* Neha Dixit
Against a backdrop of aggressive Hindu nationalism, a growing number of lower-caste and Muslim men are dying in alleged officer-involved gunfights across the state of Uttar Pradesh
A week before his death, Mansoor had started sleeping under the sacred fig tree that stands on the public square in Pathanpura, a village in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Dressed in tattered clothes, he lived off food given to him and sat there muttering to himself all day.
Aged 35, he had spent three years in the nearby Saharanpur jail awaiting trial for robbery. It was said that, while incarcerated, he was electrocuted several times by police. By the time he was released, still with no verdict reached, he had lost his mind. Locals called him Mansoor the Madman.
At around noon on September 28, 2017, three people came in a car and took Mansoor away. The next morning, the media reported that he had been killed in an exchange of gunfire with police in the neighbouring town of Meerut. Officers claimed that they recovered a German revolver from the scene and said that Mansoor was wanted for more than 25 crimes, which had over the years netted him a total in excess of 3.5 million rupees.
Akbar, a softly spoken man of 65, is Mansoor’s father. Sitting under the damaged straw roof of his house with a neighbour, he told me: “He was shot point blank in the chest. How come the shot was so exact when 20 bullets were supposed to have been fired? If he had stolen so much money, would he have been living here and begging for two meals a day?”
Mansoor’s death certainly raises questions. In recent years, India has experienced an epidemic of extrajudicial police killings. They typically involve purported shoot-outs with “undertrials” – men who, like Mansoor, were out on bail or awaiting legal proceedings – who just happen to be Muslim or Dalit. They are referred to by the authorities and the media euphemistically as “encounters”.
Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state. There, the portrayal of Muslims as dangerous criminals has become an important electoral strategy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). Politicians make frequent references to the danger the Muslim community poses to Hindus, ramping up tensions in order to secure votes. Anyone seen to be taking decisive action against this supposed threat is likely to win considerable public approval.
The state's chief minister is a monk named Yogi Adityanath. A representative of the BJP, he was appointed in February 2017. Before then, he was known as the man behind the Hindu Yuva Vahini – a youth organisation repeatedly accused of provoking and participating in religious violence.
Mr Adityanath is known for his anti-Muslim statements. He once said: “If one Hindu girl marries a Muslim man, then we will take 100 Muslim girls in return … If they kill one Hindu man, then we will kill 100 Muslim men.”
He has accused Muslims of engaging in “love jihad”, an orchestrated plot to seduce Hindu women and convert them, likened the movie star Shah Rukh Khan to a terrorist and claimed that Mother Teresa wanted to Christianise India. He also recently called for a travel ban on Muslims to the country.
During Mr Adityanath’s time in office, around 1,500 police encounters have been recorded in Uttar Pradesh. At the time of writing, officers have killed 63 people and seriously injured more than 500. Mr Adityanath offers these figures as proof of his tough stance on law and order. “This trend will not stop,” he said, in a February speech to the state legislature.
His position is in clear violation of the law. Article 21 of the Indian constitution entitles prisoners to a fair trial. In a landmark 2012 judgement against the state of Jharkhand over fake encounters, the Supreme Court of India said: “It is not the duty of police officers to kill the accused merely because he is a criminal.” Encounters, it added, amounted “to state sponsored terrorism”.
Ironically, the very same article of law protects Mr Adityanath, who is accused of crimes dating back as far as 1999, including attempted murder, criminal intimidation and rioting. As soon as he assumed the position of chief minister, Mr Adityanath ordered the withdrawal of all charges. Opposition parties plan to challenge this process in court.
Over three months last year, I met the families of 14 men killed by Uttar Pradesh police. All were poor. All were accused of petty crimes such as theft, possession of drugs and forgery. All were undertrials. All were Muslim or Dalit.
According to official reports, the circumstances of each encounter were also uncomfortably similar. The police received information about the person’s location. They were travelling on a motorcycle or in a car. Officers stopped their vehicle, but quickly came under fire. They shot back, the target was hit and died by the time he reached a hospital. Weapons were always recovered from the scene.
But the bodies told different stories. Thirteen of the 14 victim’s families reported broken bones and bruises, indicating that the men had been beaten before being shot. Police refused to provide several of the families with post-mortem reports.
The National Human Rights Commission has asked the state of Uttar Pradesh to initiate independent investigations into some of these killings, but Mr Adityanath and his government have ignored these calls. Families that have spoken to the press or filed complaints with the NHRC allege systematic police harassment – vandalised homes, main wage-earners arrested on false charges, death threats.
Several Indian states offer generous cash rewards and perks to police officers who perform “successful” encounters. Uttar Pradesh is one of them. In 2010, the NHRC issued guidelines, reiterated by the Supreme Court in 2014, that banned state governments in India from offering such payments until the incidents have undergone independent investigation. Reports suggest that Mr Adityanath’s government is violating those guidelines, allowing district police chiefs to offer sums of up to 100,000 rupees to their teams. According to NHRC data, Uttar Pradesh accounts for an alarming 44.55 per cent of encounter cases registered across all Indian states.
It also appears that Mr Adityanath is taking a leaf out of the prime minister’s own playbook. A Right to Information request reveals that between 2000 and 2017, 1,782 cases of fake encounters were registered in India. They include a series of killings of young Muslims carried out between 2002 and 2007 in Gujarat. Mr Modi was then the chief minister of the western state.
In a 2013 letter of resignation, the Deputy Inspector General of Police in Gujarat, Dahyabhai Gobarji Vanzara, wrote that he and 32 other officers in custody on charges of staging encounters had acted in accordance with the policies of Mr Modi’s state government. He said he had stayed silent since his arrest in 2007, but felt a growing sense that he and his fellow officers had been abandoned while Mr Modi used their actions as evidence of his uncompromising leadership.
Modern India was founded on principles of equal citizenship. However, that idea has been eroded in recent years by the rising tide of aggressive Hindutva championed by Mr Modi. The encounter phenomenon threatens to completely shatter the fragile relationship between the state, the police and the nation’s minority populations. But the rawest wounds are endured by those who have lost loved ones in such a brutal way.
Mansoor’s father Akbar used to work as a day labourer on local farms and construction sites, but not any more. Following repeated bouts of tuberculosis, he is frail and can barely walk. Landless and in deep poverty, he has no means to seek justice for his dead son. The loss haunts him. “If killing a poor mentally ill man is supposed to end crime in this country, then what can I say?” he asked me. After looking at a picture of Mansoor’s lifeless body on his neighbour’s phone for a few seconds, he closed his eyes, then turned away and stared into the distance.
*Neha Dixit is an independent journalist based in New Delhi, India. She covers politics, gender and social justice in South Asia