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What really happened on October 30-31 in Bhopal?

By Prasanna D Zore
Last updated on: November 08, 2016 13:46 IST
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Rediff.com's Prasanna D Zore reports from Bhopal and Manikhedi Kot, Etkhedi Kot and Kejra Dev, about the October 30-31 escape and encounter in which 8 prisoners were killed, a case that has many questions and few answers.
The first in a multiple part series:

IMAGE: Policemen with the dead bodies of the undertrials who were killed in an encounter at Acharpura village on the outskirts of Bhopal, October 31, 2016.
Just behind the policemen is a steep cliff.
Photograph: PTI Photo

Residents of Bhopal appear divided over the encounter in which eight Students Islamic Movement of India members were killed.

While no Muslims, Rediff.com spoke with in the city, believe that it was a genuine encounter, the villagers of Manikhedi Kot, Etkhedi Kot and Khejara Dev, some of whom alerted the police about the presence of these eight men and who were at the spot when the encounter was going on, say the Bhopal police did a commendable job.

There are people like advocate Parvez Alam, lawyer for the eight men, and Arif Masood, Madhya Pradesh president of the All India Milli Council who have filed a petition in the MP high court for an impartial judicial inquiry into the encounter under the court's supervision.

Then there are people like Dr Ashok Sharma, head of the medico-legal department at the city's Gandhi Medical College, who conducted the post-mortem and refuses to comment on anything that has not do with science and is speculative in nature.

There are also the two sons and daughter of slain police head constable Ramashankar Yadav, allegedly killed by the eight men, who allege an insider-outsider combination and want the state government to order a thorough inquiry into their father's death and the escape of the eight prisoners from a 'high security', 'ISO certified' prison.

IMAGE: The family of slain police head constable Ramashankar Yadav, who the police state was allegedly killed by the eight prisoners.
From left: Shambhunath Yadav, Prabhu Yadav and Soniya Yadav. All photographs: Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com

"It is difficult to believe that the eight terrorists brutally killed my father while they only tied up the other policeman (Chandan Ahirwar, the other guard at the Block B at the Bhopal Central Jail from where the eight men allegedly escaped after allegedly killing Yadav) before their escape from Block B of the jail," says Soniya Yadav, Ramashankar Yadav's bereaved daughter.

Yadav's throat, the police says, was slit by one of the eight SIMI prisoners.

Her brothers, Shambhunath (the eldest) and Prabhu (who is younger), serve in the Indian Army and are understandably very guarded in their responses.

"These eight terrorists paid (the encounter that killed them) for what they did to my father," says Shambhunath Yadav, "but the CM sir (Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Chouhan) should find out how these eight men escaped from such a high security prison with the ease that they did and without being spotted by any other guard in the prison."

IMAGE: The outer perimeter of the Bhopal Central Jail is flanked by a 32-feet high wall.
Jail officials forbade any photographs to be shot from near the prison from where the eight prisoners escaped on the night of October 30-31.

At around 2.30 am, just 30 minutes after Ramashankar Yadav went inside the Block B of the jail -- he was on the 2 am to 6 am shift -- the police version says the eight prisoners broke open the locks to their cells using duplicate keys made from hard plastic toothbrushes and other kitchen utensils in their possession, slit Yadav's throat and gagged another guard in the same block, Chandan Ahirwar, before they scaled two walls -- the first one being about 20 feet high just outside their barrack, and another 32-feet wall, with live wires, that marked the perimeter of the high security prison.

On the morning of October 31, about eight hours later, between 10 am and 11 am, the eight escapees were shot dead by the Bhopal police barely 12 km away, atop a small rocky outcrop, in an operation marked by more questions than answers.

***

IMAGE: Arif Masood, in his petition to the Jabalpur bench of the Madhya Pradesh high court, has raised several questions about the encounter and sought an impartial judicial inquiry under the high court's supervision.

At the All India Milli Council's Jahangirpura office, Arif Masood alleges that the police murdered the eight prisoners in cold blood and that their escape was made possible with the help of people inside the jail.

"Else, how could one scale four high walls, kill a sentry on duty, gag another one, and yet go unnoticed by the guards on the four watch towers inside the jail premises? To top it all, how can all the CCTV cameras not be working in such a high security jail," asks Masood.

"The MP government is responsible for the death of martyr Ramshankar Yadav because of their sloppy work inside the jail," Masood charges.

In his petition filed before the Jabalpur bench of the Madhya Pradesh high court, Masood has asked for telephone call details of the jail superintendent, two deputy superintendents and two assistant superintendents five days prior to the eight prisoners' escape, to prove their complicity in the criminal conspiracy that led to the escape and the subsequent deaths in a police encounter.

Advocate Parvez Alam, who represented the eight prisoners in various courts, also alleges that his clients were killed in cold blood.

"There was no proof that these eight men belonged to SIMI. Had there been regular court proceedings all eight would have been acquitted," Alam tells Rediff.com at his office-cum-home.

Alam is likely to file a petition in the Bhopal high court for a court-monitored judicial probe into the incident.

Among his contentions -- apart from why these eight men were not arrested and instead shot dead when it was clear that they had no weapons and were willing to surrender -- is the way the post-mortem was conducted in a hurried manner in the absence of a court magistrate and without any video recording, which, according to guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court, is mandatory in the case of custodial deaths or encounters.

Alam had asked the families of the eight men to record videos and shoot photographs of their bodies before burial. By November 3, he already had CDs and photographs of one of those killed in the encounter in his possession.

"These (videos and photographs) will give everybody a clear idea that most of the bullets were fired to kill and not to injure them," he says.

***

IMAGE: The hillock on which the police kept the dead bodies of the eight SIMI activists after the encounter.
The Khejra Dev village, not seen in the picture, is about two kilometres down the hill.

At Khejra Dev village, just about two to three kilometres downhill from the hillock where the eight men were killed, Sarpanch Mohan Singh Meena is a difficult man to find.

Along with another villager, Suraj Singh Meena, he reportedly saw the eight men in the village and alerted the police about their whereabouts.

When I visit Khejra Dev on Friday afternoon, November 4, Sarpanch Singh has "left for another village."

Suraj Singh too is not present in the village.

"Yes, our sarpanch informed the police about their presence," says Pappu Yadav (name changed on request), "and yes it was a genuine encounter," he adds.

Pappu and the three men speak to me ("How can we trust a stranger in our village?" they ask) on the condition that I do not shoot photographs or videos of the village.

The villagers from Manikhedi Kot and Etkhedi Kot, two other villages whose inhabitants were witness to the encounter, put forth the same condition and use the same excuse of my being a stranger before speaking to Rediff.com

"Such terrorists who kill our brave policemen in jail deserve to be killed," says a Khejra Dev villager, in his mid-30s, angrily.

IMAGE: There was nobody at the encounter spot when Prasanna D Zore visited November 4.
There were no blood stains, but the markings where the police kept the eight bodies were clearly seen.

Tell the villagers about the videos, apparently shot by the crowd who had gathered at the site of the encounter, even as it was in progress and after the eight men were killed, that show policemen firing at people atop a hill, flailing their arms, and a young man in his late teens from Manikhedi shoots back, "What if that was just a ploy to distract the police and fire on them?"

"These terrorists don't deserve to live and put our lives in danger," he adds. "Good that they were killed."

Khejra Dev, Manikhedi Kot and Etkhedi Kot are located 5 to 6 km away from each other and connected by a recently paved tar road.

The encounter site on the hillock is located quite some distance from these villages and is desolate save for a chowkidar at an electric station, just where the road ends and bushes begin leading to the hillock.

As news of the encounter spread over WhatsApp and telephone calls, the villagers in their hundreds reached the site around 10.30 or 10.45 am October 31 and surrounded the prisoners from the hill below as well as on the plateau that ends in a steep hillock.

"Had the police not been there, we would have killed all of them in no time," a man from Etkhedi Kot says.

IMAGE: The Tajul Masjid opposite the Gandhi Medical College did not betray signs of tension that prevailed in the first half of the day, November 4, as the police did not allow protesters to hold a rally after the Friday afternoon prayers.

Akram Khan (name changed on request) who meets me at the Tajul Masjid in the heart of the city on November 4, says, "Badi berehmi se maara unko is jagah lakar (the police killed them without any mercy after bringing them to that desolate place)."

Like Masood and Alam, Khan points to the statement of Madhya Pradesh Anti-Terrorism Squad head Sanjiv Shami, who, like state Home Minister Bhupendra Singh, said that the eight men were found unarmed. Minister Singh later retracted his statement.

Shami and Singh's statements contradicted the statements made by Inspector General of Police Yogesh Chaudhari that four country-made pistols and a few knives were found on the prisoners.

"The videos shot by the villagers and some by rhe police," Khan adds, "amply prove that these were staged encounters."

"Did you see that policeman in a blue shirt removing the knife from a dead man casually without using a handkerchief, without bothering to keep the fingerprints of the so-called terrorist intact?" he asks.

"Also, if the police maintain that these eight were armed with country-made pistols, why didn't the cops, who fired at the five men standing on the hillock from below, take cover and instead offer themselves as sitting ducks?"

"Had this been a genuine encounter, the police and the minister would have held press conferences every single hour and answered the questions people have. Had that been the case, we too would have believed the authenticity of these encounters," Khan says.

"But then there is a long silence from the administration and lots of contradictory statements coming from those involved in this fake encounter," Khan adds.

***

IMAGE: Harpoorilal saw the police first visit the site between 7 am and 8 am on October 31.
Later, they returned with a full force at 10 am.
Then, the encounter began, he says.
There is a small trail to his left that leads to the encounter spot some 300 to 400 metres away from his shanty.

Harpoorilal, who is in his early 50s, the lonely chowkidar at the electric station, knew it was unusual when he saw a dozen policemen whiz past his shanty on the morning of October 31.

"It was between 7 am and 8 am," he remembers when asked about the time.

Harpoorilal had no clue that the police were looking for 'eight dreaded terrorists,' as the escaped men were described, when they entered the bushes behind the electric station.

"But they left after 15, 20 minutes, before coming back in large numbers, in jeeps and vans, again at around 10 am," he says.

Ask how he can be so sure about the timing and he shows me a wrist watch on his left hand. Unlike the villagers, Harpoorilal identifies himself and also poses for a photograph.

"The second time when they entered the bushes that leads to the hillock, armed with guns, I knew something was ominous," he says.

Soon afterwards, Harpoorilal tried to ask a few policemen stationed on the roads, but was shooed away.

"And then the firing began. I could hear it quite clearly (Harpoorilal's shanty is located about 300 to 400 metres away from the hillock where the encounter took place) and began cowering inside my hut. It was only after noon that I reached the spot and saw the dead bodies lying on the big rock," he adds.

"I don't know what happened between 10 am and noon, but when I reached there it was quite crowded and people were busy shooting videos. The police were trying to stop them, but there were far too many people at the site," he recalls.

***

Harpoorilal points me towards the direction where the encounter took place behind his shanty. "It will take you 5 to 10 minutes to reach there," he says.

300 metres into the bushy wilderness one encounters (a loaded word these days) Mohammed Shafi, general secretary, Socialist Democratic Part of India, Muhammad Elyas Thumbe, national general secretary, SDPI, and advocate Sajid Siddiqui, president, SDPI, Madhya Pradesh, coming back from the encounter site.

IMAGE: SDPI office-bearers Mohammed Shafi, Elyas Thumbe and a colleague outside the perimeter marked by the police on the hillock where the encounter took place.

Shafi, from Rajasthan, and Thumbe from Karnataka, have come to see the spot where the encounter took place.

"It is an open and shut case of a fake encounter," Thumbe says. "It can be easily proved in the courts using the videos shot by the police and onlookers that day," Shafi adds.

Siddiqui, a resident of Bhopal, points out, "there are reports of the police confiscating and deleting videos from the phones of villagers."

"Why did they delete only a few selected videos? Why not take away and delete the videos of all those who shot them the other day? Is there something the police found dangerous for their well being in the videos they deleted?" Siddiqui asks.

Shafi and Thumbe accompany me to the hillock and ask, "All eight men (showing me the numbers written with chalk on the rock) were shown lying dead on this hillock. We wonder how not even one of the five seen in the videos being shot at by the police did not topple over the rock after being hit by the bullets during the encounter and fall in the valley below?"

The SDPI will demand a fair and impartial probe under the Madhya Pradesh high court's supervision.

***

IMAGE: Dr Ashok Sharma, medico-legal head, Gandhi Medical College, Bhopal, writing the post-mortem report that could throw light on the cause of deaths and unearth other forensic details that can establish if the encounter was fake or genuine.

Dr Ashok Sharma, the head of the medico-legal department at the Gandhi Medical College, who conducted the post-mortem of the eight prisoners, says all the gunshot injuries were "ante-mortem", meaning "before the death of the eight persons," he explains on the evening of November 4 even as he is busy preparing the post-mortem report in his own handwriting.

Countering claims that the gunshot injuries were found only above the waist, Dr Sharma says, "there are a couple of gunshot injuries in the upper thigh and shoulder of two of the dead bodies."

"There are gunshot injuries even on the head, abdomen and chest," he adds, but refuses to say anything based on speculation.

"I speak only science and facts deduced by using scientific methods and can only say that we did the post-mortem within 24 hours of the deaths of the eight persons," Dr Sharma clarifies.

He refuses to speak about why the autopsy was not conducted in the presence of a judicial magistrate or the proceedings of the post-mortem videographed as per the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court.

Dr Sharma will submit his final report to the police by November 10.

"I am not going to write this report in a hurry," he says, referring to the post-mortem report.

"It is a written document, in my own handwriting, and I can't change it later. I will take my own time."

***

All eyes will be on the final handwritten findings of the post-mortem report Dr Sharma submits to the Bhopal police and also on the forensic tests on the clothes worn by those killed in the encounter.

Interestingly, as Dr Sharma points out during an interview with Rediff.com on November 4, "Many of these people were wearing two shirts, three shirts. Some of them were also wearing three shirts and three trousers. Nikalte-nikalte thak gaye hum (It was very tiring to remove so much clothing)."

Dr Sharma warns that the post-mortem report will not be available in the public domain as it will be the rightful property of the Bhopal police.

"But once the inquiry report comes out and the court proceedings begin, the post-mortem report, once placed on record by the court, will be available in the public domain," advocate Alam says.

Till then, or till the truth emerges, the people of Bhopal and India will have to wait to know if the October 31 encounter was fake or genuine.

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Prasanna D Zore / Rediff.com in Bhopal
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