By Jinee Lokaneeta. Jinee is Professor of Political Science & International Relations at Drew University. She is the author of The Truth Machines: Policing, Violence and Scientific Interrogations in India (University of Michigan Press, 2020). Her research focuses on law and violence, political theory including critical and feminist theory, global human rights, and interdisciplinary legal studies.
Every year, thousands of people worldwide are killed at the hands of the police. Amnesty International, citing the Small Arms Surveys, suggests that police were responsible for killing almost 20,000 people a year between 2007-2012.
Stories of journalists, human rights activists, and environmentalists targeted for extrajudicial killings in places as diverse as the Philippines, Mexico, and Honduras are well known. Policing and extrajudicial killings are central to representations of repressive authoritarian regimes. However, their ubiquity in liberal democracies has been historically overlooked. In the United States alone, the police are responsible for the deaths of around 1,000 people a year. The killing of George Floyd and countless other cases of police brutality has triggered unprecedented media scrutiny in the country and led to popular reckonings around state violence.
India, too, is no stranger to extrajudicial killing. Human rights activists in the country have been at the forefront to expose and resist the normalization of state violence. In 2021, a collective of lawyers, activists, and scholars released an alarming report on the troubling prevalence of police violence in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. It states that since March 2017, there have been a total of 8,472 police shootings leading to 146 killings and 3,302 injuries. The brunt of this violence has fallen upon individuals from marginalized Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi communities. Abhinav Sekhri has offered a detailed discussion of the report’s implications here.
As the UP report notes, “extrajudicial killings, understood in international law as the deliberate killing of a person outside any legal framework, are among the gravest violations of human rights.” It points to a serious disregard for the rule of law and highlights a gross proliferation of extrajudicial killings where politicians, media, and populist politics refuse to acknowledge the problem and stand complicit. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the report failed to make headlines in advance of the most recent elections in Uttar Pradesh where the state’s hard right Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, campaigned and won on a platform of “law and order.”
In offering an in-depth study of 17 incidents of police killings, the UP report unmasks the chilling yet typical script deployed by the police in their many “encounters” – a term widely used in India to describe extrajudicial killings. Police narratives around encounters often follow a common pattern. They first suggest an unexpected meeting between the victims and themselves based on an anonymous tip off. Then they claim that they were shot at and in turn fired in self-defense. This engagement inevitably results in deaths or serious injuries to the victims. Encounters lead to very few injuries to the police. Cases are often filed against those who were injured or killed in these encounters for firing at the police.
In reading through the report, one cannot help but remember the contributions of the late civil liberties and democratic rights activist K. Balagopal (1952-2009). A mathematician and lawyer by training, Balagopal emerged from the shadow of the Emergency (1975-77) as a fierce critic of Indian state violence. During this volatile period, civil liberties were widely suspended and arbitrary arrests, detentions without trial, and mysterious deaths became the norm.
Through his role as secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC), and later founder of the Human Rights Forum (HRF), Balagopal spearheaded numerous “fact finding” efforts to document and expose violence perpetrated by state actors in the Telugu areas. His efforts helped generate a critical understanding of extrajudicial killings across India and demonstrated the power of citizen and activist-led documentation to challenge official government narratives and demand state accountability.
In an obituary for Balagopal, K.G. Kannabiran remarked that, “writing about Balagopal is like scripting the history of the human rights movement. In fact, Balagopal’s own writing approached his subjects in this way – his studies on contemporary issues often consciously placed them in the broader genealogy of Indian civil liberty movements. In “Revival of ‘Encounters’ in Andhra” (1981), his very first essay published in the Economic and Political Weekly or EPW, Balagopal writes:
The state witnessed about 350 ‘encounter’ deaths of naxalites before and during the Emergency, without anybody excepting naxalite fellow-travelers bothering to protest; and of course dacoits of UP and MP have an even longer history of ‘encountering’ policemen and nobody protests even today. Subsequently a slight reprieve was afforded when Indira Gandhi forgot that bourgeois games are played according to bourgeois rules, and the opposition politicians themselves were made victims of police brutality. They came out of jail transformed into ardent, if temporary, champions of civil liberties and there followed a thorough exposure of ‘encounters’ in Andhra — first by the unofficial Tarkunde Committee and then by the deliberately aborted official Bhargava Commission. But the reprieve ended about a year back – on September 17, 1980.
Often self-reflexive in developing his own ideas and praxis, Balagopal didn’t hesitate to note early on that even the naxalites, who raise awareness of police encounters, restricted their protests to the plight of their own comrades without addressing broader police encounters with the “dacoits of UP and MP.” Meanwhile, opposition parties only got involved in this issue when they themselves experienced police violence during the Emergency. Tellingly, he notes that they did not continue their commitment to civil liberties afterwards.
Balagopal famously narrated another story that the police used to tell him with great pleasure. They claimed that civil liberty activists were only concerned when naxalites were tortured and ignored the torture of ordinary criminals in the same police stations. This led him to develop a more universal conception of human rights. For Balagopal, a respect for human rights was to be followed by all state actors as well as those non-state actors such as naxalities and the militant left that challenged the state’s repressive policies.
Balagopal situated his incisive analyses of specific incidents of state violence in relation to political economy, social history and the particular actors involved even as he seamlessly made historical connections, introduced theoretical contentions, and identified national and global patterns. In a 1987 EPW piece entitled “Missing Telugu Desam style,” Balagopal drew comparisions between the “missing” people of Latin America with the situation in Andhra under Chief Minister N.T. Rama Rao. He writes:
When the police or other security forces kill someone, it is always a matter of choice whether they describe the killing as something palatable to law and morality or pretend that they have never seen the victim and that he has just vanished. But when making people ‘disappear’ becomes a conscious strategy pursued by the state to eliminate political opponents, it becomes significant.
Death is death, but there is something specially chilling about an unrecorded and unacknowledged killing. An announcement of a death in (say) an ‘encounter’; a date, a time and a place of killing; a story -even a fabricated one—of the clash; and an enquiry—even an eyewash—into the event, offers some sense of security, even if it makes no real difference to the dead body. But when people just disappear and turn into unidentified corpses discovered on a river bank or a railway track—or worse still vanish for good without leaving a trace behind – then that is a qualitatively different situation altogether.
Balagopal’s brilliance emerges vividly in such passages. On the one hand, he recognizes the distinct pattern of cloaking state killing through terms such as “missing” and “encounters.” As he notes, the description makes no difference to the dead body – yet on the other hand, he acknowledges how chilling a disappearance actually is. In the context of an encounter, a story or enquiry, even if fabricated, makes the event slightly more real. Perhaps, even a fabricated story has the possibility of a slippage, of contradictions therein, which eventually become modes of challenging the state violence. Unsurprisingly, Balagopal (1987) writes:
In summary, killing someone in an ‘encounter’ is not all that simple and straightforward. In a given combination of circumstances it can even turn into a headache for the government, as happened for instance after the lifting of the Emergency, when the government was forced to institute a judicial enquiry into ‘encounter’ killings (emphasis added).
Thus, Balagopal provides an important insight that the police start shifting toward the more convenient option of “disappearances” as opposed to “encounters” in the 1980s. This takes place as the state is forced to occasionally make efforts towards accountability. This was a unique strength of Balagopal’s writings. He did not just produce detailed documentation and historical analyses. He also translated these observations into a theory of the state’s constant efforts to innovate its violence.
Balagopal’s sharp words revealed the sheer farcical nature of state narratives. He focused on demonstrating how little effort was put into these official narratives that escaped critical examination. His extremely crisp writing had a powerful impact on his readers. This was not due just to his clarity but also his unusually witty way of exposing the sheer ludicrousness of a situation.
In his 1981 Revivals piece, Balagopal discusses the “fantastic” encounter case of Ravindra Reddy and Parsaiah. These two men were charged in a conspiracy case and their arrest was reported by the press. This created a dilemma for the police since they couldn’t make their deaths appear like an ordinary encounter. Balagopal notes:
In the event, the story put out by the police and/or press (for it is not clear who fathered this fantastic fib to what extent) says that while the police were taking the prisoners to the station after producing them before a magistrate, four masked men attacked and stopped the jeep (I), threw chilli powder into the eyes of the prisoners and fired four rounds at them (to ‘silence them’, you know, as they do in American gangster films); the gallant policemen tried to avenge their prisoners but could not hit even one of the masked men.
The real story is otherwise. After being arrested in Khammam on 21st, Ravindra Reddy and Parsaiah were severely tortured for more than a day and then produced, in a helpless state, before a magistrate at Suryapet, at midnight of 22-23rd. Ravindra Reddy is said to have pleaded with the magistrate to keep him in judicial custody since he was certain the police would not leave him alive. The magistrate refused, and while they were being taken from his house they probably tried to escape, for they were killed within five yards of the magistrate’s house. People in the neighbourhood heard the shots and it is indeed completely out of the question that the magistrate himself did not hear them.
Here, the state narrative makes special mention of escaped accomplices – mostly as a way of suggesting that the police were so restrained in their use of gunfire that some people were even able to escape. Despite such inconsistencies, the magistrate accepted the police account uncritically. The report of this encounter is followed by Balagopal’s revelation of the role of the police as well as the complicity of the magistrate and the media. The absurd nature of the state narrative is reported with such wit that it magnifies the frightening implications of unchallenged state practices in democracies.
Balagopal and other civil liberty activists and lawyers, such as K.G. Kannabiran, were unrelenting in their efforts to understand, analyze, and challenge police encounters in Andhra through the courts as well as the public realm. Their fact-finding enquiries and reports led to the first set of guidelines on encounter killings by the National Human Rights Commission of India in the late 1990s. It is thanks to their efforts that the Andhra Pradesh High Court acknowledged, for the very first time in 2009, that encounters constitute murders and require the filing of a First Information Report with the police. In 2014, the Supreme Court introduced detailed guidelines and procedures for addressing police firing cases that lead to deaths and injuries (People’s Union for Civil Liberties v. State of Maharashtra).
The 2009 Andhra High Court judgment has been lauded by civil liberties activists for two reasons. First, it specifically mentions the need for registering an FIR against the police, rather those killed by them (as tends to happen). Second, it insists on the need for a proper investigation into custodial deaths, as opposed to a mere magisterial inquiry. The Court notes that it is only through such an investigation that it can be determined whether a police firing was done in self-defense.
Yet, as Balagopal himself noted in 1987: “Perhaps it proves—if it proves anything at all—that the more we succeed in exposing state terrorism, the more devious forms it adopts; and then the more difficult it becomes to fight it.” As the recent 2021 report on encounters in Uttar Pradesh demonstrates, the extrajudicial killings that Balagopal and his peers painstakingly documented in the past seem to have retained popular and state support. Although the efforts of human rights groups can create the possibility of change, they are constantly challenged by the innovations of the state.
Nevertheless, as the report on Uttar Pradesh also demonstrates, Indian civil liberty and democratic rights movements continue to fight for state accountability in a “law and order” context. Even as extrajudicial killings remain a brute reality, this pathbreaking report makes powerful use of the methods promoted by Balagopal and his peers. The report demands accountability from the state to follow its own set of guidelines, questions police narratives by noting contradictions in the state’s own investigations, and highlights the failure of the judiciary (especially magistrates) and the Indian National Human Rights Commission to monitor the investigative process.
Unless there is complete accountability for extrajudicial killings, the state’s headaches will continue to grow.