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90 Bombay 'criminals' have been killed in police encounters in the BJP-Sena regime

In the 28 months since the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena government took office in Maharashtra, as many as 90 men have been killed in encounters with the city police. The police insist the men were criminals with a murderous past and were shot dead when they fired at the police. Human rights activists disagree and say the men were murdered in fake encounters. In the case Syed Firdaus Ashraf investigates below -- the first of a series of reports on Bombay's encounter deaths -- even the victim's 'criminal' past has come under scrutiny.

Abdul Majid On March 31, tailor Abdul Majid Noorani was having a cup of tea in a hotel at Juhu, north-west Bombay, when two plainclothes policemen approached him, flashed their cards and asked him to accompany them. Reluctantly, he agreed.

He was taken in an autorickshaw with his brother Zuber Noorani following in another rickshaw. En route, the cops changed direction and managed to elude Zuber.

As chance would have it, Zuber traced the autorickshaw driver and was informed that during the trip, one of the policemen had made a call on a mobile phone, and that he, the driver, had overheard the words kaam ho gaya (the job is done).

Abdul's Brother Fearing foul play, Zuber and another brother Qadir dialled police headquarters in a bid to find out Abdul Majid's whereabouts, and were informed that their brother was at the Juhu police station. The two brothers reached the police station at around 2.15 am, and were informed that their brother was in the lock-up, and would be released the next morning. They were not, however, informed of the charges against Abdul Majid.

After an anxious wait, the two brothers returned to the police station early next morning. And were informed that their brother, Abdul Majid, had been killed in an encounter at Deepa Hotel, Vile Parle, another north-western suburb.

The time of the alleged encounter, as per the police records, was 11.40 pm.

Police officers claimed they had recovered from Abdul Majid's pockets, a mysterious map, a letter written to gangster Anna Shetty, and a fax from Chota Shakeel, an associate of fugitive gangster Dawood Ibrahim.

Abdul Lateef Noorani "My son returned from attending a religious function two weeks ago," says Abdul Majid's bereaved father Abdul Lateef Noorani. "His name was never in the police records, how can the police claim that he was a gangster? When we went to complain to Deputy Commissioner of Police Satyapal Singh about the incident, he refused to meet us."

The family suspects the "encounter" was a fake. The Bombay police refute the allegation and insist that the deceased was involved in as many as six murders, including the killing of film producer Mukesh Duggal.

Abdul Majid's is not an isolated instance. In the 28 months of the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena government, 90 such encounter deaths have taken place, and a further 267 people have been arrested under the National Security Act.

Dr Satyapal Singh Dr Satyapal Singh, who has since been promoted to additional commissioner of police, argues, "The deceased was trapped on a tip by our informer. How can the family deny the incident? When the police fired on him, he retaliated. Moreover, we have evidence about his involvement in the murder cases. Besides, the incident occurred at 11.40 pm on S V Road, which is crowded at that time. If it was a fake encounter as the family claims, the police would have killed him at some lonely place."

Asked if he was personally familiar with the facts of the case, or whether he had met the family of the deceased, Dr Singh responded: "A senior officer like me has no need to go and meet a gangster's family. Moreover, the family members never complained to me about his death. The only thing they did was to approach human rights activists, according to what I have read in newspapers."

The law forbids a policeman from causing even simple injury while apprehending an accused. The use of firearms by the police is permissible only if no option is left. And even as a last resort, the police are supposed to first fire in the air by way of warning, and even when firing directly at a person, the regulations say that the policeman should target the lower part of the torso, and not shoot to kill.

Abdul's Family Ninety encounter deaths in 28 months does not argue a case for the police being too scrupulous in adhering to those regulations.

Abdul Majeed Memon, advocate for the victim's family, has a point when he argues: "Strangely, after all these encounter deaths, we are still to hear of even one policeman who was injured in these incidents. To my mind this proves that some at least of these encounters are fake."

Abdul's mother "We have tried to investigate many of these encounter deaths," says advocate P A Sebastian, general secretary, Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights, while discussing an aspect of the problem. "The trouble is that people do not come forward to help us, to give evidence. They fear the police may harm them. Then again, the prevailing attitude is, if the police names someone as a gangster, they must be right. And the average citizen believes that a gangster gets whatever is coming to him.

"To make it worse," adds Sebastian, "even gangsters themselves, and their families, are reluctant to approach us. So while we know there is wrongdoing by the police, we are helpless to nail the ones responsible."

In other words, when all said, little is done.

Except that the 'encounter' toll just moved up to 91, and counting...

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