The encounter cop, a broken omerta

The question is not of the individual culpability of Vanzara and his team, but of the systemic distortions that have led us to this situation

The Vanzara letter represents a Rubicon moment in the history of Indian police. A boundary has been crossed. While the media and political parties cry themselves hoarse about the political and legal significance of this letter, for police officers across the country, it has evoked condemnation, embarrassment, indignation, anguish and sympathy in equal measure. For IPS officers, the letter raises troubling questions about our professional practices. It also creates a nagging sense of self doubt and uncertainty about the future of professional policing in India.

Two points need to be borne in mind. First, policing around the world is an extremely dangerous profession. Second, policing India is a doubly hazardous task. For all its claims to being a democracy that enshrines the rule of law as a foundational principle, India remains a violent, fragmented and unstable society where, apart from their regular chores of preventing and detecting crime and maintaining law and order, the police routinely battle organised crime, terrorism and leftwing extremism. In India, violence is not just an individual moral aberration. Regrettably, it is also a widely used instrument of politics, culture and economics. No surprise, then, that, barring the five years in which we were embroiled in wars, the police in India have taken more casualties in the line of duty than our armed forces. This background must be appreciated before we judge Vanzara and his fraternity.

The encounter culture that Vanzara talks about emerged in its present form in the 1980s. It was a typical jugaad type solution offered by the police leadership in the backdrop of a dysfunctional criminal justice system assailed by low investment in police capabilities and delays in the trial process. The political leadership, the media and the middle class embraced this jugaad with grateful enthusiasm. For a while, even the higher judiciary looked the other way. Encounters were used to fight naxalism in Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, terrorism in Punjab, separatism in the Northeast and J&K, dacoits in UP and MP, organised crime in Mumbai and Delhi. What would qualify as cold blooded murder in any society became an instrument of state policy and everyday administration. Very soon, encounter specialists were feted as heroes. Medals and cash awards were showered on them. Many were depicted on celluloid. The irony, of a democracy using murder as a tool of state policy, was lost on the police and the polis alike.

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