The narrative offered by the Madhya Pradesh administration and the police about the alleged encounter on October 31 in which eight undertrials were killed hours after they escaped from the high-security Bhopal Central jail is “full of gaping holes and riddled with inconsistencies”.

That is the allegation made by a nine-member independent team that conducted an investigation into the incident from November 4 to 6. In the report released this week, the team asked how it was possible for eight people to escape a high-security jail undetected, drew attention to inconsistencies in the narratives of eyewitnesses who supported the police version of the alleged encounter, and highlighted that the bullet injuries on the eight deceased men seemed to have been delivered at close range.

The report of the team from the Quill Foundation – a Delhi-based organisation that works to secure justice for those who are wrongly and maliciously prosecuted – adds to the questions that were asked after videos that emerged shortly after the October 31 incident indicated that the undertrials were killed in cold blood.

The team, comprising scholars, activists, journalists and members of civil society groups, visited the site of the encounter, and among others, interviewed villagers who claimed to have witnessed the incident, family members of the police constable who was killed in jail during the alleged jailbreak, and the lawyer for the undertrials.

State administration uncooperative

The men killed in the encounter near a village on the outskirts of Bhopal were undertrials alleged to be members of the banned organisation Students’ Islamic Movement of India. According to the police, they all had been imprisoned in the terror cell in B wing of the high-security Bhopal jail. All of them were Muslims from impoverished backgrounds, and most of them were charged under the Indian Penal Code and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, an anti-terror law. According to their defence lawyer, Pervez Alam, most of the prosecution cases were on the verge of collapse.

According to the broad official narrative, on the night of October 31, the undertrials broke open the locks of their cells with duplicate keys made out of plastic toothbrushes or wood, overpowered two guards, killed one of them using a sharpened spoon, and scaled three walls – including a 35-foot high one – using bedsheets. They also evaded 48 Closed Circuit Television cameras dotted across the jail, as well as guards in the prison watchtowers.

The report said that the terror cell is located at the centre of the jail right in front of a head-quarter office that has a camera monitoring room and an office for the officer in-charge of the prison. The terror cell comprised two wards of four cells, each with one inmate per cell.

As the fact-finding team was denied permission to visit the jail to examine the site, they interviewed a former inmate of the terror wing. The inmate had been released on bail just a week before the encounter. He said that the layout of the jail was such that it was impossible for anyone, especially a group of eight people, to escape without an alarm being raised.

The former inmate indicated that the eight men would have had to do the following to escape:

  1. Open the locks of each of their cells, which would have meant using a total of eight different keys.
  2. Open the locks of the wards using two different keys.
  3. Overpower the six jaagiyas (wakers) – three people assigned to each ward to keep an eye on the cells at night.
  4. Overpower the two guards patrolling the terror cell, without being detected by the six guards stationed at the head-quarter office opposite.
  5. Scale three walls, including the 35-foot high boundary wall.

The report also flagged inconsistencies with regard to whether the closed circuit television cameras inside the jail were working at the time of the alleged escape.

It said:

“Even if the cameras inside the terror cell were not working what about the other cameras in the prison? According to media reports, there were six 360 degree cameras. How is it possible that all the cameras of the prison were disabled on that night?”

Contradictions in eyewitness statements

In its section on witnesses, the report referred to Mohan Singh Meena, the sarpanch of Khejdadev village that is near the site of the encounter. He has been quoted extensively in the media as saying that he saw the men emerge from the water of a creek and climb atop a hillock where they were surrounded by the police and eventually killed.

However, the report points out that Meena’s version of the time the encounter took place is inconsistent. It said that in his earlier statements he said that the police reached the site at 9 am to 9.30 am after which the encounter took place, but in later interviews he said that the encounter took place at around 11.30 am.

The team also interviewed Suraj Singh Meena, a eyewitness, who is related to Mohan Singh Meena. The report said Suraj Singh Meena too was confused about the timing of the encounter and contradicted himself with regard to the timing during the course of the same interview.

Additionally, while Suraj Singh Meena claimed that the under trials were wet because they swam across the creek, another interviewed witness, who reached the site of the encounter when the bodies were still there, said that the clothes of the victims were dry.

Deceased constable’s family afraid

The team met the family of Ram Shankar Yadav, the head constable who was killed in jail during the escape.

Yadav’s wife and daughter told the team that they did not believe the official version of events but then went silent as several people from the media were present.

Heera Munni Yadav, Ram Shankar Yadav’s wife, told the team that she was scared.

The report quoted her as saying, “We are facing lots of threat and are really scared...We don’t know who are these people but, we are in great threat…we are being threatened through media sources…”

Ram Shankar’s daughter, Soniya Yadav, told the team that her family was not satisfied with the government’s version of events.

The report quoted her as saying, “I am not convinced with what they [the government] are saying but you people should ask these questions, we can’t ask these questions.”

Where is the surviving guard?

There is also a shroud of mystery over Chandan Ahirwal, the prison guard who was allegedly gagged and tied up by the undertrials even as his colleague was killed.

The official narrative claims that Ahirwal put up a fight and tried to prevent the men from escaping. The report asks why Ahirwal did not raise the alarm for over an hour. It also asks why Ahirwal has been difficult to reach since the incident.

It said:

“He is also the only eye-witness to the murder of Ram Shankar Yadav. As his account can be crucial for the entire episode of alleged murder and jail break, he has been kept away by investigating agency. He hasn’t spoken to any media house, and has refused to give any statement which could bring more clarity to the incident. What is surprising is that while the official account claims that Chandan was a very close friend of Ram Shankar Yadav, he hasn’t met his family even once after the incident.”

Bullet injuries

The report also commented on the state of the victims’ bodies, saying that it seemed that they had been shot at close range mostly above the waist. It said this contradicted the police version that they had fired from a distance of 50 feet.

It said:

“We saw the videos of dead bodies that had been shot by the family members of the deceased…most of the bullets were aimed at the top part, especially the chest area…This clearly reveals the intention of the police force was to kill them. Moreover, the bullet holes in the body raises doubts of whether bullets were fired from different angles as described by the Police. Bullets seemed to have pierced through the body leaving big holes which makes one feel that it was fired from close range.”

Following widespread criticism that the encounter was staged, the Madhya Pradesh government announced a judicial inquiry into the incident on November 3.