A public statement by PUCL raised concerns over the UP government’s treatment of rule of law as an unnecessary irritant of no consequence.
THE People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), India’s largest human rights organisation, has raised doubts about the complicity of the Uttar Pradesh (UP) police in the killing of former legislators Atiq Ahmed and Ashraf Ahmed.
In a public statement titled Stop Encounter Killings in UP: End State Lawlessness! published on April 19, the PUCL has condemned and expressed outrage at the murder of gangsters-turned-politicians Atiq and Ashraf Ahmed on April 15. They were shot dead in the presence of the media while in police custody by three young men. The statement has raised several worrying questions about the manner in which the murders took place as well as the ramifications of the same.
Atiq, a former member of Parliament and member of legislative assembly (MLA) from UP, had more than 160 criminal cases pending against him, and had been convicted in a kidnapping case. Ashraf, his brother, was also a former MLA from UP, and had more than 50 criminal cases pending against him.
Both were shot dead by three men posing as journalists as they were being escorted by police to a medical facility for a court-mandated medical check-up at 10:30 p.m., in the presence of several media personnel who were allowed to meet and ask questions of the brothers in the open.
At the outset, the statement raises three queries for the UP police:
“1. Why did the UP police not seek ‘police custody’ of the killers of Atiq and Ashraf Ahmed when produced for remand before duty magistrate on April 16, 2023 itself, and agree to judicial custody?
If the killer-gang was unknown to the police, didn’t the police think it important to interrogate them to find out how the killer gang knew about the police allowing the Ahmed brothers to meet the press at an unearthly hour of 10:30 pm on April 15, 2023?
Didn’t the UP police think it was important to find out who was behind the killer-gang by interrogating the three youngsters who shot Atiq and Ashraf?”
Suspicion of police complicity
The PUCL raised deep concern over the fact that at the time of the shooting, the Ahmed brothers were surrounded by an armed team of policemen who allowed a set of media persons to interview them; yet when the three killers arrived on motorcycles with sophisticated guns and shot the brothers in cold blood at point-blank range, the armed police remained mute spectators, doing nothing to prevent the slaughter.
The PUCL alleged that the killing was not a mere security lapse on the part of the police, who failed to check the identity of the killers posing as media persons. According to its statement, the more disturbing issue is the killer gang’s prior knowledge that a media meeting would be held in the open, outside the hospital.
The PUCL statement raises questions over the Ahmed brothers not being transported by an ambulance, the medical check-up being conducted at an unusual hour at night, the police permitting a media meeting in an open space and in public, and the police not seeking custody of the three shooters. “The answer to these questions will tell us whether it was a question of mere negligence by the UP police or a deeper conspiracy by the UP police and the UP administration in the murders themselves,” the statement ominously states.
The PUCL statement further points out that on April 13, Asad Ahmed, the son of Atiq, and Ghulam, Atique’s aide, were killed in an ‘encounter’ by the UP police. It concludes that in two days, four key accused persons in the murder of politician Raju Pal in 2005 had been killed in alleged encounters by the UP police.
The statement underlines that on the apprehension of being killed in UP, Atiq had requested the Supreme Court for protection while being transferred from Gujarat, where he had been lodged in the Sabarmati Central Jail in Ahmedabad, to UP. However, turning down the plea for protection, the court had orally observed that since he was already in police custody, the state machinery would take care of him.
While the UP government did not take adequate steps to ensure his most basic guarantee of the right to life, the state machinery that was bound to protect him in its custody failed miserably too, the statement emphasised.
The PUCL also raised concern over the news that on April 17, a crude bomb was thrown outside the house of Atiq’s lawyer, Dayashankar Mishra, in Prayagraj.
Rule of law
The statement said that ever since the current UP government was sworn in on March 19, 2017, it has been vocal about eliminating alleged criminals and gangsters [through extrajudicial means] with Chief Minister Adityanath’s “Thhok diye jayenge” (They will be knocked out) policy. The government has also allegedly unleashed ‘Operation langda’, as per which alleged criminals are shot in their legs, incapacitating them for life, the statement claimed.
It also claimed that Adityanath’s previous statement “Mafia ko mitti mein mila doonga” has encouraged his ministers to give statements that the Ahmed brothers’ murders were “karma” or “divine justice”. Some groups with links to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party also celebrated the encounters by bursting crackers, the PUCL noted.
Providing data on encounters, the statement said that according to Prashanth Kumar, special director general of police (law and order), UP police, between March 2017 and April 2023, there have been 10,900 police encounters, in which 5,046 accused persons have been injured and 185 persons have been shot dead.
This indicates the failure of the UP government, according to PUCL’s statement, to uphold the rule of law by ensuring that vigilante murders do not occur and that the police do not kill people extrajudicially. Laying emphasis on the blatant violation of Articles 14 (equality before law) and 21 (protection of life and liberty) of the Constitution, it stated that persons accused of criminal offences are being denied the right to prove their innocence in a court of law, through due process and a fair trial.
The PUCL voiced its distress over the UP government’s treatment of rule of law as an unnecessary irritant of no consequence, warning that this would lead to the destruction of the principle of rule of law, which is one of the basic pillars of constitutional democracy, and pave the way for lawlessness and brute power. It called on other institutions of accountability, such as the media, the judiciary, the National Human Rights Commission and other independent human rights bodies to defend this core democratic principle.
It cautioned that if this trend, which asserts that criminals are not entitled to the rule of law, is not checked, the state would feel emboldened to opt for vigilante justice, including extrajudicial executions, against those questioning its actions and policies. The ground for this has been prepared through the relentless delegitimisation of all dissent, dubbing those who are exercising the right to free speech as ‘anti-nationals’, it warned.
The statement noted that such an “amoral and cynical approach” has been criticised by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. It referred to the Supreme Court’s judgment in PUCL versus State of Maharashtra (2014), in which the court, dealing (at the PUCL’s instance) with the matter of encounter killings by the Mumbai police between 1995 and 1997, had observed, “Article 21 of the Constitution of India guarantees ‘right to live with human dignity’. Any violation of human rights is viewed seriously by this court as the right to life is the most precious right guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution. The guarantee by Article 21 is available to every person and even the State has no authority to violate that right.”
The statement also highlighted that the Supreme Court had appointed a Commission of Inquiry, headed by Justice V. Sirpurkar, to inquire into the custodial killing of four men accused of rape by the Telangana police in 2019. It noted that the commission concluded that the killings were murder and could not be justified as self-defence. The commission had remarked that, “Justas mob lynching is unacceptable, so is any idea of instant justice. At anypoint of time the rule of law must prevail. Punishment for crime has to be onlyby the procedure established by law.”
Although the UP government has announced the setting up of a three-member judicial commission to enquire into the encounters, the PUCL raised concerns that due to the questions over the role and complicity of the UP police and government in the killings, the Supreme Court should entrust the investigation to an independent investigating body instead.
In view of its concerns, the PUCL has listed the following six demands:
The Supreme Court should expeditiously deal with the pending public interest litigation on the UP encounters. It should entrust the investigation into the quadruple encounter murders of Atiq Ahmed, Ashraf Ahmed, Asad Ahmed and Ghulam to an independent investigating agency, preferably a special investigation team (SIT), consisting of police officials from outside UP, under the direct supervision of the Supreme Court.
The case should be investigated as a custodial killing in accordance with the Supreme Court guidelines in PUCL versus State of Maharashtra. According to the PUCL, a Supreme Court-monitored probe would build faith and confidence among the larger public as compared to a probe initiated under the aegis of the UP government.
A first information report (FIR) be registered into the encounter killings immediately, naming the police persons responsible for the encounters, and the FIR be transferred to a SIT.
The police officials involved in the encounters should be immediately transferred out of their districts to enable the SIT to conduct an unbiased investigation and to ensure that evidence is not tampered with.
A magisterial inquiry should be conducted. Evidence, including forensic evidence, should be handed over to the jurisdiction magistrate’s court to prevent tampering with it.
Compensation should be given to the surviving members of the family of the encounter victims as a partial recognition of the irreparable loss caused to them. Police officials responsible and complicit in the offence should be punished in accordance with the law.
In conclusion, the PUCL appealed to citizens worried about the total breakdown of constitutional order to raise their voices to condemn state lawlessness. It also appealed to the Supreme Court to take up the matter suo motu, in light of the grave repercussions for the rule of law in the country.