Encounter killings

May 23, 2007

This is what I actually wrote. Rediff has replaced many of the external links with other links that I am not thrilled with. Also, I specifically said that “political workers posing as relatives of victims” forced a trial by media, and there are particular political workers whom I have named before who were caught on camera doing this. But Rediff chose to drop the “political workers posing as”. Oh well.

The consequences of inaction vs. the human rights of the terrorist


Rajeev Srinivasan on how human rights apply to the victim rather than the perpetrator


Consider the following moral dilemma: If you knew that a friend was planning to commit random mass murder, what would you do? Would you turn him in to the police, or would you let him murder, in cold blood? Most people would in fact alert the authorities, because the massacre of innocents violates our sense of ethics.


Now make it a little more challenging. What if you knew that the police would shoot your friend without the benefit of the doubt, and if you were only 75% sure about his plans? For instance, if you had an inkling about the terrorist attacks on the Israeli Olympic team in Munich in 1972, would you have notified the police? Or in the case of Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech?


The usual reaction from those thus questioned, ethicists say, is to take a utilitarian approach: the greater good of the greatest number of people. Thus, they generally support the incarceration (and even liquidation) of would-be murderers even if the evidence is not compelling; for, the alternative is so much worse. An extreme example of this was in the film Minority Report, where ‘pre-crime’ fighters use clairvoyants to identify future murderers and stop them.


In other words, people compare the human rights of the potential victim to the rights of the potential murderer. Thus it should be axiomatic: the rights of the insurgent and the terrorist are not greater than those of their victims. Even though we liberals are concerned about the rights of the terrorist, surely those committing war crimes against defenseless civilians do not deserve tenderness.


Indeed, the consequences of inaction are horrific. Imagine if someone were to be able to stop the assassins of Mahatma Gandhi, or John Kennedy, or Ahmed Shah Massoud – all leaders with much to give to their nations. In fact, not acting on prior information about potential incidents of this nature is a grave dereliction of duty, whether by a civilian or by a policeman. If a policeman, duty-bound to the State, does not take preventive action, he should be prosecuted for laxity.


News reports in the last few days show pre-emptive action is not anathema to liberal democracies. From the US comes a report of preventive detention of six Albanian immigrants (6 Men Arrested in Terror Plot Against Fort Dix, New York Times, May 8, 2007) who wanted to attack a military installation and “kill as many soldiers as possible”.


From Britain comes the opposite question: why weren’t Pakistani-British terror suspects apprehended before their co-conspirators did real damage killing 56 people in a series of subway bombings in July 2005 (5 Britons Guilty in Bomb Plot; Tied to 2005 London Attackers, New York Times, May 1, 2007)?


The lives of 329 passengers abroad the doomed Air-India flight 182 could have been saved in 1985 if only the police had pursued leads with zeal, it now appears from belated testimony (Air-India thought crying ‘wolf’, Toronto Star, May 8, 2007). It appears the authorities did not heed warnings, possibly out of complacency.


Similarly, if you knew about plans for the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York or the 12/13 attack on the Indian Parliament, wouldn’t it be your absolute duty to try and avert these tragedies? To take it further, what price should society be willing to pay the maximum benefit to all? What rights should one be willing to give up in order that all may be better off?


These are wretched questions. Civilized people have certain obligations to society; and they can expect certain protections in return. This, however, only applies to the normal individual who has the implicit covenant with society. Those who are outlaws, insurgents, outside the pale, cannot claim the rights if they do not respect the obligations. A nihilist who doesn’t respect others’ fundamental rights deserves none himself.


This is the crux of the matter with the current issue rocking the media in India: the ‘encounter death’ of one Sohrabuddin Sheikh. According to the evidence at hand, he was no innocent, but had been an accomplice or participant in many acts of terror. It is possible that he was on another such errand when he was apprehended and apparently executed by the police.


As much as one would like to uphold his civil liberties, one has to put oneself in the shoes of one of his potential victims – those ‘little people’, often lower-middle-class, whose names never even appear in the newspapers. How do you weigh their lives against the life of a person with known terrorist links? What is the value of the life of a common citizen of India? Isn’t it at least as high as that of a known criminal with 50 pending criminal cases?


It is certainly high-handed of the police to stage ‘encounter killings’, and it is true that some innocents are victimized. The notorious Rajan Case in Kerala, where an engineering student ‘disappeared’ during the Emergency, comes to mind; so does the fruitless 30-year search by his father Professor Eachara Warrier for justice for his only son. Every instinct cries out against such miscarriages of justice.


However, it is also true that the police in India are forced to pursue rough-and-ready lynchings because motivated ideologues pervert the judicial and political system to let certain criminals and mass-murderers go scot-free. This is a factor in their decision-making. Consider the case of Indian Airlines 814, when political workers posing as victims of the hijacked forced a trial-by-media, leading to the freeing of arch-terrorists. Surely, it would have been better to have shot those terrorists on sight rather than keeping them in jail, available as ransom.


There was tremendous outrage at the Kandahar cave-in. The public doesn’t want a repeat of that sort of meek surrender, and therefore there is sympathy towards the plight of the policemen, who are under tremendous pressure: damned if they do, damned if they don’t.


‘Encounter killings’ are a product of a warped society wherein the media and the political class practice double standards. If law enforcement officials prove unable to maintain law and order in this system, there is an infinitely worse alternative: vigilante justice, lynch-mobs taking the law into their own hands. This would mean civil society has failed.


There was a series of Charles Bronson movies in the 1980’s, Death Wish I, II, etc. which highlighted this scenario. It is not pretty. Better to have the police, who have some sense of discipline, handle outlaws than have the public do it for them. It is necessary and appropriate for law enforcement to take preventive action to protect society at large; rather an occasional mistake than the death, due to inaction, of many blameless citizens.


6 Responses to “Encounter killings”

  1. ibcd Says:

    Rajiv, I almost got seduced by your argument, till I remembered the word ‘civilisation’. If institutions built to protect society resort to the same means as those who want to destroy society, then society itself fails.

    You will agree that even a malfunctioning political system, with some vestige of civility has a greater hope for society than a dysfunctional one which has to stoop to resort to the same kind of violence as those who seek to destroy it. See what is happening in Darfur, Iraq, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and the many others who seem to subscribe to views like yours. Remember Rwanda, Cambodia!

    You drag Gandhi into your argument – a cheap shot. Gandhi wouldn’t have lifted and did not lift his little finger in retaliation, even when he was being bludgeoned by British lathis. Remember it was he who said, ‘An eye for an eye, makes the whole world go blind’.

    Let not your passion for Hindu Nationalism, blind you to the the vileness that goes by the name of Hindutva and Hind Nationalism by some of its practitoners. Theirs is not the Hindu Nationalism of Sankara or Ramakrishna, Vivekananda or Ramana, but the bigotry, hatred and corruption of fundamentalists everywhere.

  2. Ghost Writer Says:

    If institutions built to protect society resort to the same means
    You presume of course that the institutions in question have not been suborned. I invite you to consider KPS Gill’s suggestion for a judicial commission to review all court judgements pertaining to terrorism cases in the Punjab in the early 80’s (or is Gill a blind Hindu fanatic too?). Read the text of his letter here .
    Or let me ask you another simple question. Would you rather that thanks to a ‘malfunctioning political system’ the state is taken over by political parties sympathetic to outfits like SIMI? This incidentally was the case not too long ago in UP. Remember Mulayam Singh Yadav? Would you like to live in a state where the ‘malfunctioning ‘ elements think it is alright to use the state’s power power to shield people who would gladly kill – in this case Hindus – so as to get an alleged vote-bank? Also, why is the most noise about ‘police killers’ made by people living in states where good law & order prevails compared to the rest of the country?
    I have not grudge against your idealism – only that it is somewhat misplaced. A lot of people said the same thing when Julio Rebeiro started his ‘bullet for bullet’ policy (under another ‘Hindu fundamentalist’ Beant Singh I guess?) – and look how the terrorists in Punjab actually got wiped out.

    You mention Rajeev took the name of Gandhi in mischief; but forget he also mentioned Ahmad Shah Masood in the same sentence – or is he another ‘non-finger lifting pacifist’? And as for your reference of Vivekananda (I love it when ‘Hindu non-fanatics’ invoke his name to make ‘non-Hindu fanatics’ feel guilty) perhaps you would like to read these two articles – Article 1 and Article 2. Would you like us to practice more of Vivekananda’s Hinduism?

  3. ibcd Says:

    Dear Ghost Writer:

    I suspect I have not been clear in my communication.

    My point is not that terrorism has to be dealt with. Certainly, if there is forewarning that an individual or a group of individuals are planning to perform a terrorist act, then go ahead and deal with them. However, deal with them within the framework of the law and not with the same lawlessness that terrorists operate.

    Mr Riberio and Mr Gill may be great policemen. However, if they were to act like terrorists and gun down innocents, would they continue to be great policemen. I don’t know if you are aware that a few years ago a policeman who was stationed at the Mumbai airport security station decided to use his weapon to take hostages and kill his superior officer, just because he was not sanctioned leave. (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/47617867.cms)

    If society were to condone police and personnel of the armed forces unbridled freedom in dealing with terrorism on their own without observing the laws, what is to prevent a neighbour of ours who is in the police or army from killing us and claiming that we were terrorists. The reason terrorists are called outlaws is because they don’t follow the law. Thus, by the same token, if those who are supposed to enforce the law, do not follow the law, they are also outlaws – and it does not matter whether it is Ribiero, Gill, Vajpayee or Indra Gandhi or anyone you care to name. The fact that two wrongs have been committed does not make anything right.

    You accuse me of idealism. Far from it. As a person who has lived in India all the years of my life, including in the dreaded Emergency days, I am as aware of you of institutions having been suborned. Equally, I have also seen the people of our country, reacting vigorously to egregious displays of suborning institutions. The very same Emergency is a classic example. And, if you want more recent examples, the drubbing that Mulayam got in the recent elections and the Supreme Court rulings on Reservations are living examples of our nation’s reaction to patent abuse of power.

    Lastly a couple of corrections. I have not mentioned that Rajeev has taken the name of Gandhi in mischief. I only said it is a cheap shot – it is cheap, because, by bringing in Gandhi, Rajeev, in my opinion, is trying to lend a fig leaf of reason to his argument.

    Second, I presume you are calling me a ‘Hindu non-fanatic’, I am a Hindu, but neither a fanatic or a non-fanatic. I adduced Vivekananda, among others, only to say that he was not a fundamentalist. Mr Shourie may think otherwise. That is Mr Shourie’s opinion. I happen to think differently.

    Good luck Ghost Writer and I hope you get rid of your ghosts soon.

  4. rajeev2007 Says:

    I find it amusing when people tell me I can or cannot use anybody I please. For instance, some reader once told me that I mustn’t use Pink Floyd’s lyrics, apparently because he didn’t like my perspective! Another was upset that I used EMS Nambudiripad’s assertions to support a point I made.

    I do believe I have the absolute right to use Gandhi or anybody else in any analogy I wish to make. So far as I know, Gandhi is not anybody’s exclusive property.

    As for ibcd wringing his hands about the ‘suborning’ of India’s institutions, I am hard pressed to find any institution in the country that has not been corrupted to the core already, with the possible exception of the army. This is a consequence of the quota raj and other such wonders of the Nehruvian world-view. India is indeed suffering from endemic corruption. The horse has bolted, and it’s a little late to worry about closing the barn-door. To take the equine analogy further, someone needs to clean the Augean stables.

    The entire system is rotten. This is why there *is* vigilante justice in, for instance, the badlands of Bihar. Surely it is nobody’s case that the lawlessness of the most benighted parts of the country — which people are even afraid to traverse by train — should be extended to the rest of India.

    KPS Gill argued forcefully that in the existing system where it’s plain as day that any criminal or terrorist can walk away free, it is not possible for the normal, law-abiding citizen to get justice. Blame the Nehruvian State, not law enforcement. And KPS Gill was notably successful in bringing peace back to the Punjab, so I would be inclined to listen to him rather than someone with vague, fine-sounding but ultimately impractical nostrums.

    Furthermore, ibcd has no particular right to define *his* alleged brand of Hinduism as the norm and to attack somebody else’s perspective as invalid or inferior. By doing this, he betrays a certain Semitic, holier-than-thou perspective. In fact from his eagerness to censor and his eagerness to impose his definition of right and wrong on others, I would infer that ibcd is no Hindu. Hindus do not go around telling others what to think.

  5. asrvamsi Says:

    Dear Rajeev,

    Your article is a very interesting one considering the situation facing India and its institutions right now. While your arguments were compelling, one has to admit that the points put forth by ibcd were equally valid. However, i find both your view points supporting views which are extreme in nature while turning blind eye to potential pitfalls. Eventhough you have apporpriately used the right to pre-empt to take corrective action it should be remembered that any support to such an act would lead to mass abuse of the powers. The case in point being the situation in Kashmir where the religious fundementalists are cleverly exploiting encounter killings to stoke up anti India sentiments which is nullifying the good work put in by the army in other parts. I would also bring to fore the situation faced in Punjab and Andhra where scores of families lost their loved ones and still resent the heavy handed handling of the situation which brings to fore an important point that are we mistakingly identifying effect as cause and hence championing the case when the need is to set right the cause of this problem which is attitude of Indians towards their society, institutions and their life in general.

    While we always crib about the state of our institutions it has to be understood that the reason for their sorry state is none other than we Indians. Whether its rampant corruption in every walk of our life, criminalisation of the our institutions or religious hatred the reason is we Indians. A small check of our everyday life will tell you the reason. How many of us follow the traffic rules, do not resent paying our dues whether taxes or charges, would like to follow rules laid down, go to vote, raise your voice against something wrong going on streets, help a person in distress, voice your opinion and in genral do everything in a way it should be done.

    I recently visited to Singapore which I feel is a very heavily regulated society. I was with my friend on that trip and there was stark difference in the way he conducted himself in India and Singapore. There he would avoid spitting and littering the road, breaking traffic rules, crib payin the bills and would be careful in conducting himself and the same person when he touched down in Mumbai was completely transformed person blatantly misusing his new found rights. I guess this is fact of life in India. Unless we educate ourselves to conduct in responsible way we cannot expect our society to be rid of all the problems we have.

    Please do think about it before legitimising something as wrong as encounter killings in name of failure of system.

    As was said by someone somewhere:

    Look in before u look out..

    I might not have gotten the line right but i guess u will understand what i meant

  6. wanderlust Says:

    rajeev’s point is that the law doesn’t have enough teeth to protect civilians and punish terrorists within lawful means.
    The whole traffic signal point doesn’t hold any water here. and the article doesn’t ask for “encounter killings” to be legalized, it asks for the police to get powers such that they wouldn’t have to resort to encounter killings to ensure justice prevails.

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