The horror of the ‘encounter’

BY ANURAAG BARUAH| IN Books | 09/11/2015
An army officer’s confession reveals chilling details about ‘live kills’ and how awards for officers are linked to body counts.
ANURAAG BARUAH reviews KISHALAY BHATTACHARJEE’s book
The author (second from right) at the Delhi book release

 

 

Blood on My Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters
Kishalay Bhattacharjee
Publisher: Harper Collins India, September 2015, New Delhi
ISBN: 9789351772583
Rs. 250.00
Paperback
216 pages

 

“Clean pick – live human being that will be killed and framed as a militant”

 

Senior Journalist Kishalay Bhattacharjee’s controversial new book ‘Blood on My Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters’ raises uncomfortable questions about the very basic structure of the Indian state machinery and its operating procedures. The exclusive confession of a senior army officer who was once posted in Assam and Manipur has blown the lid off of one of the darkest chapters in the history of the army.  

Most of the vocabulary around the excesses of the security agencies in troubled regions such as the north east and Jammu & Kashmir is primarily limited to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and its misuse. Bhattacharjee’s book takes us beyond this cliché and delves deep into the real modus operandi of the agencies arising from other acronyms such as Military Intelligence (MI) funds and the Annual Confidential Report (ACR). The former play a major role in staged encounters because these unaccounted, unaudited funds are often misused to buy ‘live kills’ by the army and the ACR also helps the army in its illegal killings because of the confidentiality it bestows.

Media silence

But Blood on my Hands is also about what the author and his fraternity have missed out in all these years of conflict or counter-insurgency reporting. In many cases, lack of resources prevented journalists from probing beyond the official account while in others, journalists were just too lazy to find alternative versions. The official version, as the book reveals, is often corrupted but reaches the public through reporters, journalists and newsrooms accepting it without further investigation or questioning. Knowingly or unknowingly then, the fourth pillar of Indian democracy ends up colluding with illegal killings.   

Some argue that the role of the vernacular media has been much better than the mainstream media. Yet the book reveals startling facts about an operational mafia in Assam and neighbouring states selling live bodies to the security agencies which are then used as part of staged ‘encounter killings’ which have been ignored by the regional media as much as the national.  

An eerie silence has prevailed since the book launch and the important points made by Bhattacharjee have been neglected. Are we afraid to talk about this because it involves our glorified Indian army? Or because it concerns areas like the Northeast? Or are we, as media persons, afraid to admit that we have made blunders and therefore share a part of the guilt of not doing enough?

Another way of looking at this silence is to say that know our failures and there is nothing new in Bhattacharjee’s book. If that is the case, why have so few of us made the effort to write about these failures? And, by not confronting these failures head-on, are we not weakening the foundations of Indian democracy?  

Blood money

The book reveals the links between the awards given to officers and the ‘body count’ method used by the army. It elaborates in detail how army officers need to collect a definite number of ‘points’ to receive ranks and gallantry awards. These ‘points’ are usually a headcount from staged encounters of innocent civilians, mostly illegal immigrants who have no documents on them. Bhattacharjee reveals how officers earn extra money to buy these civilians, or ‘live kills’ by smuggling timber or narcotics and even allowing human trafficking.

There are multiple versions of these stories and while some human rights activists fail to comprehend that Bhattacharjee’s book is only the version of the perpetrators, at no point in the book has he negated the fact that there are other versions. Perhaps the book is a bit less articulate about the fact that the encounter killings not only involve ‘purchased live kills’ by the army and police but also many other innocent people who were picked up at gunpoint only to return as dead bodies. 

The fact that the names and details of the confessors have been kept in the dark might raise uncomfortable questions about the authenticity of the book. But it has to be understood that the content of the book only surfaced in the first place on the very basis of this anonymity. While one might argue that Bhattacharjee has failed to maintain journalistic ethics by hiding the identities of the perpetrators, let’s not forget that even in academic research, the identities of case studies are often concealed.   

The book also yields an interesting observation, namely, that the very fact that insurgency is in decline all over India has only made this illegal and horrendous system of purchasing ‘live kills’ more active. Driven by the typical middle class mentality of Indians to do well, to get more promotions and medals by hook or by crook, this has led to forced results. A certain number of points are needed by a unit to earn a citation and of course each unit wants to do well and so does the commanding officer of the unit and, in this rat race, human rights and instincts often take a backseat. This has been a standard operating procedure all these years and each battalion that moves out passes it on to the next as something as commonplace as exchanging contacts.

Bhattacharjee writes: “In the army, the system of unit citations is based on points, which are earned by eliminating militants, apprehending militants or having militants surrender in designated counter-insurgency areas. Thus, a unit which gets awarded a citation may land a United Nations mission. This will earn its personnel more money and allow them to receive other benefits. It is like a bonus granted by the government for the ‘good work’ they have done. The ‘good work’ may include extrajudicial killings or hosting fake surrenders of ordinary young men and women, who willingly carry on with the charade.”

This is not in the book but Bhattacharjee has said on other occasions that “the scale of such practice is almost 70% of all units operating".

The book, he says, happened by chance when he came across this particular army officer. Later, the officer agreed to confess on condition of anonymity. According to Bhattacharjee, he confessed for two reasons: as a form of closure for himself and because he wants this depraved practice to end. Another serving general reportedly thanked the author, as mentioned in the book, because he too felt that this sordid mess needs to be cleaned up.  

The army officer’s confession is written in an expansive fashion with Bhattacharjee describing their evenings together and the whisky and food they consumed, portraying the mood and setting of the confession. So the officer is in the middle of describing a cold blooded killing and turns to ask Bhattacharjee ‘soda or water?’ It makes the confession even more chilling.

For anyone wanting to know the actual reality of counter-insurgency operations in India from the perpetrator’s side, this book is essential reading. It leaves you with unsettling questions. For one, the very fact that the word ‘encounter’ in this part of the world means ‘illegal killings’ in contrast to the West where it means a romantic meeting, perhaps signifies that something in our psyche has gone badly wrong. 

 

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