IT would be odd, and wholly unacceptable, if secularism were to be defined by the fate of a gangster in Gujarat. At stake in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh case is not the religion of the individual, or his preferred means of sustenance, but the rule of law.
It was in pursuit of this principle that the Supreme Court handed over investigation of his death in a fake encounter, and the subsequent murder of Sohrabuddin’s wife Kauserbi, to the CBI on January 13, 2010. The Gujarat government effectively lost its credibility when it admitted in December 2006 that Sohrabuddin had been killed in a fake encounter on November 26, 2005, and that his wife had been murdered two days later.
The Supreme Court has taken a stand that should terrify not just the Gujarat government, but any administration. It has asserted that it is the court’s business to determine guilt and innocence, and not that of the police. The truth is that for at least two decades, and in some places for longer than that, security forces have used fake encounters as the easy option in their war against crime and anti-national terrorism. This is not unique to Gujarat.
We do not know how many innocents have been killed in Mumbai in the process of tackling the renowned underworld of the city. Police officers who shot first and refused to answer questions later have been glamourised as heroes, not only by the Maharashtra government, but also by Bollywood.
Bollywood intervened only because this practice has the support of many citizens, for reasons that might not be palatable to either the police or the people. We no longer believe that crime, let alone anti-national terrorism, can be controlled through legitimate means, because corruption has made large parts of the police-judiciary system impotent. Now comes the difficult part: we citizens are partners in crime as well, since we buy products that the underworld sells. Every user of drugs and narcotics in Mumbai is complicit in corruption, because the underworld would not survive without this trade. Rich Mumbaikars who need a hashish puff to keep cool during their fancy parties might want to think before they smoke. Our selfish self wants a level of crime, which sustains our weakness, and the elimination of criminals who threaten our comfort.
Amit Shah cannot escape, no matter how smart a politician he might be. The wheels of Indian justice may take their time, but when they move they grind with persistence. Shah will attempt to exploit contradictions in the public mind, for there will be those who support “killer-solutions”, but his case is badly tarred by the accusation that he took money from businessmen in the larger transactions surrounding this case. Shah, and Narendra Modi, will learn that the circumference of power is wider than the political world. This episode will also interfere with Modi’s hopes of becoming his party’s candidate for Prime Minister, which may not displease everyone in his party.
But surely accountability cannot be limited to just one case in one state. Who is responsible for the death of Rajkumar Cherukuri Azad, the 55-year-old Naxalite leader who was shot dead by the Andhra police in Adilabad district? Was this an “encounter” or a “fake encounter”? Do the police have evidence of a Naxal attack, to which they were responding? Or did they track Azad on orders from Delhi or Hyderabad, and then murder him?
There is a political dimension to Azad’s death, for he was the prospective bridge between the government and the Naxalite movement for any negotiations. Did Delhi want him eliminated because the Home ministry had decided that it would kill its way through the Naxal upsurge, and its offer of talks was not serious? Intermediaries like Swami Agnivesh have suggested as much. Is this the moment when Swami Agnivesh should move a writ petition in the Supreme Court, arguing that the Andhra police, being complicit in the death, will make no effort to try and answer these questions?
It is perhaps easier to pose questions than to find answers since we are dealing with a prickly proposition: who is an enemy of state? There is no confusion about a Kasab and the many thousands who have been sent across an international border to damage our country. The problem gets more opaque for the Supreme Court when categories change. The court has taken a courageous decision in ruling that a man like Sohrabuddin, who has killed gangsters to spread an extortion racket and has employees armed with automatic firearms, cannot face an arbitrary death squad. Does Azad, in the opinion of the court, deserve to be killed without a trial because certain persons in Andhra Pradesh and Delhi have decided that this is how it should be?
The Supreme Court is not a political party. It cannot vary its principles to suit pragmatic needs.
M J Akbar is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi. For comments, write to firstname.lastname@example.org