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Clouded in doubt

Suffice it to say, the killing of eight undertrials of the banned Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) group hours after their stunning escape from the high-security Central Prison in Bhopal has raised a stench that is unlikely to go away anytime soon. On Tuesday, more questions cropped up over the killing even as the police asserted that it was a genuine encounter. As per reports, the eight prisoners had been charged with serious offences, ranging from murder to terror attacks, besides bank robberies and acts of communal violence. 

During their daring escape in the wee hours of Monday morning, they killed a prison constable, who had reportedly attempted to stop them. Eight hours after their escape, the police caught up with the suspects on the city’s outskirts with the aid of local villagers. What happened after that remains shrouded in mystery, as the official narrative does not stand up to scrutiny. 

Going by a plethora of media reports, it seems rather apparent that both the BJP-led Madhya Pradesh government and its police have failed to present a clear and logical account of the events of the day. Meanwhile, a few unverified videos allegedly shot before and after the encounter has invited accusations that the police murdered them in cold blood. 

As per the narrative set by the state government, the undertrials had firearms on them and attacked the cops. In self-defense, they allegedly returned fire and killed all eight prisoners. However, both a high-ranking minister and the state ATS chief seem to have contradicted this version, saying that the escaped prisoners had no weapons on them. Did the undertrials pose any imminent danger to the police party that closed in on them? Were they about to surrender, when they were killed?  Were they even carrying dangerous firearms in the first place?            

There is one outlandish theory that has been posited by some observers that the SIMI members were allowed to escape, trapped, and then shot to death in cold blood. Considering that jail authorities would never go for a plan that would make them look so grossly inept, this seems a little implausible. Besides, one of their own was tragically killed during the escape. 

While the state government continues to pat itself on the back for “neutralising” the escapees, a trail of embarrassment possibly awaits them when an official inquiry is underway into the jailbreak. The National Investigation Agency has its task cut out. Who masterminded the escape? Was there was any assistance from others within or outside the prison? 

Irrespective of how the state authorities want to spin this story, credible news agencies have already reported that the CCTV cameras, watchtowers, and searchlights failed while the prisoners were scaling high walls using wooden logs and bed sheets. Moreover, all central prisons are endowed with a live wire above the parapet wall. How did eight prisoners scale these high walls (nearly 30 feet by some estimates) without anyone coming in contact with the live wire? Did somebody switch it off on the inside? Among the eight SIMI operatives, three of whom had escaped in 2013 from the Khandwa jail. 

In a letter to the state government in 2014, a retired jail official had warned that a jailbreak from the Bhopal Central Prison was a serious possibility. In the letter, he reportedly wrote: “At present, SIMI activists from other prisons have been kept in the Bhopal Central Jail. But given the structure of the jail building, its vulnerable points, illogical security arrangement and deplorable condition of staff, it would be wrong to presume that everything is OK if no major incident takes place. God is helping but it would a mistake to presume that he will continue to offer help.’’ These lapses seemingly point to gross procedural failures that the state government will have to address. 

Besides a routine magisterial inquiry, the state government has made its position clear that the encounter requires no further investigation. Considering the gross loopholes in the state government’s narrative, some of which have not been detailed in this editorial, a demand for High Court or apex court-monitored probe does not seem unreasonable. 

Not for one second is this column making a case for the slain SIMI members. But in a land, where the rule of law is supposed to prevail, one cannot stand by and accept the muddled official version of events surrounding a possible case of extra-judicial murder. Both the apex court and the National Human Rights Commission have laid down some firm guidelines on dealing with every police encounter, which is regularly flouted by governments. 

Attempts by the ruling BJP to condemn all those who doubt the official version of events is deeply disturbing. Instead, it would do well to institute a comprehensive and impartial probe into the episode and quell all doubts. “Fake ‘encounters’ are nothing but cold-blooded, brutal murder by persons who are supposed to uphold the law,” the Supreme Court held in Prakash Kadam versus Ramprasad Vishwanath Gupta case on May 13, 2011. 

On the subject of fake encounters, noted political commentator Praful Bidwai, who recently passed away, made an astute observation some years ago: “Yet, nothing can justify non-judicial executions. The deterrence argument is entirely wrong. Nothing, not even the certainty of being killed in an encounter, will deter a fanatic. But there is some merit in the argument about India’s notoriously dilatory legal process, which the higher judiciary has not done enough to rectify. The judiciary has been relatively apathetic to the imperative of preventing the flagrant violation of law involved in encounter killings. It must acknowledge this. What we need is urgent judicial intervention on encounters.”
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