Vivek Kodamagundla wanted to be a people's lawyer, seeking justice for the marginalised in the Indian judicial system, where cases are often tangled in red tape. But at the age of 19, he left his law degree midway and joined the banned CPI Maoists group. He and two women comrades were killed in June 2015 near the Telangana-Chhattisgarh border while doing a supply run. The Telangana police called it an encounter.
A fact-finding report by the Telangana-based Civil Liberties Committee (CLC) says that all three Maoists killed that day were allegedly caught and tortured before being shot dead. “The police said that the Maoists fired first and they fired in response and the Maoists got killed. This is the same story that keeps recurring for every encounter killing – not just in the Telugu states but across India,” says N Venugopal, Editor-in-Chief of Veekshanam, a Telugu magazine.
The term encounter is as old as erstwhile Andhra Pradesh itself, or perhaps even older. The first-ever recorded case of an encounter in present-day Andhra was in 1924. The dead man was Alluri Sitarama Raju, a leader of the 1922 Rampa rebellion, a tribal uprising at Visakhapatnam against British forces. Between 1946 and 1951, more than 3,000 people were killed in encounters during the Telangana peasant struggle. The then-Hyderabad state has "the dubious distinction of being the first state to kill its own people in the name of encounters in post-1947 India," writes Venugopal in Fake Encounters: Story from Andhra Pradesh for Economic and Political Weekly in 2007.
Encounter by definition would mean an unexpected or unplanned meeting. First used to describe the quelling of farmer agitations, encounter killings later became associated with the gunning down of members of banned armed groups. Over the years, nearly all encounter killings tell the same story. The police were fired upon first. They demanded that the accused surrender and put down their weapons, before firing and killing in retaliation or self-defence.
The latest encounter
In the latest encounter killing, the Cyberabad police on December 6 shot dead all four accused in the gangrape and murder of a Hyderabad veterinarian. The police say all four accused, who were truck drivers and cleaners by profession, managed to gang up and pelt stones at the 10 trained police officers. They then managed to snatch two pistols from the policemen and started firing at them. And in the return fire, all four of them were killed. The reported encounter took place when the police brought the accused for evidence collection at 3 am.
The four accused were shot dead in an agricultural field barely 500 meters from where they allegedly burnt the veterinarian’s body. The reported crossfire took place between 5.45 am and 6.15 am. But the bodies of the four men remained there through the day, and only removed that evening after the media was given access to a spot close to the crime scene, with visuals telecast live.
In the police press conference that followed, questions as to how two of the four accused managed to get hold of the pistols in the presence of 10 armed police officers went unasked. “The lower courts would have given these four the death sentence, it would have then gone to the High Court, then the Supreme Court, then review petitions, mercy petitions and justice gets delayed. It’s an open secret they were killed. It’s instant justice. There is no point in asking such questions,” says a reporter with a prominent English daily.
The silence of vultures
“Most crime stories are written by crime reporters and they go along with the police,” points out Venugopal. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the press and the upcoming electronic media started investigating these encounters and presented a different picture of these killings, he says. “Then the coverage suddenly stopped. Now there is fear. The police and state are vindictive towards journalists who show them in poor light, they face harassment. Also, if a journalist writes anything negative, they risk losing access to information from the police for their daily reporting,” he adds.
Venugopal highlights the encounter of Gulam Rasool, an investigative reporter with Udayam newspaper. Rasool and his friend Vijay Prasad Rao were killed on December 28, 1991, by the Hyderabad police in the outskirts of the city, for allegedly being Naxalites. “Rasool had done stories on the nexus between land mafia and the police. A Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) in Hyderabad was involved according to his report, and this made the reporter a target. The reporter is now dead, and the DSP had an honourable retirement from service,” says the editor.
After Rasool’s extra-judicial killing, the journalists in Hyderabad protested and the government eventually appointed a judicial commission. “The commission came out with an irrelevant conclusion that the deceased were Naxalites. They ignored the main issue of whether an encounter took place or if it was a cold-blooded murder,” states Venugopal.
Those who have protested at each instance of encounter killings over the decades in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh call encounter killings by the police an “instrument of suppression.”
A history of suppression
Since the 1960s, encounters have been used as a form of suppression of the Srikakulam peasant and tribal movement under the leadership of communist revolutionary organisations, say civil rights activists. Many leaders of these movements were gunned down in encounters that some believed to be staged. In the period of the Emergency rule in India from 1975 to 1977, several such killings of political activists were documented by the Civil Liberties Committee and the Organisation for the Protection of Democratic Right (OPDR).
Post Emergency, due to pressure from civil rights groups, the Andhra Pradesh government was forced to appoint a committee headed by Justice V Bhargava in 1978. The committee was to inquire into the encounter killings of 300 alleged Naxals during the time of Emergency. By July 1978, Justice Bhargava would leave Hyderabad citing difficulties and obstruction from the then Congress-led AP government. The commission was soon wound up.
“The commission was investigating the Giraipally encounter in which four activists were killed. The Yellandu encounter in which a former MLC and leader of a Marxist-Leninist organisation along with a student leader were killed. The Chilakagutta encounter in which four were shot to death including the state Secretary of the CPI(ML) party. As the evidence presented before the commission was clear enough to damn the police story of the encounter, the government midway wound up the commission,” alleges Pradeep, General Secretary, Indian Federation of Trade Unions. There was a brief respite in fake encounters between 1977 and 1980 but it witnessed a revival in 1981 with the killing of two alleged Naxals in Warangal district, says Pradeep.
From then until today, reports of ‘fake; encounters come in from across the country. “We can see a difference in the killings that took place during and before the Emergency, and the later killings. Fake encounter killings became more brazen in the sense that the earlier killings needed the cover of a forest, but post-Emergency they were happening in plain areas, villages and now in cities,” he observes.
The ‘80s, ‘90s and the new millenium
K Parsaiah and M Ravindra Reddy, who were activists with the CPI (ML) Re-Organising Committee, were arrested separately on July 19 and 21, 1981 respectively. The duo, however, was not produced before the court after the arrest. On July 23 at Suryapet in Nalgonda district, they were taken in a jeep to the magistrate’s residence. They were made to wait outside while the police got the paperwork done. Minutes after the police got their custody, they were shot and killed. The police termed it an encounter.
Two other members of the CPI (ML) Re-Organising Committee, Pingili Bhoopathi Reddy and Kavatam Saraiah were arrested on May 27, 1985, when they were sleeping at their lawyer’s residence in Warangal. Within hours of being picked up, they were killed in an encounter at Narsapur, about 60 kilometres from Warangal. These instances of encounter killings were recorded in K Balagopal’s 1988 book Probings in the Political Economy of Agrarian Classes and Conflicts.
On August 8, 1998, the AP police killed 13 activists at Kopardang in Orissa, now known as Odisha. The police reportedly crossed jurisdiction into the deep forests of Rayagada district in Orissa with helicopters and bombs to attack a Naxalite camp. CLC would report that some of the activists were apprehended in the raid and later killed.
In 1999, three central committee members of the CPI(ML) People’s War were arrested in the afternoon of December 1, in Bengaluru. They were later taken to Koyyur forest at Karimnagar district, presently in Telangana where they were killed along with two others, reports a joint fact-finding committee of Organisations of Democratic Rights and Civil Liberties. It found that of the five people killed by the police one was a local youth who had no involvement. Friends and family members of the victims had alleged that there were telltale signs of torture on the bodies and post-mortem reports corroborated their allegation.
With the start of the millennium, the ambit of who is encountered gets murky. In 2005, Riaz (Ch Venkateswarlu), a leader with CPI(ML) Janasakthi and three others were killed in an alleged encounter. Over the years, farmers, folk artists, witnesses to encounters and even persons with disabilities have been victims of encounter killings.
A complaint filed by the CLC before the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in 1994 put the number of encounter deaths for the previous three years at 496. Of these, 204 were Naxal activists, rest were students, youth, petty criminals and even elected representatives. Many more complaints and reports have been filed with the NHRC since then.
Setting up a new normal
In 2008, for perhaps the first time, encounter killing was seen as a form of ‘instant justice’ by the public at large. There was much anger against three men accused of throwing acid on the face of two women engineering students. One of the women died after a few weeks in the hospital.
The three accused were killed in an encounter by the police under the supervision of VC Sajjanar, the then Warangal Superintendent of Police. The encounter took place while the three were out for evidence collection. Sajjanar at present is the Cyberabad Police Commissioner, under whose jurisdiction the December 6 encounter took place. The four men accused of gangrape and murder were also encountered while being taken out for evidence reconstruction.
“Now a mentality of lynching is growing. Whenever a crime happens, because there is no justice system and proper investigation, people are getting angry and thus are asking for vengeance. But people have to remember that there is a rule of law and procedure. You cannot take the law into your own hands. If the police takes the law into their own hands anyone can do so, and we would go back to barbaric rule,” notes Venugopal.
A year after the formation of Telangana on April 7, 2015, Viqaruddin Ahmed, and four others accused of terrorisim were killed in a reported encounter. All five men were undertrial prisoners and were being taken from Warangal Central Prison to Hyderabad. According to the police, they attacked personnel, snached a weapon and opened fire while handcuffed to their seats, the other policemen returned fire killing all five.
Three months later in June, Vivek and two others would be killed in an encounter.
The encounter of Mohammed Nayeemuddin, in August 2016 was even made into a movie by Ram Gopal Varma, titled Cobra. The former Maoist-turned-extortionist and gangster was infamous in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. He was killed in an encounter at Shadnagar about 50 kilometers from Hyderabad.
On August 1, 2019 Linganna and seven other Maoists were surrounded near the Rollagadda forest area of Bhadradri-Kothagudem district bordering Chhattisgarh. According to the police the Maoists shot first while the police insisted that they surrender. Only Linganna was killed in the return fire, the police claim. CLC members say he was first shot in the right leg, caught and tortured before being killed. The two eyewitnesses who the police say are Maoists managed to escape from custody.
Article 21 of the Indian Constitution states, “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedures established by law.” However, Venugopal and those from the civil rights groups allege that the police have been given a free run to bypass the Constitution. They criticise the state government’s inclination to grant acceleratory promotion to officers involved in encounter killings.
“So if you are an SI and involved in an encounter, you get promoted to CI which would happen in two years as opposed to 10 years. In the name of killing Naxals, the police were given immunity, now they have started extending it to everybody,” says the journalist. “The Indian Police Service was launched by colonial rulers, their basic training is that people are their enemies, and the trend continues now. It has become more sophisticated now,” says Venugopal. “With the help of media and popular culture they are trying to project themselves as heroes, because of that they are able to get away with illegal activity,” he adds.
The Hyderabad police this year in November had booked Venugopal as a seventh accused in a case of alleged Maoist conspiracy against the state.