Army Encounters in Assam: The Trade in Human Lives

08 October 2015

On 26 September 2015, The Caravan and Harper Collins, hosted the launch of Kishalay Bhattacharjee’s Blood On My Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters. The discussion that followed the launch was moderated by Hartosh Singh Bal, the political editor of The Caravan; the panellists were Satyabrata Pal, former member of the National Human Rights Commission; Shiv Sahai, assistant director general of police in Jammu and Kashmir; and Bhattacharjee. In this edited video clip from the event, Bhattacharjee explains the premise of his book and introduces the audience to the trade in human life that facilitates staged encounters in India. Pal details the manner in which reports that were sent on these encounters would follow a fixed template, while Sahai argues that there is a marked difference between "perception and reality."

Hartosh Singh Bal: Kishalay, at the heart of the book is what has unfolded in the north-east. When you started examining encounters in the north-east and started examining the patterns behind them, what did you find?

Kishalay Bhattarjee: You know…what was new for me, when I was writing the book, as against what I reported, was sometimes very embarrassing; because, those very incidents that I had reported as encounters were now unfolding before me as something else. And the one limited point that actually the book will make, is that people who just moved in from across the border, from Bangladesh in to India—as you know we have a very long  border with Bangladesh, that about 4019 kilometer border and there are about 65 smuggling corridors there, there is cattle running, there is a whole lot of other stuff that goes on. But anybody who comes in from there, there is a chance that within 24 to 48 hours, and if it’s beyond 48 hours they are not going to be touched, but between 20 to 48 hours, there is a possibility that they are going to be picked up and they are going to be shot dead in what is going to be called an encounter. Now why that happens is that this person…nobody is going to claim him, there will be no outcry about him. You can easily prove him to be a militant from across the border or someone who has found safe haven there. This is a very flourishing enterprise, which is run by a mafia. So what happens is that the mafia… the unit that is taking over gets a briefing from the previous unit, and there are certain numbers that are passed on to this unit and numbers, which we passed on to me as well. There is this mafia that operates…so in lower Assam there will be one  mafia and upper Assam there will be this other mafia and the unit that comes in there, that is inducted there, will call them up whenever they require a kill, and this mafia would supply the kill depending upon what kind of person they required.

HSB: Mr. Pal, almost every police encounter has to be reported to the NHRC. Given the context of what you have looked at, are these isolated aberrations or are encounters more deeply rooted in our system?

Satyabrata Pal: It is true, as Mr Sahai says that when the armed forces or the paramilitary or even the police are actually in a situation where they are confronting, almost on a daily basis, an armed enemy, these staged encounters are fairly uncommon. They are rare. But when the…particularly the armed forces and the paramilitary acting under the impunity of AFSPA [Armed Forces Special Powers Act], are in a situation where the violence from the other side has died down but they’re still deployed, then our experience was they used it to the hilt. In these reports that we got from the police in each state, there is a clear pattern. Each state as it were, has its own mythology of how an encounter takes place. In UP [Uttar Pradesh], it is with a party always at a check post, late at night, that sees two men, sometimes three men, all of them usually on a Honda. I don’t know why they choose Honda, but it’s always a Honda. The police ask them to stop and they don’t stop. They open fire, the police fires back, no policeman is ever injured, not a scratch, usually one man dies. If there are three then two die and the one man disappears into the darkness and no one ever hears of him again. That’s the UP myth. In Tamil Nadu, for instance the state buses are lethal. Usually the man is in custody and suddenly…he is usually taken to lunch, it’s his last supper and as he comes out he breaks away from the police escort and tries to cross the road, and is hit by a passing Tamil Nadu state corporation bus. And so, I could give you the mythology of each state. Now, because these were state patterns, they cannot be random. Clearly someone has a set a template, in which reports are to be sent to the NHRC and if they had been genuine, they would not have been. Unfortunately I cannot tell you what the J&K [Jammu and Kashmir] template is, because the J&K police under the provisions of the National Human Rights Commission or the Protection Human Rights Act does not report.