Last week, India’ National Human Rights Commission informed the Supreme Court of India that it has confirmed 191 ‘false encounters’ in the past five years. This was based on a total of 1,671 complaints of false encounters to the NHRC during the same period.
On today’s International Human Rights Day, we look at the menace of ‘false encounters’ in India, as we call on India to crack down on its security forces to ensure this barbaric practice ends immediately.
What is a ‘false encounter’?
False encounters are extra-judicial killings where persons in custody are murdered by security forces and it is claimed that the death took place in an ‘encounter’ (exchange of fire) with police. In some cases, it is claimed the individual escaped from custody during the encounter and is now untraceable.
False encounters are a phenomenon tragically familiar to the people of Punjab. During the period from 1980 to 1995, such false encounters took place with shocking regularity. In 2009 Ensaaf and Human Rights Watch published areport on human rights abuses in Punjab which found that between 1988 and 1995, deaths reported from an “encounter” were strongly correlated with lethal human rights abuses reported by the victims’ families. Police and security force members responsible for these murders operated with impunity and were rewarded with bounties and promotions. Punjab’s current chief of police, Sumedh Saini is accused of orchestrating several such false encounters.
Impunity & “license to kill”
The NHRC earlier this year announced compensation for victims of 1,513 cases of false encounters in Punjab. In 194 cases where it was admitted that the victims were in the custody of the police prior to their deaths, total compensation of Rs. 2.5 lakhs ($5,000) was ordered. All other victim families were awarded Rs. 1.75 lakhs ($3,500).
The cases investigated by the NHRC are only a fraction of the total false encounters that took place in Punjab. In light of the compensation ordered by the NHRC, the Supreme Court of India has asked whether a maximum compensation of 5 lakh is the price for which “armed forces personnel and trigger-happy policemen went unpunished”. Where compensation was provided to victim families, police officers responsible were not prosecuted.
Is $5,000 sufficient to compensate the brutal torture and then murder of an individual by the state?
Far from being prosecuted, police officers who regularly engage in encounter killings are known as “encounter specialists” and are lauded by not just security forces but also by the popular media. Several Bollywood films have centred around ‘encounter specialist’ protagonists.
The culture of impunity surrounding false encounters, originally in Punjab, has lead to the practice being adopted by security forces across India. In 2009 Human Rights Watch published the report “Broken System” which highlighted the impunity with which police operate in India. Sadly, since then, very little improvement has occurred and false encounters are a regular occurrence in places like Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Manipur, Kashmir and even in apparently ‘advanced’ states like Gujarat. In fact, Gujarat’s former minister of state for home Amit Shah, who is charged as an accused in the well known “Sohrabuddin” false encounter, has been nominated by the ruling BJP to contest Gujarat’s state elections this month.
What can we do?
As Canada and India continue to develop closer trade ties, it is important that India is encouraged to bring ‘encounter killings’ to an end and to prosecute the police officers responsible.
In 2010, India objected to Canada refusing visas to members of India’s security forces who had been implicated in human rights abuses. Although the Canadian government issued an apology in the matter, it is essential that individuals who are implicated in horrific practices such as fake encounters are not allowed to enter Canada. Severalcommentators, including the WSO insisted that Canadian visa officials must be allowed to do their jobs without intimidation or pressure from foreign governments or a misinterpretation of Canada's economic interests.
Canada and all people who support human rights for all must continue to call on India to end false encounters and other human rights abuses by security forces.
Tomorrow, we will be looking at the story of a victim of a false encounter who survived to tell the tale…