The following is a dry, fragmented, and greatly limited timeline of contemporary events pertaining to the encounters that have taken place between the country’s second-rate citizens and the judiciary. The nation has expressed an alarming disinterest in each case.
The nation does not care, and does not want to know.
On 4th November 1948, Babasaheb Ambedkar introduced the basic features of the Indian Constitution in the Constituent Assembly. He asserted “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.”
In April 2016, the Chief Justice made an emotional appeal to the central government to protect the judiciary by doubling the number of judges that serve in Indian courts. In 2010, Justice VV Rao stated that it will take 320 years to clear the backlog of the three crore pending cases at that point. In September 2014, the Supreme Court ordered the release of all under-trial prisoners who had completed at least half their sentence. As of October 2015, the National Crimes Report Bureau reported that 68% of prisoners throughout the country are under-trial and over 40% of under-trials remain in jail for six months before receiving bail. In Kashmir, 85% of under-trials had spent over three months in jail. The total capacity of Indian jails was found to be overcrowded by 117.4%
On August 6, 1991, a blood-thirsty mob of around 400 people of the upper-caste Reddy community lynched eight Dalits, placed their chopped body parts in gunny bags, and threw them into the Tungabhadra canal in Tsundur, Andhra Pradesh. In August 2007, 21 perpetrators were given a life sentence, while 35 were sentenced to one year of rigorous punishment. The judgement served as a significant victory in the Dalit emancipation movement and the persistent sixteen year struggle to achieve justice. In April 2014, the High Court overturned the judgement of the Special Court for ‘want of evidence’, acquitting all the accused.
On August 28, 2002, Banabai Banshi Pawar, a woman belonging to the Pardhi community (a denotified tribe criminalized by the British for rebelling against colonial rule) doused herself with kerosene inside one of Maharashtra’s crowded courtrooms. She threatened to set herself on fire as she hopelessly pled with the judge to release her two sons. In response, the judge said “You are all liars. That’s not kerosene. It’s water”. Banabai went on to ignite the kerosene. Her suicide sparked rage within the Pardhi community. A group of Pardhi women powerfully voiced their agitation as they confronted the local police officers. The police turned to local leaders and traders for assistance in maintaining “law and order”. Soon, a bandh was orchestrated to help aforementioned local leaders torch an entire Pardhibasti. The act of defiance and protest was crushed in the madness unleashed by mob violence. Around 100 houses were set on fire. Natabai Pawar recalled the incident “The mob came here, called us thieves, and asked us how we had built our houses. They threatened that they would not let us stay here. We ran away”
In June 2016, S Yuvaraj, the leader of the Gounder group “Dheeran Chinnamalai Gounder Pervai” stepped out of prison to an excited crowd of his supporters with great pomp and show. In October 2015, Yuvaraj had made waves with his grand surrender to the police; a senior police officer went on to say: “He surrendered in style. Our officers had to receive him like a hero. We would forget this shame only if we can get him convicted”. In July 2015, Yuvaraj murdered Gokulraj, a Dalit adolescent for speaking to a girl from the Gounder community. Gokulraj’s body was retrieved on rail tracks. A suicide note and a video showing Gokulraj stating that he killed himself after falling in love with an upper caste woman was circulated on social media. Yuvaraj went on to evade arrest for three months, managing to somehow give interviews to Tamil news channels proclaiming his innocence. Vishnupriya, the 27 year old Dalit investigating officer could not take the pressure to implicate innocent people for the crime from senior police officials and so, chose to take her own life.
In July 2016, the Supreme Court ordered an investigation into 1,528 cases of fake encounters that have taken place in Manipur over the past 20 years. While the government argued that security forces in disturbed areas would be demoralized as a result of the lack of immunity from prosecution, the court responded by speaking of the demoralized citizen living under a constant sense of fear and paranoia. On 31 August 2015, nine protestors voicing their dissent against the then-recently passed anti-tribal laws (Protection of Manipur People’s Bill, 2015, Manipur Land Revenue and Land Re-forms (Seventh Amendment) Bill, and Manipur Shops and Establishment (Second Amendment) Bill) were gunned down. The bodies of the nine protestors have since been kept in the local government hospital, unburied. The bodies include that of eleven year old Khaizamang who was curious to know what was happening on the street. The mother of one of the protestors recalled her son’s last words to her – “don’t worry, there is police, police will kill only bad people”.
On August 16, 2016, nineteen year old Arjun Kodi was gunned down in Bastar: the police claimed he was another Naxalite, killed in an encounter. Arjun had been arrested in May 2015 on the charges of triggering a bomb on a government ambulance that caused the death of seven people including five jawans, for the murder of a village sarpanch of Koleng, and the murder of a villager from Kadanar village. In a petition filed by his father, it was pointed out that the police may have acted on mistaken identity as Arjun was aged 30 on the arrest memo. He was released on bail in March 2016 and had since then been appearing for his hearing before the juvenile court on every prescribed date diligently. None of the witnesses could place Arjun at the site of the blast. His next hearing was scheduled for August 30; however, the police took him away on August 15. The dead body of a dangerous Naxalite was retrieved a day later. While hearing the petition for Arjun’s bail, members of the Juvenile board commented that perhaps young boys were better off in police custody especially in disturbed, highly sensitive areas like Bastar. Arjun’s lawyer, Isha Khandelwal remarked – “Perhaps we should have let Arjun remain in custody and saved his life from the police.”
On 31st October 2016, eight under-trial prisoners belonging to the Student’s Islamic Movement of India were gunned down for allegedly attempting to escape. Audio tapes that had captured the police operation suggested that the police were under orders to shoot the under trials rather than rearresting them. A snippet from the tapes featured a police officer shouting: “Zindahai, maro”. Three months later, on Republic day, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Chouhan, applauded the officers who carried out the encounter and went on to cite the incident as the state’s topmost achievements. While the jail department described the eight killed as under-trials in its report, Chouhan spoke of them as “dreaded terrorists”. When asked about his choice of words, Chouhan claimed “it is a matter of perception”.
In September 2006, nine Muslim men were arrested and subjected to third degree torture for being the alleged perpetrators of the Malegaon blasts. In May 2016 they were relieved of all terror charges after spending close to a decade in prison. In 2011, the case was handed over to the National Investigation Agency and the NIA had a confession from Swami Aseemanand in the Mecca Masjid blast. According to his statement, Sunil Joshi (a member of RSS who was mysteriously killed in 2007) and “his boys” were the perpetrators of the Malegaon blasts. Nooral Huda, one of the accused regarded his ordeal in jail: “Before each beating, they would ask me to take off all my clothes and each time I kept pleading of my innocence and they kept saying ‘you are not capable of triggering a blast but we want to fill our jails with kattad people like you’. I was in their custody on Eid and they didn’t let me offer my prayers. They said that if I didn’t confess they would bring the women of my family and subject them to the same treatment”.
Art: Sanaya Chandar
Edits: Charulatha Dasappa