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Bhopal shoot-out & the rule of law

  By Vijay Darda | 07-11-2016

It seems that by some unwritten law the long standing chief ministers of the Bharatiya Janata Party have to graduate as efficient administrators through a rite of passage – ruthless encounters. The bar had been set by the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi to show that he had the steely resolve to take on alleged terrorists – Ishrat Jahan being the most notorious of them all.

So, last week when eight activists of the banned Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) escaped from the high security ISO certified Bhopal Central Jail and were shot dead in an encounter within an hour, there were no surprises. Chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan had just made the grade. He too had presided over the ‘elimination’ of dreaded terrorists.

If this sounds disturbing for all those who believe in the rule of the law, then the ‘nationalist’ discourse that followed these killings in the public domain shakes the belief in the fundamental values of our democratic ethos. The BJP argument ran thus: Those who were killed were dreaded, who have any sympathy for them? If left alive they would have committed more acts of terrorism and inflicted more pain on the society? So, instead of criticising the Madhya Pradesh government the Opposition should actually congratulate it. Of course, there was the usual stuff about the Congress playing to the gallery of minority appeasement as well. 

This combo – the killing and the argument – is the stuff that destroys the Constitution. We must remember that this is happening at a time when the Prime Minister Narendra Modi is second to none in holding the Constitution in highest regard. His words and the deeds during his dispensation only serve to highlight the dangerous dichotomy between the promise and practice in this regime. Needless to add, we must only go by the practice while respecting the words.

It should be remembered that we are a country that follows the rule of the law. It was this adherence to the rule of law that saw us wait for several years before Ajmal Kasab, the lone Pakistani terrorist caught alive in the 26/11 terror attacks, was hanged to death after the courts pronounced him guilty. May be public sentiment would have been pacified if Kasab too had been shot dead in cold blood. But then that would have been against the rule of law.

In killing the eight SIMI activists who escaped from the Bhopal prison, the Madhya Pradesh police has violated this rule of law. Governments are mandated to follow the rule of law, and not violate it. Similarly, political parties are expected to pull up state governments when they violate the rule of law. Fairness demands that they should discharge this role irrespective of whether they are in power or opposition. But in the current partisan political atmosphere, it is too much to expect that a party in power would criticise a government headed by one of its leaders.

The errors of omissions and commissions of the Madhya Pradesh police in this episode have been laid bare in the public domain by a flurry of amateur videos that have surfaced after the shootout. The cops are seen shooting the SIMI activists above the waist in gross violation of the guidelines that a fleeing person should be shot in the leg or below the waist so that he/she cannot escape. The idea being that the culprit should be caught alive so as to facilitate further interrogation. But the video evidence in the case of the SIMI shootout seems to suggest that there was a determined attempt by the cops to snuff out any signs of life that were visible to make sure that no one lived to tell any tale.

It is this determination on the part of the police that brings us to the first part of the SIMI saga. The police have told us that they did not have any firearms, but were armed with spoons and steel plates. Now it challenges your credibility to believe that eight dreaded terrorists could escape a high security prison merely with spoons and plates, and climb a 32-foot wall with the help of bedsheets – how did the bedsheets tied to another get converted into a taut rope that anchored itself to the high security perimeter wall that is electrified without anyone becoming aware of the escapade is a question that haunts every rational mind for starters. Then it is significant that Abu Faisal a SIMI activist who masterminded the 2013 Khandwa jailbreak and is still a prisoner in Bhopal was not a part of the escape plan. Then again it is also a coincidence that three CCTV cameras became dysfunctional on the night of the escapade.

All these anomalies are too cosy to hide the reality. In some or other form the authorities facilitated the jailbreak, and to ensure that no dirty secrets are leaked out, eliminated all the SIMI activists in cold blood. The probes that have been ordered by the state government into the jailbreak and the killing would tell their own tales, but the cold-blooded killing is there on the videos. Additionally, the minister for jails Kusum Mehedale has conceded the possibility of internal lapses in the jail.

The BJP as the party in power at the Centre has the responsibility to ensure that the Constitution is followed in letter and spirit. By whipping up popular sentiment, it may hope to gain some political mileage in some election or elsewhere, but its masters would do well to realise that they have climbed to positions of high authority basically because we have a Constitution and an adherence to the rule of law. Whatever be the short-term gains in subverting this rule of law, in the end it amounts to cutting the branch of the tree on which you are sitting. It is indeed a penny wise and pound foolish policy. But the danger to the society is that by the time this realisation dawns upon the rulers, a lot of irreversible damage would have been done.

Before I conclude…

The NDA government’s decision to take off NDTV India for one day as per the orders of the inter-ministerial committee for its coverage of the Pathankot terror attacks can only be seen as an instance of the Modi Sarkar shooting the messenger for the sake of the message. No government has ever gained by strong arming the media, and the sooner this government realises this, the better it would be for all stakeholders. The order should be withdrawn, before the courts interfere with it.


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Bhopal shoot-out & the rule of law


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