By branding the Aleru encounter victims as terrorists, the police, the media, the judiciary and even the public seem to be participants in covering up the brutal deaths of five Muslim undertrials who were not even facing terror charges
By Vasudha Nagaraj
On 7th April, the country, witnessed two brutal encounters in the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. In Seshachalam, in Andhra Pradesh, 20 daily wage labourers belonging to Dalit and tribal communities were killed. In Aleru, in Telangana, five Muslim under-trials, were killed while they were on their way to the court.
In both states, the police predictably claimed firing in self-defence. However, the newspaper pictures of the Muslim under-trials shackled to their seats and the labourers lying among old red sanders logs bespoke a tragedy – clearly pointing to the police taking law into their hands.
The timing of these encounters in two new states, born just ten months ago, is tragic. While the Andhra Pradesh government came up with the idea of development, growth and universal prosperity, the Telangana state was formed on the foundations of a democratic struggle, thereby bound to rule of law and justice for all, especially for those marginalized as women, Muslims, Dalits and tribals.
In the Aleru encounter, the five undertrials – Viqar Ahmed, Syed Amjad, Mohd. Zakir, Dr. Mohd Haneef and Izhar Khan – were being brought in a police van to attend the court proceedings. The very next day the newspapers carried pictures of the five shackled under trials who appeared slumped dead in their seats. The police sought to explain that Viqar Ahmed after a toilet-break, while boarding the van, snatched the rifle from the escort policeman and then tried to overpower the others. In an act of self defense and considering the past history of Viqar Ahmed, the police opened fire and killed all the five prisoners.
The post mortem reports show that each of the five bodies was riddled with more than twenty bullet wounds and that all the wounds were on the chest and the shoulders. None of the policemen even suffered a scratch of an injury
The FIR registered in the offence states that Viqar Ahmed snatched the rifle and tried to kill, while the other four screamed. Even assuming one accepts the police version, the question remains as to how the other four prisoners could have intimidated the 17 armed escort policemen. It is not the case of the police that the other four prisoners also snatched guns and took aim. They merely screamed. And for that they were shot down.
Soon after this incident, Viqar Ahmed’s father recounted about how his son had repeatedly complained to the Session’s Judge that his life was under threat from the policemen. Civil liberties groups and several political organizations have termed the encounter as a retaliation to an earlier incident in which four policemen were killed in the same district. The number of bullet wounds on each body is evidence of the vindictive and disproportionate exercise of force by the police against hapless prisoners.
The Muslim community has expressed outrage that this is a targeted killing whose purport is to create an atmosphere of terror and insecurity among its people. Large scale mobilizations have marked the funerals of the slain people.
The funeral of Dr Haneef Mohammed was attended largely by the Hindu community. It seems he was a medical doctor who was available to the community day and night. In one protest meeting after the other, leaders of the Muslim community have expressed deep anguish about how the new state of Telangana has betrayed their hope, for a better future and for protection of their youth. Except for constituting a Special Investigation Team, the Telangana government has maintained a stony silence on the encounters.
The media and the judiciary
One cannot help notice the biased coverage that has been given to the Aleru encounter in the media. The bias becomes clear when compared to the coverage given to the Seshachalam encounter. In a calculated move, the police version has been given more credence by justifying their actions in killing so called hardened criminals. There has also been a lot of irresponsible coverage in the media about how the slain prisoners were ‘hard core terrorists’ and so on. Though accused of being Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) activists, the slain prisoners were not facing any terror charges, but they were nevertheless branded as terrorists to justify police violence.
What is more tragic is the response of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the High Court of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Soon after the encounter deaths, on 23rd April, 2015, the NHRC conducted a camp hearing to enquire about the Aleru and Seshachalam encounters.
In the Seshachalam encounter, the members of the NHRC interrogated the police officials, expressed dissatisfaction with the investigation conducted so far and even went to the extent of deputing its own team for investigation.
However, when it came to the Aleru encounter, the NHRC did not express the same commitment or zeal in questioning the police officials. They were quick to accept the police statement that there was a judicial enquiry and that a Special Investigation Team was constituted to investigate the deaths. The stage of investigation or the other relevant details were not elicited.
The NHRC did not even object, which it should have, when the police referred to the slain prisoners as fundamentalists
The civil liberties activists and lawyers who participated in the hearing were given just a perfunctory hearing. And finally, the NHRC, except for some nominal reliefs, declined to intervene in the issue on the ground that investigation by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) was underway.
Even in the High Court, the fate of the Aleru encounter has been marked by delay and inadequate attention. While the investigation in the Seshachalam encounter is being supervised by the Chief Justice himself, the Aleru encounter has been left to regular course of investigation, albeit by the SIT. The Andhra Pradesh government has registered a case of S 302 in the Seshachalam encounter while a similar demand in the Aleru encounter has been set-aside. The bodies in the Seshachalam encounter were subjected to a re-postmortem whereas the request for exhumation and re-postmortem of the bodies in the Aleru encounter have been rejected.
One is almost envious of the progress, news coverage and empathy in the case of the Seshachalam encounter. It is true that the response to the Seshachalam encounter has been considerably influenced by the Tamilnadu government’s intervention and equally the timely action taken by the civil liberties groups of Tamilnadu. But, this does not completely explain the lukewarm response to the Aleru encounter. We have been told that the Aleru encounter is “different”.
What underscores the Aleru encounter is the branding. Even as the AP state and the media tried to brand the woodcutters of Seshachalam as hardened smugglers, it could not sustain the story or much less erase the stain of an extra judicial killing. But, in the case of the Aleru encounter, one can clearly see how the bogey of the “Muslim terrorist” has been successfully deployed to validate the actions of the police in the name of securing law and order. The media, the judiciary and even public opinion seem to be participants in justifying such a discourse on impunity.
Vasudha Nagaraj is a practising lawyer based in Hyderabad.