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Delhi Police Special Cell encounters: why the victim's religion matters

Manisha Sethi | Updated on: 14 June 2015, 14:56 IST

The killing

  • Manoj Vashisht was shot dead by the Delhi Police Special Cell on 16 May 2015.
  • He is alleged to have been a conman running a ponzi scheme.
  • Special Cell says it was forced to shoot at Vashisht after he opened fire at them.

The doubts

  • Special Cell\'s version is identical to what it claims in every encounter case.
  • Special Cell told the court that there were no pending cases against Vashisht. So why did it go after him?

Different yardsticks

  • The media didn\'t doubt the police version. But both the Centre and the Delhi government have ordered an inquiry.
  • Delhi Police has never ordered an internal inquiry into deaths from police firing.
  • No questions are asked if the deceased can be passed of as terrorists. Perhaps their religion matters.

As far as police encounter go, Manoj Vashisht's killing was unremarkable. Vashisht - described variously as a conman running a ponzi scheme, a businessman, and a social worker - was shot dead by the Delhi Police's Special Cell. He was shot on 16 May 2015 in a busy eatery of West Delhi.

The shootout

The Special Cell raided the restaurant after a 'tip off' about Vashisht's presence. He apparently opened fire at the police, forcing them to return fire, which resulted in his death.

Neat story? Not quite.

Just days before he was shot dead, Vashisht had moved a city court seeking anticipatory bail. Vashisht's family has alleged that the anticipatory bail had been sought after the Special Cell had waylaid Vashisht and extorted Rs 60,000 from him.

The bail application was dismissed after the Special Cell told the court that there were no pending cases against Vashisht.

Why then was the Special Cell pursuing him?

What makes the Manoj Vashisht encounter so unremarkable at first is that it sticks to the boilerplate language of the FIRs that record encounter killings by the Special Cell.

The Special Cell's modus operandi

Every single FIR filed in encounter death cases in Delhi since 1995 reads the same: secret information was received, it was 'developed', surveillance was mounted, a team was readied, the team reached the spot, it dared the suspect to surrender who instead fired at the police, forcing them to return fire and kill the suspect.

The suspect invariably turns out to be a dreaded gangster or a terrorist. A case of attempt to murder under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code is then registered against the deceased and the file closed.

To this point, the latest encounter killing follows the script.

How Manoj Vashisht's killing deviates from the script

However, Vashisht's story is also quite remarkable in some ways. The government has been exceptionally prompt in ordering an inquiry into the circumstances of his death.

This was done even though the media did not doubt the Special Cell's claim that Vashisht was a conman who had defrauded innocents of their hard earned money. Yet, not one but two inquiries have been ordered into his death - the Delhi government has announced a magisterial probe and the Union Home Ministry has constituted a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to look into the circumstances of his death.

Special Cell's troubles arise out of the fact that the deceased was Manoj Vashisht, not an Atif or a Sajid

The alacrity in announcing these probes is unusual. Normally, the inquiries into Special Cell encounter killings are few and far in between.

No inquiries for earlier killings, so why now?

Information received in response to RTI applications shows that the Delhi Police has never ordered an internal inquiry into deaths from police firing. Only two magisterial inquiries were conducted between 1995 and 2012. On the other hand, the numbers of gallantry awards and out-of-turn promotions following encounter killings have been aplenty.

In 2002, when two alleged Lashkar-e-Tayyeba terrorists were shot down in the basement of the Ansal Plaza Mall, the then Home Minister LK Advani arrived there within hours as if to certify to the genuineness of the encounter.

The only witness, an elderly homeopath doctor, who saw the Special Cell officers drag two men from their car and then shoot them, should not have seen what he claimed he did. He had to battle years of intimidation and false cases.

Shakeela's complaint to the NHRC that her son Rafiq was in Special Cell custody before being shot in August 2003 - in what came to be called the Millennium Park encounter - and branded a terrorist, received no response.

special cell encounters

A member of the Delhi Police special cell holds a pistol in his hand after the 2008 Batla House encounter. Photo: Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

In 2006, when the Special Cell gunned down five alleged gangsters in Northeast Delhi's Sonia Vihar area, the media transformed them into terrorists because their names happened to be Ayub and Aslam. In a rare magisterial enquiry, the Inquiry Officer doubted the Special Cell's dramatic rendering of the killing, asking for a wider CBI probe.

However, the inquiry report remains buried somewhere in the bureaucratic labyrinths, its conclusions unheeded. A compensation of Rs 5 lakh, however, was paid to the families of the victims after an order by the NHRC.

Those demanding an impartial enquiry in the Batla House encounter were branded unpatriotic and downright insulting of the bravery of Special Cell cops.

The only shoot-out which resulted in a criminal investigation and prosecution was the Connaught Place encounter in which two businessmen were gunned down in 1997.

Former Assistant Commissioner of Police SS Rathi and his men were jailed only because of the tenacity of the families of the victims, and because the Delhi High Court forced the filing of charges against the encounter cops.

Different yardstick for Muslims?

Much as we may deny it, the Special Cell's troubles today arise out of the fact that the deceased was Manoj Vashisht, not an Abu Shamal, a Rafiq, a Ghulam Yazdani, an Atif or a Sajid. The mere hint of terrorism stupefies us into silence and acquiescence.

The legal black hole that the deaths of these so-called terrorists have been consigned to will never reveal whether these men were really terrorists and whether they had indeed provoked the Special Cell into firing at them and killing them. It is enough for our collective imagination that their dead bodies arrived with the 'terrorist' tag.

The probe into Vashisht's death is unusual. Normally, inquiries into Special Cell encounter killings are rare

That none of the encounter specialists have met their judicial nemesis is perhaps partly be due to the institutionalised indulgence of the Special Cell by the system.

But our collective imagination is also responsible because it allows some killings to pass not only unquestioned and un-grieved but even celebrates them.

What happens next?

Having burnt their hands in the Manoj Vashisht encounter, what will the Special Cell do now? There are two possibilities.

One, the Special Cell could revert to 'encountering' only those who pass the public test of legitimacy. For that, they would have to be presented as 'terrorists' regardless of whether there is any evidence - rather than those whose killing might arouse outrage and trigger inquiries.

Two, the Special Cell could choose to abandon the practice of being trigger-happy for fear that every encounter could potentially be investigated as a case of homicide.

In any homicide case, the policemen involved would have to prove that they killed strictly in self-defence, employing force that was essential and proportional.

There are indications that the Union Home Ministry might resolve this dilemma by restricting the Special Cell to anti-terror operations.

Would this restore public confidence in this elite agency? With their redefined job description, only 'terrorists' would be killed.

That might free them up to kill with even greater impunity. Which would continue to bring the Special Cell further glory.

First published: 14 June 2015, 14:56 IST
Manisha Sethi @CatchNews

Teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. She is the author of Kafkaland: Prejudice, Law and Counterterrorism in India (Three Essays) and is an activist with the Jamia Teachers' Solidarity Association.