Madhya Pradesh heaves a sigh of relief with the gunning down of the eight dreaded SIMI terror suspects who escaped from Bhopal central prison around 3 am on the intervening night of Sunday and Monday. All of them were killed in an 'encounter' about 12 km from the jail at 11 am on Monday.
Two possibilities arise on what could have happened.
Possibility One: The jail authorities were caught napping after having a blast, literally, on Diwali night. The terror suspects chose the right time and night to plot their escape. But the Bhopal police was just too good for them.
Possibility Two: The jail authorities let them escape with the police outside plotting to kill all of them in an extra-judicial killing. The terror suspects walked into a trap.
Anyone who has any idea about the manner in which prisons in India and more specifically those in Madhya Pradesh, operate, say the wardens were most likely caught napping. They wouldn't give Possibility 2 much of a chance but for the fact that loopholes exist in the encounter story. More on that a little later.
The NIA has been entrusted with the case now and this is what it should probe.
* Reports indicate that five of the eight SIMI terror suspects were lodged in the same cell. Given that three of them were involved in a similar jailbreak from Khandwa prison in 2013 and had committed several crimes before being arrested in Rourkela by Telangana police in February 2016, it was a blunder.
Senior jail officials say when terror suspects of the same group are lodged in the same prison, care is taken to ensure they do not interact with each other.
These three had earlier escaped with four other inmates from Khandwa. Two of them were apprehended while five were at large, accused of robbing in a train and banks in Lucknow, Karimnagar in Telangana and Sundargarh in Odisha and allegedly planting a bomb at Chennai railway station. Finally two of them -- the leaders of the gang -- were gunned down last year after they had killed two policemen in Nalgonda district in Telangana in 2015.
Senior jail officials say when terror suspects of the same group are lodged in the same prison, care is taken to ensure they do not interact with each other. Even when they are allowed to take a walk inside prison premises, each one of them is let out separately. Lodging most of them in the same cell was only asking for trouble.
Who took the call to lodge them together?
* Were the CCTVs functioning at Bhopal Jail? If they were, was there manpower available to monitor the output? If it was there, why wasn't an alarm given?
* All central prisons have a live wire above the parapet wall. In this cases, the convicts have scaled a 20 feet high wall using bedsheets. Was the live wire not functioning? Was it switched off by an inside help?
* The watchtowers in all central prisons are meant to be manned by the armed Special Police force and not the jail staff. But the fact is that in many cases, the special police force is not deployed leaving most watchtowers unmanned or manned by unarmed jail staff. The question to be asked here is how come none of the watchtowers noticed the escape and tried to prevent it because eight men scaling a high wall does take time.
* The fact that they managed to acquire a sharp object to kill a jail official means someone inside was helping them. Senior jail authorities say it is common for officials to be bribed for ensuring mulaqat time.
But while it looks prima facie that the SIMI prisoners escaped from jail, the subsequent statements have put a question mark over what really happened. The Madhya Pradesh home department is speaking in different voices on why the eight men were killed in an encounter.
Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Chauhan has suspended jail officials in an attempt to show he is cracking the whip. But may be it is also an opportune time to look at the mess in the prison system in the state. Those who are aware of how things work point out that with lack of promotion avenues, the morale of jail staff is low. With few vehicles and poor security apparatus, even the eleven central jails in Madhya Pradesh are as bad as district-level jails in other states.
But while it looks prima facie that the SIMI prisoners escaped from jail, the subsequent statements have put a question mark over what really happened. The Madhya Pradesh home department is speaking in different voices on why the eight men were killed in an encounter. Home minister Bhoopendra Singh told NDTV that they had weapons made of spoons and plates but no guns, which begs the question why did the police kill them in cold blood and not capture them alive. But DIG of Bhopal police Raman Singh contradicted the minister, saying the terror suspects fired at the cops.
The Home minister's statement raises the question if the SIMI activists were killed in a fake encounter. But if we are to go by the senior cop's word, it indicates that the inmates had help ready outside to acquire weapons and ammunition almost immediately. The bodies of the undertrials also had belts, shoes and watches on them, another pointer to a well-planned operation.
A senior police officer says it is highly unlikely that jail authorities would have plotted to let the convicts escape to facilitate an encounter. It makes them look incompetent, he argues. The general belief is that if encounters in judicial custody are to be carried out, targeting undertrials during a journey to the court outside is deemed a more convincing option.