In cold blood

Published November 13, 2016

Under the new Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, more than 2,300 suspected drug users have been extrajudicially killed in merely four months. Human Rights Watch found that police in the Olympics host city of Rio de Janeiro had killed more than 8,000 people in the last decade, of which many were extrajudicial killings.

Closer to home, extrajudicial killings — or ‘encounters’, as we prefer to call them — are all too familiar. In its 2015 annual report the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) recorded the killing of 2,108 men and seven women in police encounters. A year earlier, HRCP recorded 3,392 encounter deaths in Sindh. Balochistan, too, presents a picture of dismal human rights violations. Over 800 bodies were found dumped in the province from 2012-2014, most likely killed in encounters.

According to human rights activists, the Rangers-led operation in Karachi has been accompanied by killings in alleged staged encounters. For people well versed with the city’s violent past, our history of encounters goes way back, especially to the 1990s, when security forces in Karachi were involved in rampant extrajudicial killings.

Clearly, extrajudicial executions are a global problem in which the vast majority of perpetrators are never brought to book, but it is a practice one normally associates with struggling democracies or African countries under despotic leaders.

Extrajudicial killings are a global issue in which the vast majority of perpetrators are never brought to book

The book Blood on My Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters, by Indian journalist and author Kishalay Bhattacharjee, belies this view. He exposes the security agencies of the world’s largest democracy behaving in the manner of a cruel regime, engaged in staged encounters, institutionalising them as an ‘enterprise’ in time, during which a system of rewards was introduced, leading to a steep rise in extrajudicial killings.

Primarily focusing on the north-east region which includes Assam, Nagaland and Manipur, and India-held Kashmir, the writer begins by tracing the history of encounters to the Baranagar and Cossipore killings in Calcutta (Kolkata) in the 1970s under the Prevention of Violent Activities Act, 1971, to killings in Punjab in 1984-85 following the assassination of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, during which there were 6,000 secret cremations in one district alone in Punjab. One officer described a typical meeting with K.P.S. Gill, Punjab’s then police chief, in the words “where each officer would compete with his number of kills. It was a given that the incidence of ‘encounters’ would rise dramatically the night before such meetings.”

Bhattacharjee vividly recounts the story of Rehman Miah and his family, from Bangladesh, who intend to migrate to Assam to realise their simple dreams of finding jobs and sending their children to school. Rehman has been assured by an agent that he could find employment in cow sheds earning him about INR 50 daily, his wife could find work in Hindu households and they could live somewhere alongside the banks of the Brahmaputra river.

The crossover to India through the Dhubri border, however, is fraught with danger; his family of six would have to climb over the barbed fence erected on some parts of the 134-kilometre boundary. The border is also notoriously known as the ‘wall of death’ as thousands of Indians and Bangladeshis are caught in the fence and killed. One such gruesome and tragic death told is of a young girl named Felani whose clothes got caught on the barbed wire and she was left hanging on the fence for five hours.

Bangladeshi guards on the Dhubri border, after their palms are sufficiently greased, will let the migrants go, but the Indian guards may not spare them and shoot on sight. Despite these obstacles, with a porous border and broken fence at some places, it is possible to cross over undetected. Rehman and his family do so, but unbeknown to him, the double agent has sold him off to a security forces person who needs a “live kill” to earn a promotion.

Rehman will be bound, gagged and blindfolded, taken to an isolated location and killed at point-blank range. His body, along with a story of an encounter, will be produced and he will be categorised as a militant belonging to the United Liberation Front of Assam. Photos of weapons and foreign currency ‘found’ on the body will be produced and fed to the obedient press.

This process serves as a template not only in Assam, but also in Manipur and earlier in Mizoram and India-held Kashmir. The bulk of Bhattacharjee’s book deals with many such false encounters concerning innocent poor migrants, some of whom miraculously escape and survive, but those are too few in number.

Juxtaposed with these stories are the revelations by an army officer and other perpetrators who divulge the modus operandi of such encounter operations in conflict regions. From generating funds via illegal means, to buying weapons in order to kill innocents shown as militants, to gangs who supply the fake militants, to enacting the drama of an encounter, the wrongdoers give a chilling account of it all.

And this is the primary standout: the perpetrators of violence have narrated how they zeroed in on their victims or “preys”, as the author plainly labels the innocents. The appalling details leave one revolted and dismayed, questioning the lack of humanity and empathy in these officers who sacrifice truth for the sake of payoffs such as unlimited travel in the train with one companion, unlimited telephone usage, preferential allotment of land and some income tax exemptions.

Other than the fact that the killings are linked to such perks, promotions and foreign postings, it is also, as Bhattacharjee explains in the book and in his interview with Books&Authors, because of the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) which has facilitated encounter killings and given immunity to armed forces members over killing people who they suspect are militants. Under the AFSPA no legal action can be taken against the officer concerned unless prior sanction is obtained from the central government in Delhi. Brave civilians such as Irom Chanu Sharmila have challenged the act, but her 16-year hunger strike against the AFSPA has not moved the authorities as it continues to be entrenched in Manipur, her home state. Sharmila recognised her strategy was not working and called off her strike this August.

Blood on My Hands is a slender volume, but it took me several days to finish as it is a bleak read. Nevertheless, Bhattacharjee picturesquely describes the ambience of villages and small town localities and vividly sketches physical characteristics of the victims and perpetrators (among which women, too, are hand in glove with their male counterparts in this enterprise) making it highly readable.

Unexpectedly, there is a wonderful description of the legendary Goalando chicken curry with a fascinating backstory. The book also packs in the semantics of an encounter, staged surrender ceremonies (reminding one of Balochistan), the highly lucrative cattle smuggling trade across the borders of India and Bangladesh, human trafficking and the long-term impact of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in India.

Crucially, the author questions the media’s role in investigating these claims. Bhattacharjee says journalists have failed to do their job consistently throughout the decades. They have superficially written about encounters and not investigated the encounter claims, failing to ask even basic questions. For instance, they never ask the officers why they are never wounded during an encounter, why the ‘militant’ didn’t fire back or why was there need to shoot such a large number of rounds at the ‘militants’.

One can’t help but think of a similar paucity in moral bearings within our own journalistic community, particularly pertaining to extrajudicial killings. We are content with police and security forces’ versions, printing verbatim accounts and not investigating further, but in case we need a reminder of what exactly the job of a reporter is, there can be no better place to learn that than in the pages of this devastating book.

Blood on My Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters
By Kishalay Bhattacharjee
HarperCollins, India
ISBN: 978-9351772583

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 13th, 2016



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