BHOPAL: It has been two years since the infamous Bhopal jailbreak and encounter case on October 31, 2016, in which police killed eight prisoners of the Bhopal Central Jail. Although the Justice Pandey inquiry instituted to investigate the case termed the encounter ‘inevitable’ and ‘reasonable’, the incident needs serious attention for several reasons.

For an official inquiry to give official approval to the killings is one thing, but what is troubling is that the report doesn't answer questions that made it necessary to institute an inquiry in the first place.

Moreover, families of the deceased have been making fruitless efforts to get their side of the story heard – whether in local police stations or the Supreme Court of India. The Madhya Pradesh government, violating a Supreme Court judgment, honoured the police officers involved in the encounter killing even before an inquiry into the case had been initiated. The police, on the other hand, has been making attempts to cover up evidence and intimidate the family members and their lawyers.

In addition, an investigation by the National Human Rights Commission revealed that 21 other undertrial prisoners at the Bhopal Central Prison have also been threatened with being killed in a similar fashion. Ever since the encounter incident in 2016, they have undergone severe torture, solitary confinement, and harassment based on their religious identity.

These facts add to the suspicious nature of the Bhopal jailbreak and encounter case.

A one-man commission headed by retired high court judge SK Pandey was constituted within a week of the incident. Nine months later, the Pandey Commission submitted a 10-page report which was tabled in the Vidhan Sabha by the Madhya Pradesh government another 10 months later, in June 2018.

The report sheds no new light on the event of the alleged jailbreak and encounter killing. While the questions were many, the report does nothing to answer them and only restates the police version of the events.

The Pandey Commission confirmed the version of the police that on October 31 2016, eight undertrial prisoners alleged to be members of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) escaped from the ‘terror cells’ of Bhopal Central Prison and were later killed in an encounter by Madhya Pradesh police trying to catch them.

Bhopal Central Prison is one of the largest maximum security prisons in India. One can imagine how difficult it would be to escape from it. But according to the police, the prisoners used a toothbrush to open the lock of their cells, and killed a guard by fashioning a knife out of their steel plates. They also tied up the other guard, Chandan, and threw him into a cell. They then scaled the 25-foot inner wall and the outer wall of 30-35 feet by constructing a ladder out of the bed sheets they were given, using wooden planks as rungs. Having escaped, the prisoners then changed their clothes, shaved, and ran out of town.

Inexplicably, the cameras inside the terror cells were not working on that particular night and the prison was also understaffed.

Eight hours later, around 11 AM, all the prisoners were surrounded on a hillock where police shot them dead after they refused to surrender, and allegedly started firing on the police.

Later, media reports as well as a fact finding report raised serious doubts on the sequence of events and the possibility of prisoners kept in a high security ward being able to escape from a central prison using toothbrushes, bedsheets and plates.

But there are many other questions which remain unanswered:

  1. What were the circumstances in which they allegedly killed one guard while merely tying up the other?
  2. One of the prisoners had a disability in his leg. How did he scale the wall?
  3. How did they acquire the clothes, shoes, watches etc. which they were wearing when killed by the police; if they managed to acquire all these things why couldn’t they arrange transportation and escape?
  4. How can the police claim that prisoners were killed in ‘retaliation’ since they, as stated by Anti-Terror Squad chief Sanjeev Shammi, were unarmed?
  5. Why doesn’t the report make any comments on the videos captured by local residents and media where police officers involved in the encounter can be seen saying that no prisoner should be left alive?
  6. The post mortem report also shows that there was close range firing by a single person using a single gun. How is this possible if there was retaliatory fire?
  7. One of the officials stated at one point that the escapees had knives with them, then changed his statement, saying that they had guns using which they tried to attack police, which in retaliation and self-defence had to execute the encounter.

Soon after the incident, police registered a first information report against the eight deceased prisoners for escaping from prison, killing a guard and attempting to murder police officers during the encounter. The families of the deceased made efforts to present their side of the story and complained at three different police stations in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, but none of these complaints were converted into an FIR.

A fact finding report also enumerates that in the entire investigation process the only witness, the prison guard Chandan, was kept distant from the investigation process and his statements were not recorded.

Lawyers representing the families of those killed share that they have been mistreated and were denied access to relevant documents relating to the case during the Pandey Commission hearings. Lawyers have faced obstacles at every point of the case proceedings, making it very difficult for them to find the truth and get to the root of the matter.

Advocate Sajid Ali, who represented the families of the deceased at the commission's enquiry points out that he was not allowed to examine the evidence or crossexamine the witnesses during the probe. There were grievances with the administration, as facts were suppressed and the commission didn’t leave scope for equal opportunity.

The family members of the deceased prisoners stated that they were threatened by the police on many occasions. They were tortured and harassed whenever they tried to take action against the police. False cases of sexual violence have been filed against the family members just because they asked for justice. The family of the guard Ram Shankar Yadav who was killed on the night of the incident stated, “We are facing lots of threats and are really scared. We don’t know who these people are but, we are under great threat. We are being threatened through media sources.”

All these instances reflect that the Pandey Commission failed to be fair and reasonable in its assigned job. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has also dismissed demands for a fresh enquiry. Last month families approached the local court in Bhopal seeking the registration of a fresh FIR.

Another related incident in the same Bhopal Central Prison calling for desperate attention is the continuous torture and inhuman treatment being meted out to 21 undertrial prisoners since the 2016 incident.

Moved by the Quill Foundation along with other members of civil society, a National Human Rights Commission team visited Bhopal Central Prison twice to investigate prisoners’ complaints of torture. The report records that prison conditions have changed drastically since the incident of jailbreak: 21 prisoners are being kept in solitary confinement 24x7 and are allowed out of their cells for only 5-10 minutes, which is indeed oppressive.

The NHRC comments that the physical and mental health of prisoners has deteriorated sharply ‘as evidenced in substantial reduction in their weight’, adding that ‘prolonged solitary confinement has led to behavioral disorders among the prisoners, they have become anxious, frustrated and depressed.’

During the team’s visit, they found that conditions inside the cell were quite hot and humid with not even a fan, causing skin infections on prisoners’ bodies. On the other hand, exhaust fans are kept switched on during the winter to make the cold conditions harsher and more inhumane, indicating deliberate attempts by the jail staff to harass prisoners.

The report records that prisoners have been assaulted on multiple occasions and have even been beaten up in the ‘helicopter position’, a third degree torture method.

The report further records the prisoners’ testimony that their beards were pulled, foul language used against their female relatives, comments passed asking why they shout ‘Allah, Allah’ and why they do not go to Pakistan, and even their religious books were insulted.

The NHRC writes that ‘this version seems to be in line with the overall pattern of torture, beating and humiliation of the 21 prisoners. From the overall facts and circumstances, the jail staff seems to harbour a sense of religious antagonism against these 21 prisoners which is reflected in inhuman treatment towards them.’

Prisoners also complained that they were not being allowed to meet their lawyers and family members, and when they are permitted to meet them police forces are always present. The NHRC confirmed this and stated that ‘the mulakat system particularly for the alleged SIMI prisoners has been constrained… Mulakat… seems to have become devoid of any substantial benefit as they meet their visitors in an intimidating environment where they feel under pressure not to talk freely or reveal anything adverse about jail conditions.’

Looking at the egregious treatment of the prisoners the NHRC recommended legal action against the involved jail authorities, and the jail doctor for covering up incidents of torture and beating by omitting crucial details from medical records. The NHRC also issued a show cause notice to the government of Madhya Pradesh asking why it should not grant suitable compensation to the family members of the alleged SIMI prisoners.

Taking serious note of the systemic perpetration of torture, the NHRC also recommended that a high level committee be constituted to look into the grievances of the 21 prisoners and issue necessary guidelines to the jail authorities.

Thus far, no action has been taken by the Madhya Pradesh government on the recommendations of the NHRC, and the torture has continued. The NHRC concluded after its last visit that ‘mental torture especially due to solitary confinement, repeatedly asking for khairiyat during night hours and use of foul language, mistreatment continues… It seems clear that in the name of security provisions, their human rights are being violated.’

Even two years after the ‘jailbreak’, with much media attention and an ‘independent’ commission’s investigation, there seems to be little movement towards discovering what really happened. Efforts by civil society teams, lawyers, and the family members of the deceased have not borne fair fruit.

The playout of the ‘encounter’ and the grave torture of other prisoners in Bhopal Central Prison only point to the planned attempts by the Madhya Pradesh government to create hysteria in the name of Islamic terrorism and banned organisations, because it seems not to mind flouting Supreme Court guidelines on so-called encounter deaths (PUCL vs. State of Maharashtra), the rights of prisoners, and the remarkable NHRC report on the condition of undertrial prisoners.

While the government of Madhya Pradesh consistently flouts established procedures and recommendations – even those of its own institutions - the Bhopal jailbreak and ‘encounter’ still seem to be shrouded in a fog of its own making.

(Chinmay Anand Panigrahi and Baljeet Kaur are researchers at the Quill Foundation).