November 26, 2002


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Kuldip Nayar

Licence to kill

In the fifties there was a poet in communist-ruled Hungary, who said: "We are living in cannibal times." I was reminded of the observation the other day when an eyewitness said the Ansal Plaza shootout in Delhi was no encounter, but a straight murder of the two ill-fed men without arms. In one sense it is a sad commentary on the environs where people can be bumped off without trial.

The witness, Dr Hari Krishna, was afraid for his life after he contradicted the police. Officers had given a detailed account of how the encounter took place and how the two terrorists armed with AK-47 guns were killed before they could harm any of the hundreds of Diwali shoppers. Krishna phoned me frantically that the police had threatened him with dire consequences if he did not withdraw his version. Harsh words were used after he rejected several entreaties. His wife and son felt unsafe. If such a sequence of events does not constitute cannibal times, then what does?

But I must admit that most people have not liked my submission to the National Human Rights Commission for an inquiry on the shootout. In fact, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has demanded my arrest under POTA [Prevention of Terrorism Act]. Most of the criticism is on two counts. First, why did I rely on the doctor's statement and not verify the facts myself. My explanation is that the doctor, who had no axe to grind, is as credible as anyone else. Why should the doctor be telling a lie? He happened to be in the parking lot located in the basement of Ansal Plaza at the time of the shootout. It requires courage for someone to contradict the police version. It impressed me.

The charge that I did not verify the facts is neither here nor there. With whom could I check? The police were ruled out. The Ansal Plaza shopkeepers were so afraid after having found that the terrorists were in their midst that they were all praise for the police. They went to the extent of giving Rs 1 lakh to the police for their courage. Incidentally, the person who presented the purse of Rs 1 lakh is the one against whom a criminal case is pending for the death of 65 people during a cinema tragedy.

Another point of the criticism is: why did I ask in my petition for the transfer of the two officers who had carried out the encounter. It is but fair that those who are suspect should be kept out till the inquiry is complete. However, I had one point against them. They are the same officers who had recently picked up some human rights activists from a closed-door meeting and detained them for 72 hours without warrants or explanation.

I do not understand why the Bharatiya Janata Party and the police have tried to confuse the incident. At issue are not the "so-called human rights activists" or their "anti-national stand". Nor is the past record of Krishna's "frauds or dacoity", as alleged by the police, relevant. I am concerned only with the eyewitness account he has given. The point to ascertain is whether the "encounter" was genuine.

The version of the police is that the doctor reached the shopping complex two hours after the shootout. I doubt if there is any technology that can trace the movement of a person on the basis of mobile telephone calls. Still the police have stuck to their stand that it was an encounter and the doctor did not witness it.

I have come to be sceptical about encounters after reports from Kashmir and Punjab where innocent people have been bumped off by the hundred. Many cases, challenging the veracity of encounters, are pending before the courts and the National Human Rights Commission. In the name of eliminating the Naxalites, the Andhra Pradesh police have committed atrocities beyond words. In Guwahati, two people were recently killed outside the chief minister's residence, and the story given out was that they were terrorists. In Ahmedabad, a person in police custody was killed. In Punjab, a person by the name of Kalra has not been produced in the Supreme Court even though a judge ordered his presence some eight years ago.

Even when I saw some clips of the shootout on television I felt that the police story had many gaping holes. Reports in the print media only heightened my doubts. Still, I left the matter at that. But when the doctor's eyewitness account appeared in two newspapers, I decided to follow up the story. I met Justice J S Verma, chairman of the NHRC, to request him to order an inquiry to find out the facts. He saw my point and ordered an inquiry.

The question to ask is why did the BJP spokesman rush to defend the police when the inquiry was in progress. And why should he get irritated if I am one of the "so-called human rights activists" and "the overground face of the underground". If he or his government has any proof, let them move against me. Maligning people because they are critics is neither legally or ethically correct.

The problem with most of us is that we do not hold any discourses dispassionately. Those who constitute the establishment do not use arguments to defend themselves, but resort to abuse to cover up their deficiencies. The BJP spokesman's spat made the foreign office in Islamabad say that the Indian media had suggested that the evidence of the terrorists' nationality was "fabricated". There has been no such discussion in the media. There is enough evidence that they were terrorists. They may well have been from Pakistan because it has not stopped cross-border terrorism. The Lashkar-e-Tayiba still has its headquarters in Pakistan.

My concern is with my country, which is open and democratic and where the rule of law has pre-eminence. The doctor's charge is a serious one, not to be belittled or ignored on the ground that police morale would be affected. When there are persistent voices that the protectors of the law have become its violators, the government must sit up and ponder. The State can frame as many laws as it requires for fighting terrorism. But it has to stay within the limits of the law. It can't become a law unto itself.

Human rights activists are as much against state terrorism as against the terrorists. The activists do not want the voice of dissent to be muzzled. Nor do they want the right to differ misused. But no governance is worth a dime if human rights are not an integral part of it. I am surprised that those very people who suffered during the Emergency at the hands of the police are defending them.

Some people -- even television networks -- have warned me that my credibility would suffer if the doctor's story turns out to be false. I do not know about my credibility. But it would definitely hurt the credibility of eyewitnesses. The point to consider is how to impress upon the police not to kill even terrorists without proper trial. At stake is the law and law courts.

Still, the courage to stand up and be counted, which is lessening in the country day by day, should be applauded. People are afraid to tell the truth lest they land themselves in trouble. Such an attitude does not portend well for a democracy.

Kuldip Nayar

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