THE police call them encounter deaths. The civil rights activists call them cold-blooded murders. While the two exchange recriminations publicly, the death toll in encounter killings keeps rising steadily.
Over the years, deaths in encounters with the police were not confined to the terror-stricken Kashmir alone.
Now it is quite common for police in other parts of India too to exchange gunfire with alleged terrorists and criminals, from which they emerge unscathed while the latter, predictably, end up dead.
The issue of encounter deaths crops up each time the police claim to have killed someone in self-defence.
Early last month in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, the police killed four alleged terrorists, all in their early or late 20s.
Among those gunned down was a young Mumbai college girl, Ishrat Sheikh, who the police said was part of the conspiracy to assassinate the state chief minister, Narendra Modi.
The killings unleashed verbal protests, with friends and family members of Ishrat insisting she was innocent while the police maintained that she was involved with the three terrorists with whom she had been travelling in a car to a function where Modi was scheduled to address the people.
When challenged to surrender, the official version said, the people in the car opened fire, resulting in police retaliation which killed all four of them.
Modi had apparently been on their hit list since the communal riots in the state in 2002.
The police released information linking Ishrat to a foreign terrorist outfit and revealed the amount of money she had been paid over a period of time.
Her diary apparently listed her movements and the payments she received from her handler in the terrorist outfit.
The police claimed she was married to one of the two foreign terrorists who were killed.
Within days, the four people killed became a mere number in the official records with everyone, civil rights activists included, lumping them together with others who died in encounter deaths.
The activists felt frustrated because ordinary people, who witnessed the rise of terrorism and organised crime in the last two decades, have become indifferent to such killings.
That explains why more and more police forces in the country now resort to encounter killings in dealing with terrorists and gangsters.
Take the case of Indias commercial capital Mumbai.
It was free from organised crime until the advent of underground mafia dons in the 1980s.
Since then organised crimes such as extortion, protection racket, gunrunning, smuggling, gambling, et al have become rampant.
Even some high-profile denizens of the film world are said to be in league with the gangsters who fund film-making and sponsor stars for expensive shows abroad.
Back in the early 1980s, the police recorded its first encounter death in Mumbai.
A notorious extortionist was gunned down in broad daylight by policemen who claimed they fired in self-defence.
Since then, more than 600 alleged criminals have died in police encounters in Mumbai.
It was through this type of encounters, it is widely acknowledged, that the Punjab police eliminated the problem of Sikh terrorism in the state.
Hundreds of alleged Sikhs terrorists were killed in the encounters, though human rights activists protest these were cold-blooded murders.
The modus operandi of the police was simple.
They would pick up suspected terrorist, squeeze out valuable information from him and then take him to a secluded place where they would pump bullets in him and announce to the world that they had killed a dreaded criminal or terrorist in an encounter when he tried to run away or began to fire at them.
Rarely has a policeman in an encounter died or even suffered a minor injury.
Encounters are one-sided affairs, barring of course, those in Kashmir where nearly 3,000 people die annually either in terrorist attacks or genuine encounters with the police or paramilitary forces.
The insurgency-related deaths of both the official personnel and the militants are routine in the troubled state.
But it is in the rest of India that the rise of encounter deaths has been most alarming.
The police claim that the flawed criminal justice system leaves them with no option other than to take shortcuts to deliver instant justice.
Also, political patronage, tawdry investigation and prosecution, perennial delays at courts, corruption at every level and the threat from sympathiser groups of the detained terrorist or criminal encourages them to eliminate dangerous outlaws in such encounters.
That ordinary people do not object to this manner of quick delivery of justice as the police see it is borne out by the glorification by the media and Bollywood of the so-called encounter specialists.
A recent feature film, Aab Tak Chhappan (So far 56) glorified Mumbai police inspector Daya Naik who logged 80 encounter killings of notorious criminals.
His colleague, inspector Vijay Salaskar, claimed a tally of 60.
In the Delhi police, Rajbir Singh rose quickly from the post of a mere sub-inspector to assistant commissioner of police in the mid-1980s thanks to his reputation as an encounter specialist.
He masterminded about 30 encounters.
How these encounters can go horribly wrong is illustrated by an instance involving him.
A few years ago, he rushed to a busy market accompanied by ace marksmen upon receiving information that three notorious gangsters were travelling in a certain car.
When Rajbir Singh spotted the car, he opened fire.
All three occupants of the car were killed on the spot.
Later, it turned out that he had mixed up the car number the three people killed at close range inside the car were innocent businessmen from the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh who were in Delhi on a marketing mission.
Public hue and cry led to Rajbir Singh's suspension until his seniors hushed up the matter and quietly revoked the suspension orders once the furore died down.
It is precisely to stop the killing of innocent people in fake encounters that the National Human Rights Commission now examines each encounter death.
But given the public apathy and lack of an alternative method to bring genuine gangsters and terrorists to justice, there is no end in sight to deaths in the so-called shootouts with the police.
Even the commission relies on facts supplied to it by the police since it has no independent means of cross-checking their veracity.
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