India police, police reform india, India police problem
The Uttar Pradesh police took down gangster Vikas Dubey, in alleged encounter. Photograph/PTI

Not many were surprised when it happened. The Uttar Pradesh police took down gangster Vikas Dubey, the country closely watched a deadly ambush, the chase across three states, an arrest, the purported accident, and finally, an “encounter”.

In a life of crime spanning over 30 years, Mr. Dubey had sixty-two criminal cases registered against him; the most infamous one when he allegedly killed a local Bharatiya Janata Party leader inside the police station in 2001. (He was acquitted by the court after policemen, who were the witnesses, turned hostile.)

Mr. Dubey again hit the headlines on 3 July, this year, when he ambushed Uttar Pradesh police during a raid to arrest him in Bikaru village of Kanpur. Eight police personnel were killed and seven others injured as Mr. Dubey’s gang escaped unhurt. 

The tip-off to Mr. Dubey about the police movement came from nowhere else but the police department only. Subsequently, Station Officer Chaubeypur, Vinay Tiwari, two sub-inspectors and a constable were suspended for their alleged involvement.

Mr. Dubey was arrested six days later in the Ujjain city of Madhya Pradesh. On Friday morning, he was being taken to Uttar Pradesh in the early hours of Friday morning when, as per the police, a vehicle carrying him met with an accident and he “tried to flee”. The police claimed that Mr. Dubey snatched a revolver from one of the policemen and opened fire. In the exchange of fire, Mr. Dubey was shot dead.

Notably, about half an hour before the alleged encounter took place, media persons that were following the convoy for at least six hours en route to Kanpur were halted and disallowed to proceed.

To many, the police version is old wine in a new bottle. Merely two days ago, one of his aides, Kartikeya was being brought to Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. En route, the police vehicle’s tyre flatted; that’s when “he snatched the pistol of a policeman and tried to flee”. He was shot dead too.

And Mr. Kartikeya wasn’t the only one from the gang to meet this fate. Five gang members were killed in alleged encounters while several others continue to remain in police custody.

On Friday, the news of the killing of Mr. Dubey invoked swift reactions on Twitter, especially journalists and civil society members who had preempted it. A journalist, Sourabh Trivedi shared a video that shows Mr. Dubey travelling in a Tata Safari vehicle. However, he tweeted, later the photograph of the vehicle that the police claimed had overturned was of a different make, Mahindra TUV 300.

A retired top cop, Dr. N. C. Asthana, who served as a Director-General of Police, Kerala, took numerous digs at the Uttar Pradesh police for the “outrageous story” of Mr. Dubey’s killing. “The dumbness of the cops is obnoxious. Same story? They could have cooked up a better story (sic),” he said. He further highlighted multiple loopholes in the police version.

Whilst the killing of Mr. Dubey is seen as a shroud on the infamous political-underworld nexus, the questions of accountability and India’s policing problem is at the forefront again.

A month after Aditya Singh Bisth, alias Yogi Adityanath, took over as Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, he announced: “Agar apradh karenge to thok diye jayenge” (if you commit a crime, you will be knocked off). Since then, about 103 accused have been killed across 5,000 alleged “encounters”. 

Uttar Pradesh isn’t alone in the alleged extrajudicial killings. The leaders of the Naxalite movement in West Bengal, and elsewhere in the red belt, have long been a target of the police brutalities. Or the dacoits in Central India were in the 1960s. So were the militants in Punjab in the 1980s. And in conflict-affected Kashmir and Manipur for decades.

However, a concrete quantification of the extrajudicial killings or investigations cannot be provided because no national database is kept of the same.

A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed before the Supreme Court on Friday seeking CBI probe into the killing of five of Vikas Dubey’s aides by the Uttar Pradesh Police. All five men were gunned down in the alleged encounters.

The plea, which was filed before Dubey was killed today in an alleged encounter, also raised concerns that the gangster from Uttar Pradesh too might suffer the same fate.

The petitioner Ghanyshyam Upadhyay, therefore, prayed that Mr. Dubey should be given adequate security so that he is dealt with as per the law. “Killing of accused by police in the name of encounter is against the rule of law and serious violation of [the] human right and this is nothing short of Talibanisation of the country,” the petition stated.

In January 2019, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed that they were “alarmed” and “extremely concerned” as they highlighted information of fifteen cases of alleged extrajudicial killings in Uttar Pradesh. The office also took note of fifty-nine cases of possible fake encounters.

With the outrightly visible pattern, the calls for police reforms on structural levels grew. And some attempts have also been made: in 2006, a Supreme Court judgment on police reform resulted in the drafting of a new Model Police Act. It aimed to have an independent body scrutinize police actions. However, by March 2018, according to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), there were only seventeen states that partially abided by the reforms. 

Recently, in December 2019, the Hyderabad police hit the headlines for a similar alleged encounter that was widely portrayed as retributive justice. The police had arrested four persons suspected of raping and killing a young woman. 

While the men were being taken back to the scene of the crime in the early hours of Friday, they were killed in an alleged encounter. “The suspects were shot when they tried to steal the officers’ guns and escape,” said the police.

However, what came as a shock in this instance was the public acceptance, and subsequent applause–as it was feared as an extrajudicial killing too. The demand for a CBI probe in the killings is gaining traction and so is the demand to reform the police.

The comment originally appeared in our 13-19 July 2020 print edition.

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