News broke on 31st October 2016 that eight inmates of Bhopal Central Prison had escaped in the middle of the previous night. All these inmates were alleged to be members of the banned Students’ Islamic Movement of India. The inmates were all under-trials and were held in the terror cell of the B wing of the high-security jail. By afternoon of the same day Madhya Pradesh police reported that all eight had been killed in an encounter in a village on the outskirts of Bhopal.
As details and conflicting reports of the alleged jailbreak and encounter began to emerge, many questions were raised by concerned citizens regarding the genuineness of the entire incident, especially in the light of glaring loopholes in the official version of events. This fact-finding was conducted 4th to 6th November 2016.
Fact Finding Team:
Ansar Indori, National Confederation of Human Rights Organisation
Ashok, Research Scholar - Delhi University
Hisham, Solidarity Youth Movement, Kerala
M H Banna, Senior Journalist, Madhyamam Daily
Salman, Crimninal-justice fellow, TISS (Rehabilitation of wrongly prosecuted/Innocents)
Surya Ghildyal, Research Associate, Quill Foundation
Swati Gupta, Bastar Solidarity Network
Timisha Dadhich, Research Associate, Quill Foundation / MA Criminology and Justice, TISS (Student 2nd year)
Vipul Kumar, Researcher, Quill Foundation
Context of Encounter of Ex-Simi members
Since 2001, when SIMI was banned, young Muslim males have been arrested and charged with furthering the activities of a banned organisation under various sections of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). A large number of these cases pertain to possession of banned or unlawful literature. Only a meagre number of cases are to do with any act of violence. Nonetheless, this has had the effect of criminalizing a community and hyping the threat of SIMI’s ‘terrorist’ activities.
What Happened in Bhopal? Breaking down the sequence of events
The series of events that are alleged to have taken place on that fateful night can be broken down thus:
1. Alleged murder of Ram Shankar Yadav (security guard) by 8 SIMI members
2. Alleged Jail break by eight under-trials
3. Encounter killing of eight under-trials
1. Murder of Ram Shankar Yadav (security guard)
In order to closely look at the murder of Ram Shankar Yadav, the fact-finding team met the family members of Shri Yadav, spoke to defence lawyer Parvez Alam and interviewed police personnel from Madhya Pradesh State Police Department.
Non Co-operation and hostility from the Madhya Pradesh Administration: It is pertinent to highlight the fact that the team received zero co-operation from the police. The team wrote several letters seeking permission to visit the Jail as well as the senior officials of the prison. However all permission was peremptorily denied. In fact, the police as well as other official tried all means to prevent the team from getting any information. The even tried to dissuade the team from speaking to different stakeholders in the issue.
The team members faced severe restriction and hostility due to the strong surveillance by the police – an act intended to intimidate us and stop us from gathering critical facts, testimonies, etc.
The team reached the house of Ram Shankar Yadav around 12 noon on 4th of November 2016. The scenario of the house was of a grief-stricken family comprising Shri Ram Shankar’s Yadav’s wife, his daughter, (who is due to get married on 9th of December), and two sons who are both working as soldiers with the Indian Army.
Family’s opinion about the incident
The team felt that family was totally ignorant about the issue and they didn’t know what exactly happened in the prison on that fateful night. They had not received any official intimation from the authorities. Most of the information they had was recieved through the media.
However, Ramashankar’s daughter, Soniya Yadav, very clearly said that the family was not satisfied with Government’s version of the story. The team felt that Soniya was a very strong, bright and vocal girl who wanted to raise many questions but was sacred and concerned about the safety of her family. On being asked pointed questions of whether she felt that state’s version of story was not true, she said that: “I am not convinced with what they are saying but you people should ask these questions, we can’t ask these questions”
Chandan Ahirwal (the only eye witness in the murder of Ram Shankar Yadav)
Chandan was the co-security guard who according to the official account was present at the site of the incident. He was allegedly kept hostage by the under-trial prisoners. He is also the only eye witness to the murder of Ram Shankar Yadav. As his account can be crucial for the entire episode of alleged murder and jail break, he has been kept away by investigating agency. He hasn’t spoken to any media house, and has refused to give any statement which could bring more clarity to the incident. What is surprising is that while the official account claims that Chandan was a very close friend of Ram Shankar Yadav, he hasn’t met his family even once after the incident.
Account of Defence lawyer Parvez Alam regarding murder of Ram Shankar Yadav
The fact finding team met the defence lawyer, Parvez Alam on 4thNovember, 2016. Following are the points that he raised regarding murder of Ram Shankar Yadav:
“My clients, who have been brutally murdered by the police, have not killed Ram Shankar Yadav.
There’s not a single evidence which proves that he has been murdered by these eight men. The story of plates and spoon being used for murder is not believable. The prosecution story will not stand in the court, this is just to mislead the people. What weapon has been used to kill him is not clear because post mortem report is not revealed. If prosecution argues that throat slit happened, a great amount of blood would have spilled on the clothes of the accused. No such evidence has been presented officially or through media. Hence it is incorrect to even allege that my clients have murdered Ram Shankar YadavDefence lawyer Parvez Alam
He also said that the most important witness in the case is Chandan who is being hidden by the authorities. “He is such a crucial evidence for the prosecution, his statement should have been immediately recorded. But no statements have been recorded till now. If the authorities are arguing that he was manhandled and kept hostage, his medical examination should have been done. But this has not happened. Why is it that such an important evidence, who is an only eyewitness is being kept away from media. He will have to eventually come in-front of me in the cross examination and truth will come out. Till then my client shouldn’t be alleged as murderers of Ram Shankar Yadav,” defence lawyer Parvez Alam said.
Alleged Jail Break by the Eight Under-trials
The Prison layout
The Fact-Finding Team tried visiting the jail, but permission was denied by authorities. We then met Kabir (name changed for security reasons), a bailed under-trial prisoner in order to get a better idea of the prison as well as the possibility of some of the facts alleged.
Kabir was an undertrial prisoner in the same B wing where the 8 encountered undertrials were. He got bail one week before the incident. In light of being refused permission from the authorities to visit the prison to look more closely into the details, we met Kabir to understand the geography of the prison, its walls etc. We met him on 6th November 2016. He shared a detailed description about prison security and discussed about the possibilities of a prisoner breaking out from the jail. Following are the points raised by him:
Bhopal Central Prison is very different from Khandwa Prison. Its not possible to get away from it after killing someone. The prison system is so secure that forget murder, even if there a small quarrel or the slightest bit of noise for any reason, all the guards get to know. There is an alarm which rings the moment there is any noise. Even if a lighter is lit the sound can be heard from a very far distance, especially at night. It is impossible that a murder can take place and no one gets to know about it. Kabir also shared that while coming out of the Jail he could see cameras working perfectly. In-fact he was asked not to smoke because he could be seen in the camera. Kabir asked how it was possible that certain cameras were not working only for a certain period of time.
The jail that the alleged eight SIMI activists fled from was the Central Bhopal prison. They were kept in the B wing of the Bhopal prison. The B wing has several barracks, the head-quarter-office room of the prison and roads for patrolling. Among these barracks is the terror cell where these eight people were kept imprisoned.
The terror cell is right in front of the head-quarter office which has a camera monitoring room, a room for announcements and the office of the officer in-charge of the prison. In the terror cell itself there are two wards. Each ward has four cells which have their own separate locks. The entrance to the ward was sealed by another lock. Each cell in the ward houses only one inmate, therefore each ward had four inmates, with each inmate being locked up in a separate cell.
Together these two wards of the terror cell are placed in a vast courtyard and two prison guards patrol the whole courtyard during the night. At night there are three people assigned to each of the wards to keep an eye on the four cells inside the wards. These people are popularly known as “jaagiyas” (wakers) by the inmates. Covering the wall of the courtyard is another wall just a few feet away from the periphery of the courtyard. This wall is twenty-five feet high.
Thus, the terror cell is located among different barracks inside the B wing with a head-quarter office almost opposite to it and is surrounded by a 25 foot long wall, with almost forty-eight cameras placed inside the prison. The entire prison compound itself is built inside a wall of thirty to thirty-five feet surrounding the prison.
The Terror-Cells are most secure because it is in the centre with three layers of boundary walls around it. The boundary walls are also in clear view of the cameras as well as the security officers placed across the prison.
The police version
According to the police version the prisoners had used a tooth brush to open the lock by carving it in the perfect shape of the key and opening their lock with it. They then killed one of the guards patrolling in the courtyard with a knife carved out of their steel plates (Ram Shankar Yadav). However, they tied up the other guard and threw him in a cell (Chandan). They then scaled the twenty-five feet wall and the final prison wall of thirty-thirty-five feet by constructing a ladder out of the bed-sheets they were given as inmates and using wooden planks as rungs for the ladder. The cameras inside the terror cells were apparently not working or disabled and the prison that night was understaffed.
Testimony of a bailed under-trial
He told us that the B wing is very well lit and there are almost six guards at night who patrol around the headquarters office of the prison. Prisoners were always kept in a state of fear and were conveyed well about the consequences of disobeying or seeming suspicious to the officers.
The process of locking up the prisoners starts from 7 pm and goes on till 10 pm. The prison guards patrol for these three hours. He mentioned specifically that at night there is complete silence, an absence of sound of any kind. Hence each and every sound, even the slightest noise caused at night is heard all across the prison.
On the basis of our interaction with Kabir and Adv. Parvez Alam, the following questions arise:
i. How did the inmates mange to make ten separate keys (eight for the individual cells they were locked in and one each for the two wards) out of toothbrushes in the prison? Also the prison keys are changed regularly as per Jail Manual. How did prisoners make keys without access to lock or duplicate keys? And even if they did it, where did they get tools and equipments to do it.
ii. Jail manual clearly mentions that lock needs to be regularly changed for Prisons. Will the authorities show whether these details were entered in Jail Diary?
iii. As per narrative of family members of Ram Shankar Yadav, his body had injury marks and they claim that injury marks show that he tried fighting. How did no one hear the noise, considering that it was a very quiet place. Why has there been no medical examination of second security guard? What happened to the jaagiyas who are supposed to be inside the wards?
iv. How did a murder and the subsequent Herculean task of escaping happen right in-front of so many guards and prisoners and yet no notice was taken till 1- 1.5 hours?
v. If they had killed one of the prison guards, why did they spare the life of the other one (Chandan) when he was a risk while they were escaping? Why did Chandan (second security guard) not raise an alarm for over an hour?
vi. Even if they did escape their terror cell, how did they get past the six guards roaming around the head-quarter office?
vii. How is it possible to scale a wall with a ladder made out of bed sheets? Moreover, how did they manage to procure 35 bedsheets as is being alleged by the administration?
viii. Even if the cameras inside the terror cell were not working what about the other cameras in the prison? According to media reports, there were six 360 degree cameras. How is it possible that all the cameras of the prison were disabled on that night?
ix. The bailed under-trial inmate clearly remembers cameras working perfectly when he was being released. How did the cameras suddenly stopped working?
x. And if even the slightest sound is heard by the whole prison because of absence of the complete silence in the prison, then how did nobody hear anything at all on the day of the escape? How did anybody not hear or see anything at all in such a well lit and quiet prison?
Inconsistent Narrative of the Madhya Pradesh administration:
The police narrative is full of gaping holes and riddled with inconsistencies. Below are listed some particularly glaring ones:
i. The Keys: The Home Minister and police officials have still not given a concrete reasoning to whether Jail Lock has been opened using wooden keys, or keys made of spoon or keys made of brush.
ii. CCTV Cameras: On a similar note, there have been inconsistencies with regard to whether CCTV cameras were working, not working or working in certain areas. Even after a week of investigation,the Jail minister in an official statement said that she is not sure about whether the cameras were working or not working and how many of them were not working. On being asked about whether it is true that CCTV cameras were not working, in an interview the Jail minister said, “(Hone ke liye kya nahi ho sakta?) What is not possible? It can’t be ruled out that one or two cameras might not be working!”5 The lack of clarity even after a week and after a supposedly detailed probe by a senior public representative raises many questions.
iii. The Escape: Similarly, there are different versions of how the walls were climbed, whether bedsheets, or rope, or ladder. The jail authorities, minsters, etc would be sure of how it happened immediately. There is reason to be suspicious and it seems authorities are buying time to manufacture an evidence based story.
There have been a series of videos which have gone viral before the fact-finding team reached Bhopal. The authenticity of these videos has not been verified and it wouldn’t be justified to reach a conclusion based totally on these videos. At the same time if these videos are authentic it makes this a prima-facie case of ‘Forced Encounter’ and raises several questions, which in-fact makes this a possible case of ‘State Sponsored Fake-Encounter’.
There are series of videos which our team analysed. Further investigation was done on the basis of questions arising from these videos. These videos taken from different cameras show two incidents which were part of the encounter killing.
A) Incident 1: There are two videos (taken from different angles) which show police personnel shooting an already collapsed body of one of the accused victim. In the video the firing has been done from a very close range, to an already dead (or half dead) body. Voices can be clearly heard saying “hit him in the chest. Finish him,***** (abusive words) etc”. In another video of same incident, we see more than one bullet (at least two) being fired at the already collapsed body. Bodies of other deceased are lying very close to each other. Earlier in the video, one policeman is shown recovering a shining sharp weapon resembling a chopper knife from the waist of one of the deceased. The deceased (all eight) are lying very close to each other, wearing clean clothes (almost brand-new) fitting perfectly body sizes of the deceased, their faces (all eight) are clean shaved. The deceased are wearing watches, belts and very clean shoes.
B) Incident 2: In one video five men standing atop the cliff can be seen raising their hands. The video is shot from a point very close to where the police personnel are standing in the valley. They can be heard saying loudly on the walkie talkie “We can see five people, they want to talk. Three are running, one is leaping.”
Questions arising from these incidents:
I. About the sequence of events:
i.) The accused are wearing clean clothes, watch, clean shoes which under-trials do not wear. Where did these come from? If there are handlers who provided them with all of this, who was/were these handlers and why has there been no efforts to get hold of the handler(s)?
ii) If clothes, shoes and watch can be arranged by the accused, why wouldn’t the accused arrange vehicle for transportation too? Even if they failed in arranging vehicle, according to police they had guns and were armed with other sharp weapons, which could have been used by them to get a vehicle.
iii) The village close to which they were shot dead is a populated one, with a dead end. To reach this village from the Bhopal Central Jail one has to cross three highways. Naturally, the question arises as to why those fleeing law will choose to cross three highways and head this way.
iv) Further, why would the escapees climb the cliff and thereby make themselves visible to the entire village?
v) How were the dead bodies lying so close to each other? Its very difficult to imagine that they were in a situation of conflict. They all were shown dead in the very range of possible gunfire while there were other places on the cliff they could have hid behind and fired. All the bodies lying together raises serious doubt about the Police version of the story. If all the accused were standing next to each other, the gretaer possibility is of them offering to surrender, rather than them being in a gun-battle situation as proclaimed by the police. Is it a co-incidence that the eight accused were running/escaping as well as shooting at the police together, without taking different routes or positions, and while dying too there were all standing next to each other?
vi) The deceased can all be seen clean shaven in the videos and photographs. However, some of these accused had long beards in jail. They couldn’t have shaved them without first trimming them – all of which would take a really long time. In a situation where they were escaping from jail, where did they find so much time to get their beard shorn? Were hair cutting salons open at late night on the Night of Deepawali between 3:00 am to 7:00 pm or were they provided by shaving kits by handlers too? Was a shaving kit recovered by the Police?
In our home visit at one of the accused, Akeel Khilji, the family members shared that he would never let anyone shave his beard as he had grown it for religious reasons; he would allow it only over his dead body.
vii) The timing of encounter is not clear. There are different timings, ranging from 8:30 – 11:00 a.m. in various statements. The most consistent claim in official statements is that encounter took place around 11. However, in our interviews with villagers, most of them said they reached after the incident. Few of them clearly said that they reached around 10:00 a.m. and encounter had already taken place. This again raises serious doubts of what exactly happened and when.
viii) A few people told the team that a small group of police had come to the village as early as 7 in the morning. What was the police doing there at 7 am?
About Injuries to the deceased and the police
i) The shooting has been done from a very close range, while in the police version of the story they were firing from distance of 50 feet. What is reason for discrepancy?
ii) The last two bullets shot clearly shows that there was no intention, neither any effort taken, to save the ‘escaped’ prison inmates.
iii) Why was there no firing below the waist?
The nature of injuries seems to be from sharp object, not gun fires or stones. If injuries were from sharp object, possibly a knife as shown in the video recovery, then the clash must have been a close fight, hence refuting the Police version where they claim that firing was done from a distance. The knife shown in the recovery is very clean and no blood mark can be seen, hence, raising a doubt of whether any resistance was shown by the alleged accused.
Further, media reports regarding their post-mortem show that all injuries on the accused bodies were above the waist, with no bullet being recovered from four of the bodies6.
iv) We saw the videos of dead bodies that had been shot by the family members of the deceased. There were more than 25 bullets shots in their bodies. There were hardly one or two bullets hit in the lower parts of the body, and most of the bullets were aimed at the top part, especially the chest area. Few bullets mark were found on back of the skull. This clearly reveals the intention of the police force was to kill them. Moreover, the bullet holes in the body raises doubts of whether bullets were fired from different angles as described by the Police. Bullets seemed to have pierced through the body leaving big holes which makes one feel that it was fired from close range.
The Curious Case of the Eyewitnesses:
There are a number of contradictions and inconsistencies in the narratives of eye-witnesses. Some of them are highlighted below:
Witness 1 (media clippings) - Mohan Singh Meena, Sarpanvh, Khejradev village (where encounter took place) is one of the prime witness who claimed that he along with his friend(cousin) Suraj Singh Meena were the first people to identify the alleged terrorists.
He further claimed that he along with his friend Suraj Singh Meena (and other villagers) was following the alleged terrorists while they were climbing the hill top after which the Police came. In his earlier statements he said that Police reached at 9:00 – 9:30 after which encounter took place. (see link: https:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=5cxb-YWN77E ) In his later interviews he said that encounter took place at around 11:30 (see link: https:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQ1Pwmd935I )
Witness 2 - Suraj Singh Meena, an eyewitness who accompanied Mohan Singh Meena seemed a bit confused about the timing of entire episode. In personal interview with Fact Finding Team, initially said that he identified the escapees between 9:00am – 9:30am, police reached in 20 minutes, and in next 10 minutes Police took position and they were encountered. Later in the same interview he said that he along with his brother (Mohan Singh Meena) identified the escapees only after 10:00am and encounter took place at 11:30.
Witness 3 – Dhabewala (name changed) – On the highway towards the Khejradev village Dhabewala is an owner of small Dhaba shared with us that two separate groups of Police came to them at 7:00 am and 9:30 am respectively asking for address of Khejra village. He further shared that the second team took him along to show direction. He emphasised on the fact that when they reached around 10:00am, encounter had already taken place. He said he was sure about the timing.
Bhopal Police press statements: “Three policemen have been injured. They (alleged terrorists) had sharp weapons which they used to injure them. They were attacked when police team confronted these 8 people and there was a scuffle. They were chased further to the hill top by Police Personnel where final encounter took place. Encounter took place at 10:30”
Following are important points that raise doubts on accounts of various witnesses.
a) Timing of entire episode:
There are major contradictions and self contradictions in timing shared by different witnesses with respect to timing of first identification of escapes, timing of informing the police and most importunately, the timing of encounter.
b) Question of ‘who followed/ chased the escapees to the hill top’? :
The witnesses (villagers) claim that they followed the escapees to the hill top and Police reached only after they reached the hill top. While the police claims that they chased the escapees to the hill top and in the procedure, they also got indulged in a scuffle and got injured by sharp weapons.
c) Weapons used by the escapees:
Madan Singh Meena, in his earlier interview mentions seeing sharp weapons, clothes and stones being used, but doesn’t make any mention about gun or firing. Suraj Singh Meena seemed confused initially about presence of Gun, but on being asked sharply claimed that he couldn’t see guns because he was far, but saw certain recoveries kept by the Police beside the body of deceased escapees. ATS chief, maintained for initial few days that encountered escapee were not armed with guns7.
d) Did the escapees come out from river?
Both Madan Singh and Suraj Singh Meena shared that they saw the escapees coming out from river. The clothes and shoes, however were not wet (in the video). The other witness (Dhabewala) also claimed that he saw the bodies and that their clothes were not wet.
e) What languages did the escapees used?
Both Madan Meena and Suraj Meena were very consistent in their self-contradictory staments with respect to languages used by the escapees. Whenever pointed questions were asked about conversations they had with the escapees, they said they did not understand the language, as it was a foreign language (probably because they thought these ‘terrorists’ came from a foreign country), not realising that most of the escapees were from their native state. While they claimed several times that escapees spoke foreign language, in their narrative they self contradicted themselves by claiming to have heard that “you will get killed if you come near us”
f) Did the Police visit the village earlier at around 7:00 am?
One of the most revealing fact that Suraj Singh Meena shared was that police had initially visited the Sarpanch, Madan Singh Meena, who is also Suraj Singh’s cousin. The Sarpanch is not just a prime witness but also claims to be one of the first persons along with Suraj Singh Meena who identified the alleged terrorists. In his media interviews he said that he had got a call from police but does not mention that the police had come to visit him personally.
Further, the owner of a small Dhaba on the highway leading to the village shared with us that two separate groups of Police came to them at 7:00 am and 9:30 am respectively asking for address of Khejra village. He further shared that the second team took him along to show the way to the village. All of this leads to questions over the inconsistencies regarding when the police first received information and when they first reached the village.
Also, the witness we met (Suraj Singh Meena), seemed to have been both tutored, and placed at that particular place for us. We felt this because three men were standing at the point till where car could reach. It seemed they were standing there with no purpose. Why would someone stand in the sun doing nothing in the middle of the day. When we pointedly asked him what he was doing there, he said he was getting work done by labours in his field. However, the labours working in that field informed us that this field did not belong to him at all. This made us feel that he was placed there in a planned manner to mislead the FFT.