State Assisted Genocide In IndiaOctober 8, 2009
AHMEDABAD, India — The tableau was as improbable as it was grisly. The bullet-riddled bodies of four Muslims lay neatly lined up in the middle of a road. One of the dead cradled a machine gun. Bomb-making chemicals and a suitcase full of cash sat in the trunk of their car. Intelligence reports had identified the four as terrorism suspects.
It was a tidy crime scene with a story to match: four Islamic extremists who planned to assassinate the powerful chief minister of India’s richest state stopped cold by a fearless band of policemen early on the morning of June 15, 2004. The officers were hailed as heroes. But the story was too good to be true, according to a recently released magistrate’s report. The supposed militants included a 19-year-old college student, a woman named Ishrat Jehan, who had no evident links to terrorist groups, the magistrate wrote. The forensic evidence showed that the four had not died in a shootout but were shot at point-blank range, much earlier than the police had said. None of the four had actually fired a gun. They had been killed, the magistrate declared, in cold blood.
The sensational case has fed a heated national debate about the longstanding Indian police practice of killing suspects. Known euphemistically as “encounter killings,” such extrajudicial executions have been a tolerated and even celebrated method of dealing swiftly with crime in a country with a notoriously slow and sometimes corrupt judiciary. An officer in such cases invariably “encounters” a suspect and kills him, supposedly in self-defense.
In cities like Mumbai, which was for decades gripped by violent organized crime syndicates, officers who killed notorious gangland figures were often seen as dark folk heroes, selflessly carrying out the messy business of meting out justice. These officers, known as encounter specialists, became celebrities, even boasting about the number of gangsters they had killed.
But Indians have become increasingly wary of police officers crusading as judge, jury and executioner. Since 2006, 346 people have been killed in what seem to have been extrajudicial police killings, according to the National Human Rights Commission.
In many of these killings, investigations have found, the motive was not vigilante justice. The police often staged such killings for personal gain: bumping off a rival of a powerful politician in the hopes of a big promotion; killing a crime boss at the behest of one of his rivals; settling scores between businessmen.
Here in the state of Gujarat, the grim practice took on an even more sinister form. According to court documents, lawyers, human rights activists and the families of the victims, police officers seeking the favor of Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, began killing small-time Muslim criminals and framing them as big-time terrorists bent on mass murder. No evidence has been offered to show that Mr. Modi encouraged such killings.
Riots in Gujarat killed more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, in the aftermath of an attack on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims that killed 59 people in 2002. Mr. Modi, a prominent member of the Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has long been accused of fueling the anti-Muslim violence with inflammatory remarks.
Tensions between Hindus and Muslims here are high. The officers who carried out the killings hoped to win promotions and other favors from lawmakers, according to court documents and human rights workers here.
In Gujarat, the team of officers suspected of carrying out these killings usually chose their victims carefully. In all five cases pending in the courts so far, the main targets had shady pasts confirmed by an arrest or conviction, usually for a petty crime. Most were Muslims.
But in the killing of Ms. Jehan that formula went awry. She hardly fit the usual profile of encounter victims. She was a full-time college student who also worked to provide for her widowed mother and six siblings.
According to her family, she was on a trip with her employer to help him set up his marketing business. On June 15, she was shot, according to the police, along with her accomplices as they tried to evade capture.
But the Gujarat magistrate’s report shredded that claim. The food in the victims’ stomachs proved that they had been killed much earlier, the report said. Their wounds were consistent with point-blank shootings. Their hands showed no trace of gunpowder residue. The police had planted weapons on the victims and staged the crime scene.
Gujarat government officials dispute the magistrate’s report, and Gujarat’s High Court has stopped the authorities from arresting the officers it named as the court conducts an inquiry.
Jay Narayan Vyas, a spokesman for the state government, said that the four people killed had been identified by the central government as terrorism suspects. A government intelligence report said that the four were possible terrorism suspects, but the central government has said that these were merely suspicions and could not justify the killings. Mr. Vyas said that the magistrate had overstepped his authority. He dismissed the findings as “false propaganda” from political opponents who wished to discredit Gujarat’s leaders.
Lawyers had known for years that something strange was happening in the Gujarat police force and that the killings of terrorism suspects were dubious, said Mukul Sinha, a lawyer for the relatives of several victims. But hardly anyone thought the killers would be brought to justice.
Then in 2005, the brother of one victim — a small-time bandit named Sohrabuddin Sheikh — sent a letter to India’s Supreme Court demanding an inquiry into the death of Mr. Sheikh, who had been killed by the police and branded a terrorist and who, like the four killed in June 2004, had been accused of planning to kill the chief minister of Gujarat.
Under Indian law any citizen can petition the country’s highest court directly, and the Supreme Court demanded an investigation. In 2007, Gujarat’s government acknowledged that the killing did not happen as the police had claimed and that the police had also killed Mr. Sheikh’s wife to cover up the crime.
The revelation opened the floodgates. “People realized that something can be done, that it is not impossible to get justice in Gujarat,” Mr. Sinha said.
After the officers who made up the elite squad that had carried out these encounters were arrested in the death of Mr. Sheikh, the killings stopped.
“All of a sudden the terrorists have stopped coming to kill Modi,” Mr. Sinha said.
But families of the victims are still waiting for justice.
Ms. Jehan’s mother, Shamima Kausar, said that the charge that her daughter was a terrorist was ludicrous. “She was just a college girl,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “She was my right hand. I am lost without her.”