Menacing clouds have gathered earlier as well over the picturesque lake city of Bhopal. Clouds of dangerous, even criminal, public malfeasance. In the winter of 1984, the people of the city endured the world’s worst industrial disaster in history. In 1992, it was rocked by one of the country’s bloodiest communal bloodbaths following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. In recent years, the horrifying piling of bodies surrounded the unsolved Vyapam crimes. The newest addition of clouds of great foreboding is the extraordinarily murky alleged jailbreak and murder of one jail guard on the night of October 31, and the killing by policemen of eight alleged members of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India the morning after.

As impoverished people across the country are grappling these days with formidable challenges of daily survival, caused by the precipitate withdrawal of 86% of the country’s currency, it is natural for us to forget the last official outrage, and the one before that. But it is imperative that we do not forget, because with each assault the edifice of constitutional governance in the country is being damaged further.

Back to Gujarat

I travelled to Bhopal two days after the killings, and felt as though I was caught in a time warp, swept back a dozen years to the city of Ahmedabad. There, too we were witness to a series of extra-judicial killings of “dreaded terrorists” (never even alleged terrorists, although their crimes were never established in a court of law before their lives were taken). Those killed by the police in Gujarat in those years included a 19-year-old woman, a petty criminal and his wife, and the only surviving witness to their custodial killing. The details of these encounter deaths divulged by the police seemed from the start to have big holes, but those who raised doubts about the truth of these official killings were quickly dubbed anti-national sympathisers of terrorists who almost by definition had to be covertly sympathetic to Islamist ideologies, or cynical purveyors of vote-bank politics.

The collective impact of these repeated killings of alleged Islamist terrorists helped consolidate and widen the already profound divide between religious communities in Gujarat, and also promote a public image of siege of those political leaders, especially the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who positioned themselves as the only leaders with the courage to fight the Muslims, the fifth columnist “enemy within”. This strategy manifestly paid rich political dividends in Gujarat, and later nationally. It appears today that the same Gujarat model is now being extended to Madhya Pradesh.

Chief Minister Shivraj Chouhan combatively described the men eliminated by his police force as “dreaded terrorists who could have wreaked devastation”, although none of this is proved, either that they were terrorists or that they were about to wreak terror violence. He jeered that they enjoyed chicken biryani during their long incarceration, again an emotive and deliberate falsehood by the head of the state administration. His suggestion was that delayed trials and prolonged detention of terror accused are not unconscionable injustices but signs of state softness, and only the muscular state would respond fittingly – by killing them.

I recall the feverish election speeches in Gujarat after 2002. After the killing by the Gujarat Police of petty criminal Sohrabuddin and his wife Kausar Bi was confirmed to be illegal and extra-judicial, this shook the liberal public conscience in the nation. In one of his election speeches, Modi declared defiantly, “Congressmen say that Modi is indulging in [illegal police] encounter[s], saying that Modi has killed Sohrabuddin. Friends from Congress, you have a government at the Centre. If you have the guts, send Modi to [the] gallows [translated from the original by India’s Election Commission].” When he asked the crowds what to do with Sohrabuddin, the crowd responded feverishly, “Kill him! Kill him!”

Chouhan asked an audience a similar rhetorical question in Bhopal and got the same blood-thirsty answer from his audience. This is why I feel caught in a time warp in Bhopal, swept back to a dangerously and deliberately divided Ahmedabad a dozen years earlier.

In Ahmedabad then, as in Bhopal (and indeed much of the nation) now, raising questions about whether these killings of alleged terrorists were actually acts of self-defence by the police or cold-blooded murder were and are seen as disloyal and unpatriotic acts. Some suggest that such scepticism reeks of sympathy with terrorists and their ideologies. This stigmatisation has suppressed a great part of public interrogation and scrutiny. But some human rights defenders persisted in Gujarat, and unexpected heroes emerged from outside but also within the criminal justice system.

Junior magistrate SP Tamang established with impeccable and irrefutable evidence and arguments that 19-year-old Ishrat Jahan’s killing in 2004 was in cold blood. And brave and fair investigations by officers such as Satish Verma and Rajnish Rai led to the arrest of their own colleagues in uniform, and ultimately even Home Minister Amit Shah. (It is another matter that after the change in government at the Centre, most of these criminal cases against the ex-minister and policemen have been closed and the officers have been released, reinstated and promoted).

The impossible

The official versions of the Sohrabuddin, Kausar Bi, Ishrat Jahan and Tulsiram Prajapati encounter killings were riddled with huge holes that were exposed through public vigilance and by diligent officials. But the story of the Bhopal jailbreak and subsequent killings are even more audacious in their improbability. There are not just wide holes in the story, the story is entirely one wide hole.

Challenging our credulity to its limits, the Madhya Pradesh home minister wishes that we believe that highest-security jail locks were broken by keys fashioned out of tooth brushes and knives out of spoons, and tall walls were crossed by tying together bedsheets, which are never issued to prisoners. Lawyer Parvez Alam asks pertinently how the prisoners managed to make 10 separate keys (eight for the individual cells they were locked in and one each for the two wards) out of toothbrushes. And even if they did it, where did they get tools and equipment to do this?

Once out of their cells, according to the official version, they brutally killed one of the prison guards patrolling the courtyard with a knife fashioned out of their steel plates. They then scaled one 25-foot wall and the final 35-foot prison wall by constructing a ladder out of 35 bedsheets, with wooden planks as rungs. The state government further claims that just that night, all the numerous 360-degree cameras inside the prison, including in the terror cells, were not working or disabled and the prison was shockingly understaffed.

For the defence of India’s constitutional values, it is imperative that human rights defenders as well as upright women and men in the police and courts fight resolutely to expose the truth about both the alleged jailbreak and the encounter killings on a hilltop near Bhopal. A group of nine young concerned people, many of them alumni of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, did just that. They visited Bhopal and on November 30, a month after the killings, released a highly damning and detailed fact-finding report that further illuminates the utter improbability of the state government’s claims.

The fact-finders were unsurprisingly not allowed inside the prison. But instead, they interviewed a jail undertrial, Kabir (name changed), who had been released on bail a week earlier. He was housed in the same B Wing of the prison where all the eight men who were killed had been detained. He testified that each of the eight slain men was housed in separate solitary rooms in the most highly secured terror cell. The terror cell is in the centre of the jail with three layers of boundary walls – like a box in a box in a box – and closely monitored by cameras and security officers.

Kabir testified that “in order to have escaped from the prison, each of the inmates would have had to unlock their own individual cells, then unlock the door of their ward, then overpower the six jaagiyas (guards assigned to keep an eye all night on the terror wards) as well as the two guards patrolling the terror cell, and evade detection by anyone from the headquarter office, which is right opposite the terror cell”.

This, he declared, was next to impossible because with the slightest noise, the entire system of guards, alarms and other security measures would get activated. “Even if they break the terror cell, kill all the jaagiyas and the two security guards, they would then have to scale the 25-foot wall of the B wing,” he said. “It is not possible to cross it with clothes or blankets. Now, even if they did cross that wall, they would land right in the centre of B-ward prison compound facing the medical ward inmates and guards, leaving no possibility of remaining undetected. After this, if they reach the compound wall without being seen by any guard or prison official, they would have to then climb the 35-foot wall of the Bhopal Central Jail. After this, they would have to cross the third wall, which is an external wall, again undetected by any officials.”

Kabir told the fact-finding team, “I can challenge, that if all security and surveillance is removed and an Olympian is asked to cross the wall, he would still fail. The jail can’t be broken.”

Tell-tale videos

I visited the hilltop that was the site of the encounter and was shocked at first to find that it had not even been cordoned off. No police personnel were visible anywhere. Journalists and curious villagers were walking over the smudges of blood on the rocks and the police chalk markings of where the corpses lay. It was evident that the state wished for the destruction of all evidence. Contrary to protocol, the post-mortem forensic investigation of the bodies was also not done in the presence of a judicial magistrate. The large rock where the men were killed by the police ended in a cliff edge so steep that if the men had been surrounded by the police, they would have had nowhere to run except to their death.

The amateur videos and audios that have surfaced suggest that they wanted to surrender, that they were deliberately killed at close range. And the forensic reports that most wounds were above their waists add to the apprehension that the police killed them instead of capturing them alive. The chief of the state police’s anti-terrorism squad admits now that the slain men had no firearms. Therefore, there is no basis to believe they were killed in self-defence by a force left with no options.

The fact-finding team described the two videos (taken from different angles). One showed policemen “shooting an already collapsed body of one of the accused victim. In one video, the firing has been done from a very close range, to an already dead (or half dead) body. Voices can be clearly heard saying ‘hit him in the chest. Finish him,***** (abusive words)’. In another video of the same incident, we see more than one bullet (at least two) being fired at the already collapsed body. Bodies of other deceased are lying very close to each other. Earlier in the video, one policeman is shown recovering a shining sharp weapon resembling a chopper knife from the waist of one of the deceased.”

It went on:

“The deceased [all eight] are lying very close to each other, wearing clean clothes [almost brand new] fitting perfectly the body sizes of the deceased, their faces [all eight] are clean shaved. [They] are wearing watches, belts and very clean shoes. In another video, five men standing atop the cliff can be seen raising their hands. The video is shot from a point very close to where the police personnel are standing in the valley. They can be heard saying loudly on the walkie talkie, ‘We can see five people, they want to talk. Three are running, one is leaping’.”

The videos raise many disturbing questions, elaborated carefully in the fact-finding committee’s report. Where did the accused men acquire the clean clothes, watches and shoes that they were wearing, which undertrials are not issued or allowed to wear? If there were handlers who provided them with all of this, who were these handlers and why has there been no effort to get hold of them? If they could organise clothes, shoes and watches, why wouldn’t the handlers arrange vehicles for them to escape as well? Why did the men stay together after escaping, instead of dispersing into ones and twos in different directions, by which strategy finding them could possibly have become as difficult as searching for needles in a haystack? The village near where they were shot dead is well populated. To reach it from the Bhopal Central Jail, the fugitives would have had to cross three highways. Why would those fleeing the law choose to cross three highways and then climb a cliff, thereby making themselves visible to the entire village?

The team also pointed to the fact that the bodies lay so close to each other. If all the accused were standing next to each other, the greater possibility is that of them offering to surrender, rather than being locked in a bloody gun battle as claimed by the police (one in which no policemen were injured). The fact-finding team also saw videos of the bodies shot by the family members of the dead men – they showed over 25 bullet wounds on the bodies but hardly any in the lower parts. Mostly, the shooting was systematically focussed above their waists. A few bullet marks were found on the back of their skulls. The bullets seemed to have pierced the body and left big holes, suggesting they were fired at close range.

Being a patriot

There can, therefore, be little doubt that the intention of the police was to kill the men, not to capture them alive. Nothing justifies cold-blooded killings, legally or morally, even if the men were terrorists, or had escaped from jail and killed a guard. They should have been captured and made to face the majesty of the law. The policemen who killed the eight men have committed brazen cold-blooded murder in uniform. The law demands that they be arrested and face trial. But this is highly unlikely to happen.

“We should stop this habit of raising doubts and questioning the authorities and police,” Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju declared. “This is not a good culture.”

Chief Minister Shivraj Chouhan agreed, pronouncing that the “government and the public and the nation are foremost”. He appealed “to stop playing dirty politics”, adding, “Patriotism is important.”

In moments like this, it is worthy to recall the counsel of American historian and activist Howard Zinn. He reminded us that patriotism is not “blind obedience to government… but rather as love of one’s country, one’s fellow citizens (all over the world), as loyalty to the principles of justice and democracy”. Patriotism is not standing up when the national anthem is played, even less beating up people who do not stand. Patriotism is not blind obedience to government. Patriotism would require us to disobey our government, when it violates those principles. Yes, patriotism especially in moments like this, is our highest public obligation.