Kishlaya Bhattacharjee is the author of Blood on My Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters that provides important insights into the practice of staged encounters and their institutionalisation in India. He spent 20 years of his career as a broadcast journalist, 17 of which were with NDTV where, as resident editor, he covered conflict and post-conflict situations in India. Che in Paona Bazaar: Tales of Exile and Belonging in India’s Northeast was Bhattacharjee’s debut non-fiction work.
In the following excerpts from his interview, he discusses pressures faced by journalists, feedback from security forces on his book, and the pathology of fake encounters.
You’ve reported from conflict regions for two decades, but was writing Blood on My Hands a different experience altogether?
It was completely different because as a reporter on the ground covering a fairly large area with impossible logistics, one moved from incident to incident without often following up on stories. Live television and later digital media had to be fed information by the millisecond. While writing a book one gets time to research and investigate, but the experience of having walked that ground was of great use because those were the very incidents I myself had covered.
This book emerged from many years of reporting such arbitrary “encounters”, where I could only report from two perspectives — the official state/police/Army version, and the account of the families of the victims. In researching this book, I encountered the perpetrators of this form of manhunt for the first time. These were members of the forces who were willing to elaborate the pathology of fake and staged encounters, the circumstances under which these killings take place and the complicity of the state machinery. It was also different because I had no idea this was an institutionalised form of killing.
You have written with great compassion about the victims; one senses perhaps you regret not questioning deeply the encounter cases since your book questions the role of media.
The nature of the beast was such that we reported and not investigated. In television we didn’t have the luxury of time and resource to follow each encounter. We usually reported the “official version” unless, of course, there was a protest or outrage. Yes, the book questions the role of media and civil society as well because we have been silent participants in what slowly became an institutionalised form of state violence. Even when such cases were reported, the victims rarely or never got justice and in many cases were stigmatised by the same civil society that would protest against the encounters.
From your book one gathers encounters are deeply entrenched in the system and not going anywhere soon …
Yes, they are very much entrenched and will continue as long as promotions, awards and performance are related to headcounts. The Army is an organisation where everything is quantified, including performance. In the Army, the system of unit citations is based on points which are earned by eliminating militants, apprehending militants or having militants surrender. The temptation of picking up awards against kills is so commonplace that the Supreme Court once said “Fake encounters are for gallantry awards and for getting out-of-turn promotions. The whole thing is devilishly planned.”
A serving officer who received the Ashok Chakra — the highest gallantry award in India — was found by the Supreme Court to have carried out a fake encounter. But one must not forget there have been people in the forces who have followed their conscience in refusing to take part in state-sponsored killings. Sadly, there are no Ashok Chakras for them.
With time, the space to pen such issues has become terribly constrained. Is the space in India really that unconstrained that it allowed the publication of your book?
Though the recent narrative in India has been of a climate of intolerance and a passive state, or sometimes even participatory in the silencing of voices, largely there has been space to question and to speak out. Yes, cases of sedition charges have come up from time to time, but I have not faced that challenge, ever. I have reported from conflict areas even when there wasn’t much media presence, which means I was conspicuous, but I have never been threatened or intimidated. Nor have I ever been asked to change my stories editorially.
But that doesn’t mean journalists have not faced pressure. In Chhattisgarh even now, journalists are under tremendous duress by the state as well as non-state actors.
How did the Indian security forces react to your book?
The panel at the main launch of my book in Delhi had serving police officer Shiv Sahay from Kashmir and he didn’t totally admit the practice, but neither did he ignore it completely. He called such cases an aberration. In the audience there were at least four Army officers and a former police chief. The drift among Army officers is mostly of agreement, though they would say everyone doesn’t do it. But they are happy it was exposed because they were sick of it. A former Army chief spoke with me while I was writing the book and obliquely agreed with my findings. I have even had intelligence chiefs agreeing and validating.
Have any cases been filed against those officers who carried out these false encounters? What has been the verdict of the judiciary?
Six Army persons including a commanding officer were sentenced to life in a well-documented case called the Machil encounter in Kashmir. In Manipur a case is ongoing of a fake encounter which took place in 2009 in a market where policemen were found guilty. There are a couple of other cases, but in most nothing is happening. The judiciary has asked for a review saying the incidents are false and fake, but the Army is protected under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and that grants them immunity. With so much impunity they grow emboldened to carry out more such killings. The National Human Rights Commission of India has found them guilty, the Supreme Court has found them guilty, a former prime minister and a home minister had asked for the repeal of the AFSPA which protects them from prosecution, several intelligence chiefs have asked for the Act to be removed, yet the irony is that in a democratically elected civilian government, the Army’s wishes prevail.
Did lawmakers ever highlight this issue?
It has been highlighted several times in the assemblies of the states where the Disturbed Areas Act is in place, but politicians have failed to address it sincerely. The government doesn’t want to go against the Army when it comes to its border areas, but that contravenes the very idea of security because they just try and secure geographical India and not the citizens within that territory whose security the state must guarantee. It is difficult not to become numbed by the sheer volume and horror of the stories of human rights abuses and encounter killings, but for the state this is routine. This dirty war has enduring and profound consequences, not merely for our body politic, but for our national psyche and our collective moral behaviour. How we deal with encounter killings now will determine how we define violence in the future, and the type of society that is endowed to following generations.