The first part of ThePrint’s investigation raises alarming questions on the UP government’s “success story” of fighting crime with the bullet and eliminating 39 gangsters in 10 months
Lucknow: Thirty-nine alleged criminals shot dead in 1,142 “encounters” in 10 months in one of India’s most lawless states, and counting.
As Uttar Pradesh’s BJP government of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath races to complete its first year in office this month, this scorecard of “law enforcement” is all set to be touted as one of its biggest achievements.
After all, the people are supposed to be happy, police thrilled and criminals running scared – so much so that those in jail don’t want to step out even if they have been given bail and those outside are surrendering to the police, fearing for their lives.
But investigation by ThePrint shows the bloody scorecard is filled with holes and raises alarming questions: Has a trigger-happy police force been given a licence to kill small-time criminals and dress them up as major successes in the fight against crime? Are these staged extra-judicial killings, with some even motivated by political rivalries?
ThePrint reporters criss-crossed the state and examined the cases of each of the 39 killed. They were all alleged to be robbers, burglars, extortionists, kidnappers, shooters and even automobile thieves – but none featured in the state’s ‘most wanted list of criminals’.
ThePrint reporters also visited families of the alleged criminals killed by the police, spoke to the policemen who carried out these encounters, accessed post-mortem reports, magistrate inquiry reports and case files to corroborate facts and find answers. And almost every case threw up glaring discrepancies in the police narrative of what led to the killings.
All these men are documented to have been shot at in “retaliation”, after they opened fire at policemen, all of them in bullet-proof jackets, mostly in an open space with no witnesses around. But at the same time, many of those killed had sustained several fractures, including skull and spinal injuries.
Police say these injuries were sustained when the alleged criminals were trying to flee on foot or in a vehicle. But their families claim they were sustained when the men were arrested and tortured in custody before being eliminated.
The FIRs filed in the cases have the same template
Time: between 8 pm and 2 am or 4 am and 7 am. The police receive secret information that a group of gangsters, planning to carry out loot or a murder, will pass through a certain area. They get ready, put up check posts at relevant intersections and wait for them to arrive.
The police then spot a bike or a car from a distance and signal the driver to stop. The driver, on seeing the police, tries to flee and opens fire. The police then chase the vehicle, till both parties reach an open space – a field or an empty stretch of road – and a gun battle ensues. The bullet hits one of the gangsters, who collapses, while others manage to flee in the dark or go into hiding behind bushes. The gangster is then rushed to the hospital, where he dies during treatment. A policeman is also injured after a bullet pierces through his bullet proof jacket, or in some cases, grazes his arm.
In all 39 cases where gangsters have been killed, their associates have managed to escape.
All the FIRs also show similar objects recovered from the alleged gangsters – either a .32 bore pistol, a 9 mm pistol, or a country-made pistol – along with live cartridges.
Except in four cases, in one of which one police personnel lost his life, the bullets fired by gangsters either grazed police personnel or hit their bullet proof jackets.
Unexplained injuries in post-mortem reports
Most post-mortem reports accessed by ThePrint show several external and internal injuries, including fractures in the scalp, ribs, spinal cord and knees, that the alleged gangsters sustained, supposedly while trying to flee.
Their family members, however, allege that they were picked up by the police and tortured in custody, much before they were killed in a ‘staged’ encounter.
In one case reported from Azamgarh, the alleged gangster sustained 21 injuries including 16 bullet wounds, and two police personnel sustained non fatal injuries in the operation.
The post-mortem report of another alleged gangster, who was gunned down in Muzaffarnagar after he opened fire at the police in a bid to escape in his car, says that he was shot in the middle of his forehead. He sustained an entry wound measuring 1.5 x 1 cm and an exit wound measuring 2 x 1.5 cm, which indicates that he was shot at from a close range, contradicting the police theory that he was shot dead while trying to escape. Apart from the bullet injuries, he also had laceration marks on his neck.
Similarly, the post mortem report of another alleged gangster from Baghpat showed multiple fractures in his rib cage and knees, and lacerations on the neck and scalp. He was shot in the chest.
Targeted killings or encounters?
While the FIRs and status reports submitted by the police to the court and the National Human Rights Commission say the gangsters were killed in retaliatory firing while they were trying to escape, there is evidence to show that the men were picked up much earlier.
In a case reported from Baghpat, the father of the 22-year-old gangster who was killed on 3 October 2017, filed a ‘missing person’ complaint with the CM’s office after his son was reportedly picked up by the police on 1 October 2017. The father told ThePrint that he knew his son, who was involved in cases of dacoity, would be killed in an encounter, so he registered a complaint on the CM’s portal, to the DM, a day before, but no one heard him out. His son was killed on 3 October.
Family members in some cases also alleged that the police teams announced bounties on these gangsters only a few days before their arrest, following which they were killed.
The opposition, especially the Samajwadi Party, has raised questions on these encounters. It protested in the state assembly against the killings.
“People who have charges of petty crime, do they deserve to die? Were they hardcore criminals?” asks Sunil Yadav Sajan, SP spokesperson and MLC.
Questions have been raised from within the government too. Om Prakash Rajbhar, a cabinet minister in the Yogi Adityanath government and president of the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, a BJP ally, has written to the chief minister seeking a CBI inquiry in the death of Mukesh Rajbhar from Azamgarh.
Rajbhar had a bounty of Rs 50,000 on his head.
But the government has been gung-ho, what with Adityanath time and again declaring that criminals would be wiped out to ensure law and order in the state.
“It is unfortunate that some people are showing sympathy towards criminals. This is dangerous for democracy. The encounters will go on,” Adityanath said in reply to a question by a BJP MLC in the legislative council on 15 February.
It’s a message echoed by state police chief O.P. Singh.
“The government has decided to account for criminals. They either flee the state or be locked in jail. Western UP was flooded with criminals. These gangsters treated UP as some sort of sanctuary. They used to come and strike and then go back,” Singh told ThePrint.
“With this crackdown, we are trying to create a healthy environment. We are getting a good response from locals.”
Political observers say state governments have resorted to encounters when there is a sharp rise in crime. And encounters make governments instantly popular because citizens think the police is doing well to gun down those who take the law into their hands.
In the case of UP, the most high-profile spate of encounters took place when Congress’s V.P. Singh became CM in 1980. At the time, the state, along with Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, was struggling to deal with dacoits. A special anti-dacoity law was brought in, which consisted of draconian measures to deal with those who harboured dacoits and acted as go-betweens in disposing of the items that had been looted.
Several encounters took place, but several questions and protests were raised by leaders of opposition parties such as Mulayam Singh Yadav, George Fernandes and Karpuri Thakur, finally culminating in Singh’s resignation on 18 July 1982.
“Do not call these ‘encounters’,” DGP Singh insists. “It is a crackdown on criminals. So far, we have arrested over 3,000 criminals. It was necessary to mount such pressure on them and it has definitely acted as a deterrent.”
Indeed, in addition to the 39 criminals killed and 265 injured, about 5,000 criminals have been arrested, and the National Security Act has been imposed on 167.
In September last year, to encourage encounters, the government allowed senior police officers to announce bigger bounties on criminals – a senior superintendent could now announce a reward of Rs 15,000 instead of just Rs 5,000; an IG could now announce Rs 1 lakh instead of the earlier Rs 25,000.
There is a new breed of super cops who have become celebrities, getting showered with praise from the people and the government. Ajay Pal Sharma, the SSP of Shamli in western UP, is one. He was felicitated by local residents, made to sit in a chariot and do a road show after two criminals, Naushad and Sarwar, were killed by the police. He was even felicitated and praised by Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar in November last year.
Azamgarh SSP Ajay Kumar Sahni is another; Adityanath took him along on a chopper ride to a sugar factory earlier this year, after five encounters took place on his watch.
“The message is clear,” said DGP Singh. “We now have a zero-tolerance policy towards crime and criminals.”