This guest post has been written by MADHUMITA DUTTA, a Chennai-based activist and writer, in conversation with Savukku Shankar, a former employee of the police department and a freelance journalist
“This state has witnessed more than 90 encounters in the last 15 years. Tamil Nadu is a state of encounters!” laments ‘Savukku’ Shankar. ‘Encounters’, a euphemism for extra-judicial killings, began in the state in the 1980s when the government started cracking down on members of Maoist organisations around Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu.
On April 9th of this year, a Division Bench constituted by the Madras High Court was to commence its final hearing on PILs filed by Advocate Puzhalenthi, asking filing of murder charges against policemen involved in the recent ‘encounter’ deaths of five alleged bank robbers in Velachery; and questioning the magisterial enquiry ordered by the government under Cr. P.C. 176 (1A). Said Shankar, “That section applies only to custodial deaths, but this is an encounter killing”. The matter finally got adjourned to 5th of June. It is not uncommon for cases like this to drag on for years in the Courts. A special bench constituted by the court to hear 26 ‘encounter’ cases that took place in Tamil Nadu between 2006 and 2010 is yet to commence its hearings.
Moreover, the way in which investigations are carried out in such cases, often by investigating officers with dubious track records, does not leave one with much faith in the outcome of such processes. Take for instance, the present Velachery encounter case. The 14th Metropolitan Magistrate who has been entrusted with the enquiry is accused of tampering with the court records in a matter which was heard by her. Curiously, the officer in charge of investigating her case on behalf of the State Human Rights Commission, which took suo motu cognizance of the incident, is himself responsible for two encounters, including one in 2010 while he was serving as the Chennai city Police Commissioner. “And the present Chennai Police Commissioner has been involved in more than 6 encounters in the past”, Shankar points out. “No murder charges have been filed against all these men. PILs filed in these cases languishe in the court and the encounters continue unabated in the state”.
On 22nd February, around midnight, 14 armed policemen surrounded and forcibly entered a small ground floor Tamil Nadu Housing Board flat in Velachery, south Chennai, warning the neighbourhood residents to switch off their lights and stay inside, and fired bullets into five alleged ‘north Indian bank robbers’ living in the flat. Claimed to be in ‘good faith’ and in ‘self defence’, the act of killing was in fact done cold bloodedly, by men in uniform. No one heard any exchange of gun fire, no one heard any cries, but five ‘dreaded criminals’ died that night. They had supposedly opened fire at a police party which had ‘only gone to do verification’ fully armed (in the middle of the night).
The antecedents of the dead men, four from Bihar and one from Bengal, still remain a mystery. No one, including the media, was allowed to meet the parents or relatives of the dead men who came to claim the bodies, even weeks after the incident.
Meanwhile, one Chandrika Rai, one of the alleged robbers whom the Chennai police claimed to have killed, mysteriously surfaced in a village 25 kms from Patna as a truck driver. Identities of the others remain a mystery. Police displayed guns, bullets, money, ‘a blood stained red shirt’ supposed to be the clinching evidence since the CCTV grab from the bank showed one of the bank robbers wearing a red shirt. The mobile phones, which the police claimed to have recovered from the dead men, were neither displayed nor any clues from the phone calls made public. A few reporters who saw the dead men, claimed that two of the deceased seemed to have been killed point blank, as was evident from the burn marks from where the bullets had entered the corner of the forehead.
Shockingly, in an interview to a reporter three days after the incident, the Chennai Police Commissioner claimed that the police team did not know the identities of the men, in fact they “were not certain even about whether the person in the CCTV footage was indeed inside”!
The ambiguity surrounding the whole incident and the way in which the bodies of the five men were surreptitiously sent off with their ‘relatives’, leaves lot of questions unanswered. Who were the men who were killed? If the police had gone only for verification of identity, why were they armed? Why did they go for this routine work in the middle of the night? What justifies the killing of the as yet unidentified men?
Interestingly, in a ‘law & order’ meeting to discuss the bank robbery, chaired by the Tamil Nadu Chief Secretary on 24th January 2012, before the Velachery encounter incident, , the possibility of the bank robbers being ‘migrant labourers or students from other states’ was discussed, as the robbers had been allegedly “conversing in Hindi”. This led the police department to send circulars and issuing police orders asking city colleges to furnish details of non-Tamil students, seeking information on tenants from landlords and the enumeration of out-of–state migrant workers.
These measures that ferment feelings of mutual mistrust and suspicion amongst fellow neighbours and students; that display blatant bias against migrant workers; measures that can rightly be termed as racial profiling, have mostly gone unquestioned in the state by political organisations and mass movements, barring a few intellectuals who have criticised it.