Since Friday, the sensational killing of gangster Vikas Dubey by the Uttar Pradesh Police has been the focus of much discussion. Out of this intricately spun story, a mere three details bear rehearsal here: upon arrest, the vehicle in which he was being transported met with an accident. Taking advantage of the confusion, he “attempted to flee by snatching the pistol” of a policeman. He was gunned down in the attempt.

Aspersions have been cast on virtually every element of this story, but as someone interested in state violence in India, one’s eyes come to rest on a relatively innocuous word “snatched”.

For roughly 20 years, despite their rigorous training, policemen in India have had their weapons snatched from them with astonishing regularity by accused persons in their custody. Of course, the police retaliate swiftly and valorously, by executing the culprit on the spot. But the taint remains of being, perhaps, the most butter-fingered force in the world – experts at having their firearms snatched from them against impossible odds.

A frequent occurrence

As even a cursory internet search might reveal, “gun snatching” has long served as a bankable justification for killing custodial undertrials in India.

  •   Scarcely six months ago, we were confronted with that word when the Hyderabad police made quick work of four men who had been accused of brutally raping and murdering a young woman. According to the statement of a senior police official about the incident reported by India Today, “They snatched weapons from police and fired on police.”  
  •    In separate incidents in 2018 and 2019, sub inspectors of the Uttar Pradesh Police had their guns snatched in Meerut and Azamgarh, and retaliated with deadly force.  
  •   In 2015, in an incident now famous as the “Aler encounter”, a 17-member police team in Telangana was compelled to execute five undertrials in their custody when one of the accused snatched a weapon from a police constable.  
  •   In Jammu and Kashmir, instances of snatching are seemingly legion, and prompted the state government in 2019, to procure “4,000 weapon safety systems to curb gun-snatching incidents”. (In other countries, alertness by officers seems to have been the preferred solution.)  
  •   In 2009, the Uttarakhand police shot a young MBA graduate 50 times claiming that he had “snatched a service revolver” from a sub inspector.  
  • In 2007, the Tamil Nadu police executed a man in their custody who they claimed was a “notorious criminal” in Thanjavur. “The police van, in which he was being taken to Madurai,, accidentally rammed into a roadside tree,” a report said “Taking the opportunity,Shankar picked up the DGP’s pistol and attempted to flee. As the escort police chased him, Shankar fired at them. Police Inspector returned the fire in self-defence and shot him dead.”  
  •   In an incident in Rajkot in 2001, the Gujarat police executed a suspected terrorist who had “wrested the service revolver” of a police officer. The next year, they killed a man in their custody in Ahmedabad after he “snatched the police officer’s AK-47
Bystanders in Hyderabad shout slogans to congratulate the police after four men in custody were shot dead in December. Credit: PTI

Suspicious as all of this is, a compilation of this kind may not surprise many – after all, the Indian police are not exactly reputed for their truthfulness. But we may still wonder at the self-deprecatory overuse of the “snatching gun” formula. Why must our finest be forced to confess to such lethal clumsiness? We will believe anything, so why keep feeding us these anodyne gun-snatching fantasies?

Let me suggest that this 21st century spate of “gun-snatching-encounters” in India is not the result of uninspired policemen being unable to craft a more original plot. The reason we keep getting the same story, on loop, is that it is mandated, paradoxically, by late-20th century human rights jurisprudence.

Encounters foretold

In 1997, the chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission, Justice MN Venkatachaliah, issued a much-feted set of police guidelines on encounter killings. In it, he condemns encounter killings, but offers the following advice: “[Killing by police] would not be an offence if death is caused in the exercise of the right of private defence.”

In other words, undertrials in police custody may lawfully be killed provided the police act in self-defence. In an era where the police everywhere has been professionally weaponised, it is getting rarer for a custodial undertrial to be able to seriously imperil the life of a policeman – except, that is, if they somehow snatch the policeman’s firearm.

“Gun snatching” then, emerges as the only judicially conformable plotline that licenses the killing of those in police custody. (For the encounter killings of those not in custody, both Telangana and Uttar Pradesh adopt a slightly varying script.)

It follows, then, that Vikas Dubey will not be the last gun-snatching-encounter that we shall see. There is every indication, in fact, that this will be a ‘growth industry’. But the price that the police have to pay in order to get away with it, is to have to permanently typecast themselves as patsies in their poorly constructed dramas. They must forever, and in at least slightly different ways, be disarmed by snatchers.

The better equipped the Indian police gets, the more spectacularly ham-fisted they must need to describe themselves. Only under the narrative cloak of such ineptitude can the business of extra judicial killing be conducted with efficiency and dispatch. This, I suggest, is Justice Venkatachaliah’s reprisal against law enforcement in India for having made a travesty of his guidelines.

Post Script: Forensic philology

As laypersons, we lack the investigatory resources to disprove the state’s version of events in any case. However, the internet offers us the opportunity to indulge in a surrogate activity –- a process that we might call “philological forensics”. The attempt here is to catch the state in its lie, not by arriving at the “objective truth” in any individual case, but by engaging in a comparative technique native to the discipline of philology.

Here we lay the state’s stories in different events side by side as a series and trace a relationship of genre (“gun snatching stories” in my case) across these different incidents. It is the very existence of this genre relationship across incidents that ought not, ordinarily, to have such a relation that indicts the state. This is what I have attempted to do here.

Prashant Iyengar is a lawyer and a doctoral candidate at MESAAS, Columbia University, New York.