matter of urgency. However, it is important to remember that the conduct of the state is ultimately what gives sanction to civilians who take matters into their own hands. Nearly all political parties have been complicit in encouraging encounters, and, therefore, this is an issue around which a cross-party consensus is needed. Urgent steps need to be taken by the government to preserve the sanctity of the law. Perhaps one important step to halt this legally and morally reprehensible practice would be by calling police encounters what they really are — extrajudicial murders.