Is Dirty Harry in charge of India’s police?

Madkam Deva walks about 20 paces off a dirt footpath in a verdant forest, finds the place where large, orange ants crawl over a dark maroon stain, then points to another bloodstain a few yards away. This, he says, is where he saw one villager cut down by police bullets, and then a second.

“I’m scared they’ll come after me now,” says Deva, who is about 20. He says a bullet grazed his right forearm while he fled the barrage.

His account of what happened in this remote and undeveloped corner of eastern India on Jan. 8 boils down to this: The police rounded up 24 tribal villagers, told them they were going to a station for questioning, then lined them up for execution en route. Five, including Deva, escaped.

Rahul Sharma, the police superintendent in the Dantewada district of the State of Chhattisgarh, provides an account as detailed and vivid as Deva’s, but profoundly different. “It was a very genuine encounter,” says Sharma, who said his men came upon a group of armed Maoists and engaged in a firefight. No policemen were killed, he said, but one took shrapnel from a grenade to his hand.

Numbering in the thousands every year, “encounters” or “encounter killings” are shootouts between the Indian police or Army and any criminal element, from terrorists to petty thieves. Many Indians believe that at least some are stage-managed – with, say, a police officer placing a gun in the hands of a dead person – leading to the popular phrase, “fake encounter killing.”

The Singaram encounter was part of a long-running campaign to stem an insurrection in impoverished and isolated parts of eastern India by Maoist-inspired rebels known as Naxalites. Other cases, elsewhere in India, have involved Muslim militants and gangsters in Mumbai.

In almost all, India’s limited forensics capabilities make investigating the claims of either side hard to verify. But the national news media often accept the police’s version, which puts them in harmony with many in their middle-class audience who fear rising crime and terrorism. Meanwhile, Bollywood and Indian news media lionize “encounter specialists” – soldiers or policemen who, like Clint Eastwood’s Hollywood cop Dirty Harry, specialize in shootouts.

Are India’s attitudes complex, contradictory? You betcha.

Part of this is the uneven development of any nation moving from a 3rd World economy to a 20th/21st Century global node. It ain’t going to be the same in a rural village as Delhi. Caste, class and religion play a stronger role among the uneducated and less-educated.

RTFA. Lots of detail – even if it’s limited to showing you a snapshot of where things are at – this year.

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