HYDERABAD: On Friday morning at Chattanpally village, a sparsely populated place in Mahbubnagar district of Telangana, a huge crowd erupted in joy, shouting “Jai Sajjanar” and “Jai police”. In the area cordoned off by the police, V.C. Sajjanar, Commissioner of Police, Cyberabad, was holding a meeting with Telangana intelligence officers as a panchanama was being prepared.
At a distance of around 300 yards lay four bodies—Mohammed Areef, Jollu Shiva, Jollu Naveen and Chintakunta Chennakeshavulu, all in their twenties—the accused in the rape and murder case of a young veterinarian.
The incident, which happened in the early hours of Friday morning, has led to divided reactions—as many people including politicians cheer the extrajudicial killing and claim that justice has been served, many others, including legal experts, worry that the police have set a dangerous precedent.
Started with a peasant uprising
Encounter killings in Andhra Pradesh (Telangana was a region part of the bigger state till 2014) began after the Srikakulam peasant uprising which was an armed struggle from 1968-’71. Jalagam Vengal Rao, who became the state’s chief minister in 1973, began ordering the killings of armed insurgents, most of whom were by then associated with People’s War Group.
“Jalagam Vengal Rao ‘invented’ the encounter killings. From then on, such killings have been happening non-stop in the state barring some periods when there was a lull,” said G. Haragopal, a political scientist and former faculty member of University of Hyderabad, who has been part of several people’s movements in the state. When Marri Chenna Reddy took over as CM in 1978, he lifted the ban on the People’s War Group.
“The encounter killings reduced then. This was also soon after the national Emergency was lifted, Janata Party was in power and there was a fresh stress on democratic values,” said Haragopal, who added that there were fewer encounter killings during the term of actor-turned-CM N T Rama Rao (1983).
Encounter killings began rising again when N. Chandrababu Naidu became the chief minister in 1995. The Naxal combing operations stopped briefly when Naidu himself was attacked by Maoists in 2003. While he escaped death by a whisker and later lost elections in 2004 to Congress’s Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, Andhra Pradesh’s tryst with extrajudicial killings did not stop there.
YSR, as Reddy was popularly known, held meetings with Maoist leaders beginning 2004, but also seemed to have given consent for ‘encounters’. By the time YSR died in 2009, the state had not just normalised encounter killings of alleged Maoists but also that of “anyone who does ‘a grave crime’”, said political observers. “The political system in the state thinks that this type of arbitrary cohesive power is the only way to put down people’s movements. That got extended to other walks of life and the consequence is seen in encounters that have happened recently, including the Hyderabad encounter,” said Haragopal.
Before most encounters, the political leaders in charge seem to have gauged the public mood. In at least three prominent instances, huge protests had been held demanding ‘justice’.
In December 2007, three of seven accused in the kidnapping and murder of a 11-year-old girl in Warangal was gunned down by police in what was called an ‘encounter’. The three had allegedly killed the girl as they feared being identified if they let her go. Three days before the encounter, Warangal Police, headed by the district’s then Superintendent of Police Sowmya Mishra, had produced the accused before media.
In the press conference, the accused were told to ‘confess’ to the crime. As per media reports from then, the accused admitted having abducted the girl for ransom. They said they had not given her food and finally killed her when their demands were unmet. As the news about their ‘encounter’ broke, several groups including child rights and gender rights activists held support rallies for Andhra Pradesh. The treatment the seven accused meted out to the child was cited to justify the killing.
YSR remained silent then. His popularity only seemed to increase when, yet again, people celebrated a similar ‘encounter’ which took place in December 2008. A team of sleuths headed by Warangal Superintendent of Police, V. C Sajjanar, announced the ‘encounter’ of three men accused of attacking two women—Swapnika and T. Pranitha—with acid. The crowds in Hyderabad, where the women were undergoing treatment (Swapnika died after a few days), burst crackers and in their hometown, where the encounter took place, sweets were distributed.
In 2015, 20 people suspected to be red sanders smugglers were gunned down in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh. In the same year, five Muslim youth suspected to be terrorists were killed in an encounter in Nalgonda district of Telangana while they were being taken for a trial hearing.
On Friday, after the encounter of the four accused in the recent case, people in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have been celebrating. In the residential colony where the woman’s family lives, residents distributed sweets, and in Shadnagar, where protests demanding quick justice began, flowers were showered on police officers. And Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao’s popularity has shot through the roof in just a day. Ironically, a day earlier, KCR’s son and state minister K.T. Rama Rao had said at a public event that “instant justice” cannot be dispensed legally.
According to political observers, encounters have now become a way for ruling parties to improve their electoral ratings.
“In all three cases (2007, 2008 and 2019), there was huge uproar from the general public for justice. And this is immediately interpreted as justice at the point of gun. All chief ministers who ruled between 1996 and 2019 gave silent consent for such encounter killings,” said Jinka Nagaraju, a senior journalist and social activist who has worked in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana for the past four decades. Haragopal added that “it is very disturbing to see popular support for ‘encounter killings’ because it goes against constitutional morality and rule of law. If the legal system collapses and the people lose faith in the judicial process then they could take law into their hands. The governance of society will collapse”.
What about investigations?
In the recent past in the two states, it is not just the Maoists and sexual offenders who have been killed in ‘encounter’. In 2015, 20 people suspected to be red sanders smugglers were gunned down in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh. In the same year, five Muslim youth suspected to be terrorists were killed in an encounter in Nalgonda district of Telangana while they were being taken for a trial hearing. Both the incidents had drawn flak as legal experts claimed that these were staged killings. Both the State Human Rights Commission and the National Human Rights Commission have been looking into these deaths.
In May this year, a Supreme Court bench headed by former CJI Ranjan Gogoi ruled against an appeal filed by Andhra Pradesh IPS Officers’ Association requesting immunity in ‘encounter’ cases. The appeal was filed as the Civil Liberties Committee had filed a case demanding an investigation into all encounter killings in Andhra Pradesh since 1996.
Speaking to this writer when the verdict came out, Advocate V. Raghunath, who had appeared for CLC, had said this was a “historic win”, as police personnel would not have impunity or privilege anymore when it came to encounters.
“Since 1968, the practice followed by police in Andhra Pradesh was to kill people and claim that it was done in self-defence. In all encounter cases, the practice was to register a case against the dead person under 307 IPC (attempt to murder). Civil Liberties Committee challenged this by pleading that police can plead self-defence only during the trial and not while registering the FIR. In 2009, Andhra Pradesh High Court passed a judgement which made it mandatory for the police to lodge a case under 302 IPC (Murder) implicating officers involved in encounter killings. While this order was challenged by the state of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and IPS Officers Association in the Supreme Court, (the) judgement passed by the three member bench has upheld the 2009 AP High Court judgement.”
So far, no police officer has been booked under section 302 IPC in the Hyderabad encounter case.