By Neha Dixit
On October 8, 2017, the day Furquan showed up unexpectedly at his home, his sons, aged 12 and 10, could not recognise him. They hadn’t seen him in seven years as he had been locked up in the Muzaffarnagar jail as an undertrial in a case involving a village brawl.
Furquan, who was 33, worked at a local bandsaw machine unit before he was arrested in Titarwada village of Shamli district. “We did not have the money or a guarantor to get him released so we were surprised that he was out,”says Nasreen, his wife. The villagers informed her that a week back, the police came to the village to negotiate a settlement with the complainants in Furquan’s case. That is how he was released. Two weeks later, on October 23, 2017, he was shot dead by the police in an ‘encounter’.
The police claimed he was involved in a large number of dacoities in Saharanpur, Shamli and Muzaffarnagar. “I want to ask two things, says Nasreen. “One, when he was in jail for seven years, how come he was also part of these dacoities? And two, why did the cops negotiate his release on their own, when they only wanted to kill him? Were they looking for an scapegoat?”.
According to UP government figures, by January 2018, the police had conducted 1,038 encounters. In these, 32 people were killed and 238 injured. Four police personnel also lost their lives.
A significant proportion of those killed in these encounters are from four districts of western UP – Shamli, Muzaffarnagar, Saharanpur and Baghpat. Against the backdrop of allegations that some of these ‘encounters’ might actually be extrajudicial custodial killings, The Wire met up with the families of 14 of those killed and spoke to a range of police and official sources familiar with the encounters. The facts that emerged confirm the darkest suspicions around these killings.
1. ‘Criminal families’
In an interview to India TV in June 2017, UP chief minister Adityanath said, “Agar apradh karenge toh thok diye jayenge (If they commit crimes, they will be hit).” Even as a rhetorical statement, Adityanath’s formulation was a mockery of the law that he had sworn to uphold. In a landmark 2012 case, the Supreme Court stated:
‘It is not the duty of the police officers to kill the accused merely because he is a dreaded criminal. Undoubtedly, the police have to arrest the accused and put them up for trial. This Court has repeatedly admonished trigger happy police personnel, who liquidate criminals and project the incident as an encounter. Such killings must be deprecated. They are not recognised as legal by our criminal justice administration system. They amount to State sponsored terrorism.”
In disregarding clear directions such as these, the chief minister was sending a message out to the police, as the spate of encounters which followed makes clear.
Furquan, killed in an ‘encounter’ but whose bones were also broken
According to the Muzaffarnagar police, Furquan had 36 cases and a bounty of Rs 50,000 on him. Budhana police station in charge Chaman Singh Chawra claimed that around midnight on October 23, 2017, they were conducting a routine check when two bikes refused to stop and instead started firing on the police. In retaliatory firing, Furquan received four bullets and died on the spot while his two accomplices escaped. The police also claimed they found a large cache of firearms and cartridges with him. Nasreen says that on October 22, she and Furquan had gone to Baraut, Baghpat to see her brother. Since Nasreen was unwell, he stepped out to buy apples for her and never returned. “The last two weeks since his release, he was with us all the time. How did he conduct dacoities then? After the encounter, even the newspapers published his file photo from 12 years back unlike the pictures of crime scenes in other encounters,” she asks.
The police handed over his body and post mortem report after squeezing Nasreen for Rs 1400, a sum she had to borrow from neighbours. Furquan had four bullet injuries – on his head, heart, spine and hand. Nasreen says that most of his bones were broken. “Which means he was beaten up before being shot dead,” she says.
The official version of encounters of the sort in which Furquan was killed involves the police firing in self-defence – a right available to all citizens.
What is often ignored are Supreme Court rulings which state that the right of self-defence or private defence falls in one basket and the use of excessive or retaliatory force falls in another basket. Therefore, while a victim of aggression has a right of private defence or self-defence, he becomes an aggressor and commits a punishable offence if he exceeds the right of private defence or self-defence by using excessive or retaliatory force.
All five of Furquan’s brothers are currently in jail on different charges of theft and dacoity. The youngest, Farmeen, has alleged torture – he has fallen ill after electrocution of his genitals in Muzaffarnagar jail. The only earning member now is Meer Hasan, the father, who works as a rickshaw puller. “If we are a family full of such dreaded criminals, why don’t we have any money to feed ourselves even twice a day? Why do we still live in a kaccha house?” asks Nasreen.
With most family members in jail, she is unable to insist on an independent investigation into her husband’s killing. She says the family fears the other brothers will meet the same fate as Furquan if they complain against the police. “More importantly, with my father-in-law’s Rs 3,000 monthly income and six mouths to feed, we cannot afford to do that,” she says.
The trend of charging several members of the same family in different offences is seen by many as the police’s way of creating a resource of obvious scapegoats during police investigations. Aslam, who made a living by selling chow mein and samosas from a cart in Bunta village in Shamli was shot dead by the police on December 9, 2017 at Dadri, Noida. According to Anant Kumar, circle officer, Dadri, Aslam was ‘planning a big crime’ and was shot dead in an exchange of fire. Four out of five of his brothers are currently in jail. Aslam’s widow, Israna, who is nine months pregnant, says that the police lands up at their house if any crime happens in the vicinity. “We have become the punching bags for the police. They use our family as suspects, just like Aslam was used, to show their efficiency in controlling law and order.”
2. Encounter politics
On June 13, 2016, the then BJP MP and Muzaffarnagar riots accused Hukum Singh had claimed that a total of 346 families were forced to leave Kairana town because of threats and extortion by “a particular community”, a veiled reference to Muslims in the area. He later denied the communal nature of the exodus, attributing it to ‘crime’. According to the 2011 census, 68% of the population in Kairana is Muslim and it is a staple of divisive political propaganda to link the town’s crime graph to its religious composition. The ‘Kairana exodus’ was used by the BJP in its election campaign for the UP Assembly elections in February 2017, where the party promised it will control the kind of bad law and order situation symbolised by Kairana.
Muslim representation in the 403-seat Uttar Pradesh assembly has never been proportional to population. In the newly constituted assembly, the number of Muslim MLAs is just 24. The presence of Muslim MLAs in the assembly peaked in 2012 when the number reached 67 under Samajwadi Party rule. According to a study by Hilal Ahmed, Muslims have only a token representation in India’s legislatures. Even those who manage to win inherit the legacies of their parents and do not represent Muslim interests in parliament, the assemblies or in government. According to the Sachar Committee report, close to 31% – precisely one-third of Indian Muslims – were living below the poverty line. There has been no qualitative change of the Muslims’ conditions.
All 14 encounter victim families whom The Wire met live in the vicinity of this municipality. Thirteen of the fourteen men killed were Muslims.