The continuing practice of extra-judicial killings (“encounter killings” in police parlance) has once again come to the fore in India with reports of the killing of one Suhrabudheen Sheikh, followed by the killing and burning of his wife Kausarbi in Gujarat, where a BJP government is in power, led by Narendra Modi. The Gujarat state government has already admitted these deaths in court. Now it has also come out that three top police officials, led by the Deputy Inspector General of Police D. G. Vanzara, also eliminated another person, one Tulsiram Prajapathi, who was a witness to the killing of Suhrabudheen Sheikh and the elimination of his wife Kausarbi. Charges have been filed against them. The liquidation of three individuals for reasons best known to the police has already added one more sordid chapter to the history of the Indian police force.

Several organisations and groups concerned with violations of human rights have become more and more aware of the extent and gravity of inhuman practices perpetrated by governments, arms of government, and other forms of organised power in many parts of the world against the lives of large numbers of people. In India extra-judicial killings are conveniently called ‘encounter killings' by police. This euphemism has been used there since the 1960s. Although most of these killings go unnoticed, the recent incidents that have taken place in Gujarat have attracted an unusual degree of public scrutiny. Gujarat is the Indian state where nearly 3,000 bodies of Muslims littered the streets, lanes and by-lanes in 2002, when Narendra Modi presided over a pogrom against Muslims.

The people of Ahmadabad, the capital of Gujarat, saw four blood-spattered bodies sprawled in the road on June 15, 2004. They were the remains of four Muslim youths, one of them a teenage girl. They were officially described as “terrorists” involved in a conspiracy to “assassinate Narendra Modi”. They were shot dead in an “encounter” with the police near the residence of the chief minister of Gujarat. The police ensured that there were no witnesses to the killings so that they could go scot-free. But to the killing of Suhrabudheen there were two witnesses, one his wife Kausarbi and the other Tulsiram Prajapathi, and they had to be eliminated. It was done promptly in the hope that it would close the entire episode. Once a case is described as an “encounter death”, there is no need for the lawless law-enforcers to provide explanations.

There was popular sympathy for the victims, especially the girl, named Ishrat Jahan, from Mumbai who was the breadwinner of her family. According to her mother, Shameema, Ishrat had been supporting her large family by tutoring students since her farther died two years ago. Income from tuition had stopped because of the closure of educational institutions for the summer vacation, forcing her to take the job of an accounting assistant in the firm of a man named Javed from Kerala, who was one of the four killed by the police. Javed was originally named Pranesh Kumar Pillay; his conversion to Islam and his working in the Gulf for some years were all used to cast suspicion on him and imply that he must have had links with anti-Indian terrorists. His father, Gopinathan Pillai, has repeatedly ascertained that his son accepted Islam while working in Pune almost ten years ago primarily to marry a Muslim girl named Sajitha, and not to join any terrorist group. Ishrat's neighbours have confirmed that her family was so poor that at the time of Ishrat's death they owed seven months' rent. The media have pointed out that if she had been an operative of a terrorist outfit, as claimed by the police, she and her family would not have been so poor.

“Encounter killings” are not occasional incidents in India. In Kashmir they are a continuing saga. Several incidents of “encounter killings” have taken place in various parts of the country. In October 2002 the Gujarat police killed a man named Samir Khan Pathan who was alleged to have planned to kill Narendra Modi. On November 3, 2002, the police shot and killed two men at New Delhi's Ansal Plaza shopping complex, claiming that the two men were Pakistani terrorists. A local doctor who claimed to have witnessed the event alleged that the encounter was engineered, and filed a petition before the High Court in Delhi, seeking an independent investigation into the killings. On December 28, 2002, the police killed three youths in Patna, the capital of Bihar state, in a similar encounter. Following widespread protests, the Bihar state government ordered an investigation by the Criminal Investigation Department into the killings. On January 23, 2003, the Indian police shot dead one Sadique Jamal Mehtar, 25, in Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat. The police alleged that Mehtar had been on a mission to kill Modi.

The latest investigation into the killings of Suhrabudheen Shaikh and his wife near Ahmedabad has again focused public attention on extra-judicial killings in India. According to a report in the Hindustan Times, an explanation for the prevalence of extra-judicial killings might be found in a confidential letter written over 15 years ago by the head of the Intelligence Bureau (IB). The report said that the letter, written by the then Director of the Intelligence Bureau, V. G. Vaidya, to then Director General of Police K. P. S. Gill on December 30, 1991, serves as a de facto blueprint for police forces on how to carry out extra-judicial killings and avoid public attention. The report says: “It dealt with the subject of some police officers revealing to Western journalists how they had killed terrorists without legal sanction. One officer even gave the journalists access to a militant who had been illegally detained and was later shot. Their professional compulsions in executive action should not get reflected in their public utterances, which should be correct and responsible,” Vaidya wrote in the letter. In effect, he was condoning the killings, and objecting only to their being revealed to journalists.

International human-rights law prohibits the arbitrary deprivation of life under any circumstances, and Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that “every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.” Article 4 of the ICCPR states that this right cannot be waived “even in times of public emergency threatening the life of the nation.” Moreover, under Article 2(3)(a) and (b) of the ICCPR, state parties have the obligation to ensure that remedies are made available to the victims of human-rights violations, and that those remedies are effective. Extra-judicial killings clearly contravene the right to life.

The Indian government ratified ICCPR in 1979. By ratifying an international treaty that enshrines the right to life, India is obliged not only to respect that right in principle, but also to take effective measures to ensure that extra-judicial killings do not occur in practice. Although the right to life is enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian constitution, the increasing incidence of extra-judicial killings in the country demonstrates that the government has failed to take effective measures against the police force, or to bring them to book. It must be remembered that respect for human rights is the sine qua non of any civilized society, and that disrespect for human rights is equal to denying civil liberties guaranteed to citizens by the state.

Recent killings at Nandigram in West Bengal have shown that violations of human rights occur in states ruled by the Communist Party also. Amnesty International's report dated August 10, 2001 brought to light the methods of torture practised in West Bengal. The report said: “Police are being urged to use whatever means necessary to deal with crime and are often allowed to use torture as a substitute for investigations, while action is rarely taken against the perpetrators. This system of policing is having little if any impact on crime.” CPI (M) leader Benoy Konar, defending police brutality, once said, “It must be viewed whether police is carrying out torture with a correct aim or an incorrect aim...In a class divided society, the police has the duty of carrying out repression.... You [journalists] have the pen in your hands, the police has the stick.”

Several human-rights organisations have conducted studies of extra-judicial killings by the police in India. A study conducted by the Asia Pacific Human Rights Network has noted that “encounter killings” are not isolated incidents but occur throughout India. They are part of a “deliberate and conscious state administrative practice” for which successive Indian governments must bear responsibility. Indeed, successive Indian governments have adopted a de facto policy of sanctioning extra-judicial killings by members of the police forces, army and security personnel, the study says.

The operations against the Naxalite movements in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, and the operations against Punjabi extremists, are some of the most horrific examples. The paramilitary operations in Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur and Assam cause grave concern as human-rights activists report widespread instances of “encounter killings”, rape and torture of suspects. The Vimadlal Commission has taken the lid off the so-called encounter killings in Andhra Pradesh during the mid-1970s. Uttar Pradesh state is noted for its encounter deaths, which have assumed alarming proportions in recent years.

There are several methods of torture in India that are used by the police and security forces against suspects belonging to poorer sections of society to extract confessions, and sometimes bribes. According to a report, in areas such as Jammu and Kashmir, suspects in detention cells are beaten and electric shock is meted out as routine punishment to extract confessions and information. The report says: “The methods of torture vary. For instance, in Assam, Jammu & Kashmir and Punjab (particularly in areas where the Punjab police or Punjab paramilitary units operate) dislocation of ball and socket of the suspect appears to be the preferred mode of torture. Sometimes the choice is more eclectic with a judicious combination of aeroplane treatment (tying the hands of the suspect behind his back and suspending him over a beam, leading to shoulder dislocation), electric torture with cattle prod and roller treatment (crushing the muscles of the suspect with a wooden log being rolled on his leg). Of course, beating of suspects with belts and lathis [sticks] is standard fare in most police lockups. Human Rights groups have recorded cases involving rape and sexual humiliation of woman suspects.” This is all happening despite the fact that India has signed the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT for short).

On September 25, 2006, the Committee on International Human Rights of the New York City Bar Association released a report, Anti-Terrorism and Security Laws in India. It urges the Indian government to limit its application of anti-terrorism laws. The report says that attentiveness to these human rights concerns is not simply a moral and legal imperative, but a crucial strategic imperative.

The report concludes with the remarks that the sweeping powers given to the authority in such enactments as the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (also known as TADA), the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) were used predominantly not to prosecute and punish actual terrorists, but rather as a tool that enables pervasive use of preventive detention and a variety of abuses by the police, including extortion and torture. It is also noteworthy that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act has come under sharp criticism by the Justice B. P. Jeevan Reddy Committee because of its “oppression and high-handedness”, and the Committee has asked for the scrapping of this draconian law because it is “too sketchy, too bald and quite inadequate in several particulars”. Laws such as the Public Safety Act (in Jammu and Kashmir), the Disturbed Areas Act and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act have led to abuses in various parts of the country. Section 197 of the Criminal Code of Procedure gives security forces effectively complete immunity for crimes committed in the course of duty. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act has been the object of widespread protest in Manipur and in other parts of North East India because it offers immunity to army personnel guilty of killing people indiscriminately.

Because of the increasing number of “encounter killings”, it would be wise for the government and its organs to note what the Supreme Court of India observed some time back. The apex court pointed out that “terrorism often thrives where human rights are violated”, and that “the lack of hope for justice provides breeding grounds for terrorism.”