The Last Encounter (MARCH 28, 2008)

"Encounter specialist" Delhi Police ACP Rajbir Singh's dramatic death is reminiscent of his own dubious method of eliminating people.

Finally, on March 24 Delhi Police's controversial ACP Rajbir Singh ran out of luck and was shot through the head by one of his proteges, with the gun he had lent the killer. The man who shot him twice in the head, Vijay Bhardwaj, owed him Rs 92 lakh.

The murder of this controversial policeman raises quite a few fundamental questions about the legality of police functioning in India and the credibility of the President's Police Medal. Singh, who is known to have threatened to "encounter" journalists for asking uncomfortable questions, went on to receive the President's Medal for gallantry once and the department's Police Medal for Gallantry four times.

He is also reported to have threatened to shoot his uncle and more than once threatened reporters. The journalists complained to higher authorities but nothing came of it. He was reputed to have connections in high places, which enabled him to flout rules.

Another question is whether a police officer is allowed to kill somebody extrajudicially, for an encounter is nothing but extrajudicial killing. It is pertinent to ask as to how the Indian state honours a lawbreaker with the President's Medal. Does the Constitution allow taking a citizen's life without due process of law?

Singh had the dubious distinction of having led at least 45 encounters. The Narcotics Cell had tapped his conversation with drug mafia, and he was transferred out of the Special Cell because of alleged mafia links. Later he got a clean chit following a vigilance enquiry.

He was also involved in encounters that would not be justifiable even from police standards. Despite such a record he went on to become an ACP, and a highly decorated one at that, from a mere sub-inspector. This speaks volumes for the rule of law in this country.

His gruesome death came because of his involvement in shady land deals. He was known to have threatened people with encounter to coerce them to cut deals favourable to his agents. One such agent, Bhardwaj, turned out to be his undoing. Bhardwaj used to intimidate people using Singh's name. Bhardwaj owed him Rs 92 lakh which he had invested in property.

Bhardwaj said Singh had threatened to kill him and his family. Instead, he killed Singh to protect his family and himself, using the gun that Singh had lent him. There is another question here: is it legally permissible for a police officer to lend his gun to someone? Is it permissible even for the common citizenry to do that?

The Rajbir Singh episode is just the tip of the iceberg. The police force has so many Rajbir Singhs all over the country. Meanwhile, the system prefers to honour them rather than keeping them on a tight leash. There should be a stricter scrutiny of candidates nominated for the Presidential Medal if the august office of the head of state is to retain its dignity. And police reforms can't wait. 

FAISAL HASHMI

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