A lot has been said on the spate of encounter killings that now have come to define the Yogi-led Uttar Pradesh (UP) government. Since March 2017, 49 people have been killed in over 1,100 encounters. More than 370 have been injured and over 3,300 arrested across the state. Despite a notice from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), no action appears to have been taken. However, the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court alleging that the guidelines issued by the Court in earlier decisions had not been adhered to by the UP police. On Monday, a bench comprising of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices AM Khanwilkar, and DY Chandrachud asked that a copy of the petition be served to Additional Advocate General of the state, who, in turn, will file the reply within two weeks. The PUCL prayed in their petition that the Court issue directions for a Court-monitored independent investigation take place. They also prayed for adequate compensation to be paid to the victims' families.
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The petition provided a timeline of incidents which led the PUCL to believe that the present Yogi led regime in UP was taking recourse to 'administrative liquidation' in the name of fighting crime. With regard to UP, the timeline began with a report in The Hindu on September 16, 2017. It was reported that the Assistant Director General (Law and Order), Anand Kumar had stated that police encounters in UP were as per the “desires of the government, expectations of public and according to the constitutional and legal power accorded to the police.” The report also quoted the Deputy Chief Minister, Keshav Prasad Maurya saying that “today criminals are terrified with the thought that either they will have to give up a crime or leave U.P., or maybe even leave this world.” On November 19, 2017, the Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath stated that “criminals will be jailed or killed in encounters”. Three days later the NHRC took suo-moto cognizance of the Chief Minister's statements as reported in the media and expressed concern that the State was endorsing police encounters.
On February 5, 2018, a gym trainer in Noida was critically injured during a police encounter. The NHRC issued a press release the same day, condemning the shooting. The press release stated that “[t]hey [the police] are using their privileges to settle scores with the people. The police force is to protect the people, these kinds of incidents would send a wrong message to the society. Creating an atmosphere of fear is not the correct way to deal with the crime. In this particular case, the injured man is not an offender. He was travelling with his friends when the rowdy act done by the delinquent SI has gravely violated his right to life and liberty.” However, on February 9, Yogi Adityanath responding to the opposition's concerns regarding the encounters stated that “[e]veryone should be guaranteed security, but those who want to disturb the peace of the society and believe in the gun, should be given the answer in the language of the gun itself.” On February 15, he stated that “[i]t is unfortunate that some people are showing sympathy toward criminals. This is dangerous for democracy. The Noida incident which took place on February 3, in which Jitendra Yadav was hit by a bullet was not a police encounter, and police do not count it as an encounter. Even the person affected had endorsed it.”
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The petition also drew references from articles in NDTV, The Wire and The Hindu. On February 21, NDTV published an article wherein they found that the First Information Reports (FIR) filed by the UP police after encounters all contained the same language as if they had been copied and pasted.
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On February 24, The Wire published an article which pointed out that out of fourteen encounters, thirteen of those killed were Muslims. The article also highlighted the similarities in narratives of each of the encounter cases. The victims were between seventeen and forty years old and were all undertrials. Before each encounter, the police received a tip-off about their location. The victims were shown to be on either a bike or a car and as soon as the police stopped them, they started firing. In a retaliatory fire, the accused received bullet injuries and were ultimately declared dead on arrival at the hospital. In most of the cases, police had recovered a .32 bore pistol and live cartridges. The article also mentioned that the reward for the persons killed was announced only after the encounter had already taken place.
On March 31, The Hindu published an article which stated that “since March 2017, 49 persons have been killed in over 1,100 encounters, more than 370 have been injured and over 3,300 arrested across the State.”
What is intriguing in the magnitude of the encounters is that the law has already been settled by the Supreme Court on this matter. In 1997 the Supreme Court had stated in PUCL v Union of India (Manipur fake encounters case) that anywhere an option to arrest the accused was available, shooting them in cold blood was not a legitimate recourse to deal with militancy. The Court had also stated that a State cannot deprive a person of his life otherwise than in procedure established by law and that the State cannot take the defence of that it was discharging the sovereign functions of the State. In DK Basu v State of West Bengal which was also decided in 1997, the Supreme Court stated that “[i]f the functionaries of the government become law breakers, it is bound to breed contempt for law and would encourage lawlessness and every man would have the tendency to become law unto himself, thereby leading to anarchism. No civilized nation can permit that to happen.”
In Om Prakash v State of Jharkhand, the Supreme Court in 2012 had stated that “[i]t is not the duty of the police officers to kill the accused merely because he is a dreaded criminal. Undoubtedly, the police have to arrest the accused and put them up for trial. This court has repeatedly admonished trigger-happy police personnel, who liquidate criminals and project the incident as an encounter. Such killings must be deprecated. They are not recognized as legal by our criminal justice administration system. They amount to State-sponsored terrorism.”
Finally, in 2014, the Supreme Court issued a set of detailed guidelines to be followed in the case of an encounter killing through its decision in PUCL v State of Maharashtra. These guidelines mentioned the manner in which the site of the encounter is to be recorded. That the deceased persons' families are to be informed of the death. The guidelines also mention that gallantry awards should not be given to those police personnel involved in the encounter until their gallantry is established beyond doubt. The court also mentioned that the report on the encounter should be investigated by the CID or the police personnel of another police station, among other direction.
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What transpires here is that though the law is settled, the sheer number of encounter killings in UP could lead one to believe that the law is not being adhered to. To top it off, reports have shown that the victims' families were never informed by the police of the deaths. Neither has any compensation been paid. When one considers that the FIRs registered appeared to be copied, it is clear that the lawlessness in UP comes from those in uniform. The extent of the rot may only be revealed by an independent investigation into the matter.