Bhopal encounter: Mystery deepens
While Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan expressed “shame on those who are shedding tears for terrorists”, doubts have emerged about the circumstances in which eight alleged terrorists escaped from a high-security Central Jail in Bhopal. Questions also remain about the genuineness of the subsequent police encounter in which all of them were killed.
Meanwhile, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) team has arrived and started its enquiry on the jailbreak. The team while interrogating prison authorities posed certain important questions.
How could the prisoners escape by jumping the 28 feet boundary wall? How did the undertrials, who were lodged in two different cells, succeed in breaking the locks?
Besides their near relations, who else were meeting them? When the terrorist killed head constable where were other guards, why they did not raise the alarm? They could have alerted other security personnel. Is it a fact Special Armed Force (SAF) personnel were sleeping when these unusual happenings were taking place in the jail?
The NIA team learnt that when these alleged terrorists were taken out for namaz, they were allowed to interact with each other. They also determined that recommendations made by Shusobhan Bannerjee, ADG prisons, were ignored by the jail authorities.
For instance, he instructed that locks of barracks should be changed from time to time, cells, where prisoners were kept, should also be changed from time to time. Vigil should be maintained outside the boundary wall. Along with jawans, senior officers should also be assigned night duty.
Despite the ISO 9001:2015 certification awarded to the Bhopal Central Jail, its security arrangements were far inferior in comparison to other ISO-certified prisons. The fact that some of the jail’s 50 cameras were not working on Sunday night is only the tip of the iceberg.
The jailbreak that night which saw eight SIMI undertrials escape has raised several serious questions regarding the standard operating procedure (SOP) adopted at the establishment.
It remains unclear why only two warders were available to keep an eye on the prisoners, and no SAF guard was able to locate the escapees from its 28-foot watchtower. According to sources, the first warder, who was on duty from 8 pm to 2 am, did not go near the block where the SIMI cadres were lodged. Following the change of guard, the second warder, Ramshankar Yadav, went to the area to check if everything was alright. He was allegedly overpowered and killed.
Suspended Deputy Inspector General of jails MR Patel blamed it on a “staff crunch” at the prison. “However, the SAF guards could have easily spotted the escaping SIMI cadres. They were probably not alert enough,” he said.
Sceptics also questioned whether the locks on the gates of prison cells, blocks, and sectors were changed every day, under standard operating procedure. It directly ties in with the way in which SIMI cadres managed to open eight prison cells in a very short time span. Patel said this issue would also come under investigation.
While deputy superintendent of jails LKS Bhadauria admitted that there was a staff shortage at the prison because of Diwali, he denied any disregard for SOP. “We meet all standards of the ISO certificate, and this is the reason why our ISO 9001:2000 certificate was renewed to 9001:2015,” he said.
The eight SIMI activists who had escaped from the Bhopal Central Jail probably knew which CCTV cameras on the jail premises were working and which were not. Seven-eight cameras on the premises were out of order for the past three days, and they were located behind the barracks from which they escaped. People suspect that someone from inside the jail must have helped them.
Prison authorities had complained to the company given the contract for maintenance of the CCTV cameras. The cameras around the barrack of the mastermind of the jailbreak Abu Fazal were functioning, and those who had fled from the jail did not come to take him out. They never crossed the vision area of the cameras. It could not have been possible without inside information.
There are three control rooms on the premises to keep an eye on the goings on in the jail premises, but none of them reported anything amiss. There are 29 SIMI activists in the jail, and none of the others made any effort to alert the administration.
On the day around 2,900 prisoners were in the jail. The capacity of the jail is 1,600. The sanctioned strength of the central jail is 50 head constable and 250 constables. Presently there are only around 40 head constables and 120 constables. The remaining are on training. Some of the posts are vacant.
Eyewitnesses on Tuesday came up with conflicting versions of the alleged encounter in which eight SIMI operatives were gunned down the day earlier by the police in Madhya Pradesh’s Khijradev village, hours after they escaped from a high-security Bhopal jail.
When some media persons revisited the village, villagers said there were firing from both sides that led to the casualties, while others claimed the fugitives only pelted stones at the police. Police alleged that the members of the banned organisations were killed in an encounter. The journalists talked to villagers of Khijradev and its nearby Acharpura, Manikhedi, Chandpur, and Eintkhedi villages to get their versions of the whole incident.
Sanjay Ahirwar, a resident of Acharpura village, said the SIMI operatives were first spotted by a villager of Chandpur, who was watering his fields, around 7.30am. A police team rushed to the village and confronted the eight near a hillock around 9 am. Ahirwar said soon a gun battle ensued as the fugitives opened fire at the police and security personnel and started pelting stones at them.
“We were then pushed back by the police so that we were not caught in the crossfire,” he recalled, saying he had a clear view of the incident from behind an enormous rock. Deshraj, a resident of Khijradev village, said the eight raised anti-India slogans and fired some rounds from pistols while also pelting stones at the police, ignoring security forces’ call for surrender.
Brijesh Mahar, a resident of Acharpura village, however, claimed the SIMI activists though challenged the cops, they did not fire a single round. He said six were gunned down by the police on the massive rock called “Laal Daant” where they were all standing. Two others fell from the rock after being hit by bullets.
Their bodies were also later put on Laal Daant along with other six by the security forces, he added. Manjeet Meena of Khijradev village too said, “Not a single bullet was fired by the terrorists who were standing on the rock.” He claimed he was at the site until the end of operation at 10.30am. “They didn’t even try to run away from the spot. They were challenging the security forces to kill them,” Manjeet recollected.
Another villager, Sunil Meena of Khijradev village too claimed the SIMI activists did not fire a single shot as they were “not carrying any firearms”; “They were only throwing stones at the security forces personnel,” he said. Meena said he was surprised by the police’s version of four country-made pistols were found on the activists.
Sarpanch of Khijradev village Mohan Singh Meena, however, refuted the “no-encounter” theory, stating that a gun battle did take place that lasted for about 25-30 minutes. He said stones came to the aid of the villagers; the village chief said he would claim the reward government had announced on the heads of the jailbreakers.
He said after the SIMI activists were spotted in the vicinity, a group of villagers even trailed them for about 1.5km. “At that time one of them threatened us by wielding a pistol.”He said a police team led by town inspector of Gandhi Nagar police station Jitendra Patel, whom he had tipped off earlier, arrived around 10 am. By then the SIMI operatives had reached the hillock.
“After spotting the eight men, Patel fired in the air and asked the escapees to surrender,” the sarpanch said. But instead, he added, the SIMI men shot at the police and pelted stones. All the eight were soon killed in the encounter.
The villagers who helped the police were honoured by the Chief Minister on the night of November 1 at a government programme being held to mark the anniversary of the foundation of Madhya Pradesh.
Chief Minister also announced a generous financial assistance to the family of late Ramashankar Yadav. Meanwhile, several Ulemas of Bhopal have demanded a high-level enquiry by a sitting Supreme Court Judge to find out the truth behind the dramatic happenings.