On Monday morning, news broke that eight activists of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India had broken out of the Bhopal Central Jail, shimmying down the prison walls using bed sheets and killing a head constable.

Within hours, it was said that the eight “terrorists” had been killed in an encounter at Eintkhedi village, about eight kilometres from Bhopal. Journalists who seemed to be at the encounter site claimed local residents had gathered there to chant “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”.

By afternoon, two wildly different political narratives had emerged.

In a press conference, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said he had briefed Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh about the “neutralised SIMI terrorists”, that the National Investigation Agency would be probing the case to see if there was a “design” behind it. He congratulated the police and local people who helped track down the escaped prisoners. There would also be punitive action against police officials responsible for the security breach at the Bhopal jail, he said.

But a competing story was already taking shape. The Congress’s Digvijay Singh, former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh and currently member of Rajya Sabha, hinted at a larger “conspiracy” behind the jailbreak. He spoke of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh instigating anti-Muslim riots and then said it should be probed if there was “someone behind this”. Soon, other Congress leaders and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi had joined in, demanding a judicial probe on the jailbreak and the encounter just hours afterwards.

Between the two stories lies a twilight world of inconsistencies, unanswered questions and hysteria.

Three questions

First, a question of security. Three of the eight prisoners had broken out of the Khandwa Jail in 2013 and later arrested again. They had since been shifted to the Bhopal Central Jail because it is considered more secure. Why, then, were the prisoners kept in the same compound? What grievous lapses allowed such well-known and closely watched prisoners to escape from one of the most secure prisons in the state, which has round-the-clock surveillance?

Second, a question of inconsistencies – not between government and opposition but between the various stories put out by the Madhya Pradesh administration itself. State Home Minister Bhupendra Singh said the SIMI men were armed only with utensils found in the prison but, for some reason, the police had been compelled to shoot and kill them in the encounter. But Bhopal police officer Yogesh Choudhary claimed the prisoners were armed and were killed in the crossfire.

It has given rise to widespread social media speculation about men who kill with spoons:

One English news channel posted a chilling, “unverified video” of the police firing at point blank range at men claimed to be the escaped prisoners, who may still have been alive. If genuine, it does not square with the police story of a crossfire. It also does not support the notion that the police had shot and killed undertrials only because they were compelled to.

Which leads into a question of semantics. It was not long before a large number of media outlets, not to mention the state government itself, were confidently calling the dead men "terrorists. But most news sources said the prisoners who were killed were undertrials, charged with serious crimes such as murder, sedition and bank robbery, but not convicted. While more details are awaited, reporters on the ground said the cases against them were weak and the men’s defence lawyer claimed the trials were about to conclude in their favour.

Various other reports also emerged, feeding into the general impression that a terror attack had been foiled. It was rumoured that the men had belts, shoes and watches on them, leading to speculation about who had supplied these. They were also said to be carrying that dietary staple of terrorists on a lethal mission: dry fruits.

No politics, only probe

These questions must be answered by cool-headed inquiries that are insulated from political pressures on either side. At stake are deeper institutional issues: how Indian police forces treat undertrials and whether they are still allowed impunity for extrajudicial killings of prisoners.

But the more immediate question that springs from Monday morning’s spectacle is this: how did a security breach in a prison get swept up in such an escalating scale of rhetoric? It took very little time for the dead men to be cast as “terrorists”. The encounter suddenly became a parade of national pride, with a jingoistic audience admiringly comparing it to the “surgical strikes” conducted by the army in September. But when did the killing of men whose guilt had not yet been proved become a matter of national pride?