Video clip of “Shootout at Lokhandwala.”
Do you know what really spices up an extrajudicial killing? A jazzy musical number!*
In India, “encounter” and “encounter killing” are euphemisms for “shot by the police.” The term implies that the victim was armed, and shot first – if the police shoot an unarmed person and plant a weapon on the body, that’s a “false encounter killing.”
In the 90s, encounter killings were so common in Mumbai that some officers became known as “encounter specialists” -specialists in shootouts. Human rights groups have long criticized the practice, noting the high civilian death rate and few positive results to show for it.
The encounter killings have also caught the attention of India’s media and its vast film industry, known as “Bollywood.” And let the result be a lesson to all of us who seek to “bring attention” to human rights violations: encounter specialists were lionized in Bollywood movies like Shootout at Lokhandwala, Risk, and Encounter: The Killing. The movies depict police officers heroically taking on massive criminal cartels in bloody shootouts, fighting for justice ten thousand bullets at a time. And then taking a break to sing a song, do a dance, and get the girl. From Wikepedia’s description of Shootout at Lokhandwala:
“A long and devastating gun battle begins. The criminals launch RPG (rocket propelled grenade) from their flat and try to escape. But they are overwhelmed by police fire and all five criminals are eventually slain. The battle lays waste to the entire building: film shots show the staircases, hallways and several civilian flats completely pulverized by gunfire. […]
Charges are brought against Khan and the ATS. But when [Private Prosecutor] Dhingra rises to defend them as their appointed counsel, he, in a surprising twist, presents an unconventional argument as defense. The film ends with Khan and the ATS being acquitted”
Everyone loves a good musical number, but the heroic, all-singing, all-dancing image of encounter specialists has served as a screen for the much darker truth.
There is substantial evidence that police have used “false encounter killings”to conceal extrajudicial killing, torture, and other abuses on a massive scale. Ensaaf recently analyzed police reports of more than 20,000 alleged encounter killings in Punjab:
“Punjab Police released press reports almost daily to local newspapers, detailing the civilians, security forces, and alleged militants killed. Alleged militants were most often reported killed in encounters involving an exchange of gunfire. However, human rights groups have documented hundreds of cases in Punjab where victims were arrested, abducted, or executed by security forces in the presence of witnesses – but then would be reported a few days later as a “suspected militant,” killed in an “encounter” with security forces. These reports suggest that many such reported encounters were falsified. So-called “fake encounters,” in fact, were so prevalent that the practice has been remarked upon by the U.S. State Department and widely acknowledged in the media. Empirical findings from our report are also consistent with qualitative findings that reported encounters were often faked. ”
In other words: bummer about being kidnapped and murdered, but maybe Amitabh Bachchan will play you in the movie version!
*The embedded clip is from Shootout at Lokhandwala, but I’m not actually sure what it’s depicting. These particular singers/dancers might be playing gangsters, not encounter specialist cops. More information would be much appreciated, commenters!