SAJAforum: Quantifying India’s Encounter Deaths and Disappearances

Graph-encounterIn recent weeks, human rights violations in India have slowly been seeping into the mainstream Western consciousness — and not just because of Sergeant Srinivas. A flurry of media stories and human rights reports draws attention not only to particular extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and incidents involving torture at the hands of Indian police and security forces, but also to the prospect that such incidents may be part of more systematic patterns of abuse than is typically assumed.

Both the New York Times and Time have published stories within the past month discussing the prevalence of so-called “encounter killings” in India:

Numbering in the thousands every year, “encounters” or “encounter killings” are shootouts between the Indian police or army and any criminal element, from terrorists to petty thieves. Many Indians believe that at least some are stage-managed — with, say, a police officer placing a gun in the hands of a dead person — leading to the popular phrase, “fake encounter killing.”…

In almost all, India’s limited forensics capabilities make investigating the claims of either side hard to verify. But the national news media often accept the police’s version,which puts them in harmony with many in their middle-class audience who fear rising crime and terrorism. Meanwhile, Bollywood and Indian media lionize “encounter specialists” — soldiers or policemen who, like Dirty Harry, specialize in shootouts. [NYT]

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Human rights activists have for years protested the growing incidence of encounters, some of them allegedly staged. “Encounters have become the norm,” says Vrinda Grover, lawyer and human rights activist. “They have become the police’s preferred method to deal with not just terrorists, but criminals of all kinds.” Legends of “encounter specialist” cops abound, and one of them was even the subject of the Bollywood film Ab Tak Chhappan (“So far 56”, implying the number of people he had killed).

Activists allege that in numerous instances, evidence has been planted after a shooting in order to justify police claims that officers had acted in self defense. Encounters are meant to be probed by a magistrate following a post-mortem, but critics point out that the investigative work in such probes is undertaken by the police themselves. They also allege that such tactics enjoy tacit approval from the authorities in areas plagued by insurgencies. [Time]

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