Violent justice

Police and the government continue to take credit for the Hyderabad encounter

32-Crowds-gather Shot at site: Crowds gather at the encounter site where the police shot dead the four accused in the Disha murder case.

A thick blanket of fog had enveloped Hyderabad in the wee hours of December 6. Braving low visibility, a fleet of police vehicles made their way to Chatanpally, nearly 40km from the city. They stopped near the spot where Disha was found raped and murdered on November 28. Plain-clothed officers escorted the four accused in the case—Mohammed Arif, Jollu Naveen, Jollu Shiva and Chenna Keshavulu—out of the vehicles. Around 5am, the accused were taken to the nearby fields, ostensibly to recover Disha’s power bank, wristwatch and other belongings. At 6:30am, Shyamala Satyam, who owns the fields, had reached the spot, but the police turned him away.

“There should be a thorough investigation. If this form of punishment is endorsed, we will lose trust in the judiciary and it is not good for democracy.” —D. Praveen Kumar, human rights activist

“Since 1995, I have been visiting my fields every day before dawn. I collect milk from the cattle shelter located in the fields and supply it to nearby villages. The police sent me back that day,” said the 44-year-old farmer, who was also the first to find Disha’s dead body. “When I reached home, I saw on television that four people were killed in my fields.”

Two days before the encounter, a local court had granted the Cyberabad Police custody of the accused for seven days. To avoid law and order problems, they were kept at an undisclosed location. On December 5, a police team was seen inspecting Satyam’s fields. The next morning, a few well-built young men in half-sleeved safari suits were seen coming out of the fields carrying “long guns”. They drove away in a police SUV just before the media and crowds reached the spot. Sources in the police department later confirmed that the accused were shot dead with “long guns” and that the operation was handled by special teams of the Telangana Police.

Addressing a news conference a few hours later, Cyberabad Police commissioner V.C. Sajjanar said the accused were accompanied by 10 policemen, but they were not handcuffed. Two of them snatched a handgun from the escorting policemen and started firing, while the other two attacked the police with sticks. The police fired back, killing all four. A sub inspector and a constable sustained injuries in the encounter—although not from gunfire—and were hospitalised.

As news about the encounter spread, celebrations were reported from many parts of the country. In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, people showered passing policemen with flower petals. Hundreds gathered at the encounter site and raised slogans praising the police and the government. Crackers were burst and victory marches were taken out. College students distributed sweets and broke into spontaneous dance. Overnight, Sajjanar became a superhero. At Punjagutta, in the heart of Hyderabad, palabhishekam (milk bath) was performed on his portrait. On social media, many people replaced their display pictures with that of Sajjanar’s.

Sharing the credit with Sajjanar is Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao. “The chief minister always does what is good for the state,” said Talasani Srinivas Yadav, minister for animal husbandry. “People from outside the state are looking up to us because of the strict action taken. I want to warn all those who want to resort to similar crimes that they will also meet with the same fate.” Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, too, praised Rao. “Hats off to KCR and the Telangana Police. The incident happened. The media showed the wrong committed. Later, the Telangana government reacted,” he told the state assembly.

Although there is massive support for the encounter killings, protest is brewing in Jaklair and Gudigandla, the villages of the accused. Chenna Keshavulu’s pregnant wife has threatened suicide, while parents of Naveen and Shiva said their children were minors and showed documents to support their claim. The police, however, said Aadhaar documents showed that they were born in 2001.

As criticism mounts against the encounter, the state government has set up a special investigation team to probe the deaths. The Supreme Court, the Telangana High Court and the National Human Rights Commission have taken note of the matter. The Supreme Court is expected to name one of its former judges to head a judicial inquiry. A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde said the Telangana High Court could, meanwhile, go ahead with its hearing. The High Court has asked the state government to preserve the bodies till December 13. It has asked the attorney general to produce documents regarding the registration of a first information report against the police.

Several activists, lawyers and intellectuals allege that the encounter was staged and have called for action against the police. “We are completely against this culture. They should have followed the judicial process,” said K. Sajaya, one of the many activists who had approached the High Court.

Activist D. Praveen Kumar of the Nenu Saitham, a Hyderabad-based NGO, demanded that murder charges be filed against the erring police officers. “This is a fake encounter,” he said. “Murder cases should be filed against police officials who took part in the encounter. There should be a thorough investigation. If this form of punishment is endorsed, we will lose trust in the judiciary and it is not good for democracy.”