Not far from Guwahati on the busy NH 31 is the intersection Baihata Chariali, notorious for exchange of victims of staged encounters.
This is how it happens, say the insiders familiar with such operations:
A white Maruti van comes and parks itself near a fuel station.The police wait at a distance and watch. A second vehicle is already there – a civil car of some known person with changed number plates. It could also be an officer’s personal vehicle with ready-made fake number plates.
The most popular vehicles for exchanges are Maruti vans because their doors slide, making it easy to exchange passengers.
The sedated victim is shifted to the other vehicle, money is paid and he is immediately taken to the army unit. A doctor checks him and he is kept under observation for a few days to assess whether anyone has filed complaint for a missing person.
Usually, various security forces operating in the area jointly work to diffuse accountability. Either the victim is a militant or a petty thief or an illegal immigrant from across the international border. The police confirm his antecedents. The place and time is determined by the army uni.
And then the victim is shot in cold blood.
For years now, the districts of Lower Assam in the north bank of the Brahmaputra, bordering Bhutan on one side and Bangladesh at the other, offer safe haven and easy crossovers. The proliferation of armed groups and presence of arms have allowed a free run for all involved in counter-insurgency operations. The chaos provides the smokescreen for encounters.
It is in this location that Central Reserve Police Force Inspector General (North East Sector) Rajnish Rai has recently alleged a staged encounter by a joint team of CRPF, the Army, Sashastra Seema Bal and the Assam Police, in which two militants belonging to National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit) were shot dead and, as he claims, weapons planted on their bodies.
Rai’s claim is not unlikely, given that it eerily follows the pattern of encounter deaths in Assam.
There are categories of encounters. One is when the security forces go out in the field, and are fired at and they fire back. “Fake encounters” are killing a genuine militant, but not in a genuine encounter. The third category, many say, is “false encounter” or “staged encounter”, which involves killing an outright innocent individual.
Pressure from the top
The job of a unit of army or paramilitary force is to catch or kill. It doesn’t help to create a climate of peace and reconciliation. They are meant to eliminate. When they fail to do this they are questioned – and asked to produce a headcount, show weapon seizures and all that comes with the kill.
That is the context in which staged encounters sustain themselves.
To ward off pressure from the top, these agencies tend to “create” militants with the help of the police. It is possible that some of those killed are not entirely innocent. But these are murders nevertheless.
In the process, the police also sets its record straight and eliminates the criminal class. So it serves a dual purpose. Mostly, criminals are weeded out. In this, there is some element of vendetta as well. Personal scores are also settled. When there is even greater pressure mounting on the army and the police, the poor Bangladeshi who has just jumped across the border fence, and is not identified, becomes a victim. And the cartel flourishes.
There is no brief – nobody prompts anyone. But the subtle pressure is there though it can be resisted – and many do resist. The consequence, though, is that they may have to lose their rank.
Awards and medals
“Encounters”, as is now commonly known, are staged to win medals and awards, among other benefits. In the army, the system of unit citations is based on points, which are earned by eliminating or apprehending militants, or having militants surrender in designated counter-insurgency areas. Thus, a unit that gets a citation may land in a United Nations mission. This will earn its personnel more money and allow them to receive other benefits.
It is like a bonus granted by the government for the “good work” they have done, which may include extrajudicial killings or hosting fake surrenders of ordinary young men and women.
This is how it operates: besides the genuine hard work required for a combat formation in a conflict zone, a formation – the army unit posted there – also needs professional acknowledgement. And that comes most easily through killings. So they scout for favourable heads for kills as well as candidates for surrender.
Illegal arms dealers inevitably flourish in such areas, since the security forces often purchase weapons that are shown in apprehensions, fake encounters or surrenders. This is how the surrendered militants then hand over these weapons to the government in ceremonies attended by the media. The ones arrested – again willingly – serve a three-month jail sentence. They then emerge to be recycled as militants or link men of some other armed organisation. They may be viewed as freelance fake militants – willing candidates for a remunerated arrest. Their families receive compensation while they serve jail terms. The “surrender” actions are often recorded as “joint operations”, so that the police may also claim a share of the “good work”.
The different gallantry awards (all of which end with the word “chakra”) have designated points in the hierarchy of awards and benefits. But how does one get the chakras? Kill people. Add up points. Move up the ranks. The only casualty in this is the truth.
It is unlikely that the recent letter written by Rai will shake up the institutional nexus of state violence. This ambiguous violence is the result of regimes of impunity and it is extremely significant that a serving officer has stepped out to flag his concern knowing well that the consequences for his whistle-blowing act could be detrimental to his own career and well being. It will certainly not earn him a chakra.
Kishalay Bhattacharjee is an Associate Professor at OP Jindal Global University. He is the author of Blood on my Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters.