Lessons From Batla

Today, a crucial judgement passed has been passed in one of the Delhi courts on a controversial encounter case. The controversy and the verdict have far-reaching consequences.

Just a bit of refresh to understand the background. Based on an alleged tip off, seven officers from Delhi Police stormed an apartment building in Delhi’s Batla House in September 2008. The police killed two ‘terrorists’ and lost one of their officers called Mohan Sharma. This incident took place barely a few days after the serial bomb blast in Delhi which had claimed 26 lives and injured over 100.

During the ‘encounter’, the police claimed that Shahzad Ahmed, one of the terrorists, escaped from the house. A year later he was caught from the midlands of UP.

No sooner than the encounter took place, the controversy erupted. Advani from BJP called Sharma a martyr. Digvijay  Singh, Congress party’s rabble-rouser, called it a fake encounter. All the human rights activists called for inquiry into the incident with BJP, expectedly opposing it. As if waiting for something like this to happen, Arundhati Roy joined the chorus and wrote passionately about the ‘innocent Muslim men’ who are becoming prey to the sadistic, tyrannical cops.

The judgment somewhat vindicates the stand that it was indeed a genuine encounter and the men killed were indeed the operatives of Indian Mujahideen. The judges did not declare Shahzad Ahmed as a terrorist though, as it was out of scope of the case that was mainly about the killing of the police officer.

Now we can expect cheer from the right-wing groups, especially the BJP and its supporters, as they stand vindicated. Digvijay Singh, who lit the fire first about the ‘fake encounter’ suspicion has already said that he will not apologise. We can also demand a special apology from Arundhati Roy. We can also turn this verdict into a debate on pseudo-secularism and the knee-jerk reactions from the human rights activists and the so-called secular ‘intellectuals’. We can point out at the potential danger that tomorrow our police will hesitate before taking any serious action against terrorists and history sheeters. We can lament that not many ‘encounters’ will take place in future as police will fear repercussions such as these.

Or, instead, we can actually feel good about the verdict in a way that is positive for the country. We can say that because an inquiry was set up, the police were made to work overtime in order to establish the truth and tomorrow, they will think twice before venturing out on engineered encounters.

Indian police is probably one of the most aggressive and corrupt forces in the world. They have the power to frame anybody on anything. So far there hasn’t been much curb on their aggression. They are feared, not respected. They are despised, not loved. You must pray every day of your life spent where you didn’t have to step into a police station. And you are one of the luckiest peoples if your life is spent without being entangled with the Indian police.

The more our films celebrate the macho aggression of police as heroism and justice and the violence by police are welcomed as necessary evil by society, the more fearsome our forces would get. We cannot afford that situation.

We need to make our police less violent, less aggressive. For every ‘genuine’ encounters there are countless staged ones and we don’t know how many of those are political murders and how many are arranged to settle personal scores. Invariably petty thieves and innocent people die in them. Invariably extremely poor people and their families fall victims to that. Rarely does a software-engineer or a neurosurgeon die in an ‘encounter’. It is usually people from the slums, people who are too wretched to lead normal lives and are pushed underground and eventually fall victims. Not very recently, even Muslims and tribals have joined in their list. A bomb goes off somewhere and we immediately expect that it was the handiwork of Muslim extremists. Sure enough, a few Muslims are arrested in the neighbourhood with a few days. We then happily continue with our lives. What happens to those Muslims, whether they are really criminals or just happen to inconveniently bear Arab names, we won’t know and nor do we question. They may languish in various jails for years or ‘encountered’ on their way to the court because the police find the trial ‘too demanding’ on their workload.  We will never know.

We need to question these things.

We do not question the police when they demand bribes from the street vendor, drunken drivers, parking offenders and small-time smugglers. We don’t question when they conduct khap panchayats in police stations. We don’t question when they beat the pulp out of the suspects. We don’t question when a few Muslims are arrested within days after a bomb blast.

Slowly, inexorably, we are succumbing to the experience of the police state. Already, we see films after films where the cop, hero or villain, beats someone in the lockup and we don’t even blink. We see cops shooting and killing people and we even applaud, if the guy killed is the villain. Films provide excellent psychological training for living with harmony in a police state. All their violence are whitewashed by pitting cruel villains against them and all their ‘small-time’ bribery are made into comedy episodes to make us laugh at those situations.

Whether vindicated or not, voices like that Arundhati Roy are wake-up calls on our conscience. We need more people like her to demand answers from our police and make them accountable. They may often be inconvenient hurdles to ‘justice’. But we must understand that it’s because the meaning for the word ‘justice’ is wrong in our dictionary. Some may fear that inquiries such as these and voices such as Arundhati’s may slow down the police in future.

How we wish if that can really happen!