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Saturday, 18 June 2011

Encounter Specialists: Double edged swords to combat underworld.

("इस हफ्ते की जिंदगी" का साप्ताहिक लेख इस बार अंग्रेजी में)
Those who have seen the decade of 90s in Mumbai might be experiencing a déjà vu. That was the time when shootouts were rampant, gangster called to extort money & killed those who didn’t pay up. It seemed that mafia was ruling the city & law & order machinery went haywire. What is the scenario today? It seems to be returning back to those old dreaded days. 4 people are kidnapped & killed within hours, a senior journalist is shot dead in broad daylight, gangsters have again started calling up for extortion & fire on people who don’t respond & the figures of kidnappings are rising. The situation calls for a tough retort from the law enforcement authorities before the situation escalates.

Before discussing the ways to deal with the current alarming situation, we should briefly have a glimpse on the strategy which was adopted in 90s to silent the mafias. To control the underworld, government came up with a stringent law Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA). Under this law it is not easy to acquire bail for an accused & he or she has to languish behind the bars for a longer period of time. MCOCA also armed the cops with extra ordinary powers. More than 3000 accused were booked under this law in a single decade. However, this law alone didn’t seem enough to terrify & deter the mobsters from the daily bloodbath. Hence, the police then decided to go the extra judicial way. Based on the thought- “Poison neutralizes the effect of poison.” Mumbai Police came up with the unofficial policy of “encounters.” Hundreds of suspected gang members were picked up & killed. Every time such a killing of suspect took place, the cops claimed that they were attacked first & the suspect died when cops fired in retaliation. Almost in every “encounter” this story was used to justify the killings.
During the tenure of D.Sivanandhan (the then Chief of Crime branch of Mumbai Police) alone 238 suspected gangsters from various gangs were eliminated. Later on the cops reduced the intensity of its operation & came up with “one shootout, one encounter policy.” This policy meant that whenever a gang killed some citizen, the cops will pick up & kill any member from that gang which was suspected behind the shootout. Human rights activist might not concur with me, but the bitter reality is that this unofficial policy of “encounters” worked for the cops & was successful in controlling the terror of underworld to a great extent. At least in the first decade of 21st century the activities of underworld gangs were relatively very low.

Now, let us look at the dark side of this policy. The policy of “encounters” led to the rise of a special breed of police officers known as “encounter specialist.” These were the officers with strong network of informants in the underworld & had the tacit authority to conduct extra judicial killings of the suspected gangsters. They enjoyed extra ordinary powers & shared good rapport with senior officials. Infact, most of the superior officials relied on them to update themselves on the latest situation in the underworld. By killing suspected gangsters they became public heroes & received wide media attention including the international media. Every encounter specialist officer proudly boasted the number of gangsters he had killed. However, their days of glory lasted only for few years. It is alleged that most of such officers took undue advantage of their position in the police force & rapport with their bosses. They became corrupt, got affiliated with one gang or the other, started killing people for money, extorted money from builders & businessmen etc. This led to tremendous negative publicity & judicial intervention. Public heroes were now seen as villains. Almost all the encounter specialists were arrested & send behind the bars on charges of corruption, murder, extortion, custodial deaths & so on. Today there are no encounter specialist officers. Such officers were over confident that their superiors would come to their rescue & they could get away, but now they claim that they were “used & thrown.”

As Mumbai once again heads back to those horrifying days, the question is what policy our law enforcing agencies will adopt to nail the underworld? As enunciated earlier the policy of encounters has yielded results, but then it is a double edged sword. Secondly, even if the government unofficially allows such extra judicial policy, the question is which officer will approve to become an encounter specialist considering the fate of earlier encounter specialist cops. After senior journalist J Dey’s assassination one police officer friend told me that once again there is a need for encounter specialist officers. When I asked him whether he would volunteer to become one, he said- “No way. I have wife & children at home. My parents are old & sick. I have to earn daily bread for them & I don’t want to go to the jail.”

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