January  2004 
Year 10    No.95


Death by encounter


He never missed his early morning mass. Today, as he was walking towards the church, wrapped up in a warm jacket against the early December morning mist and cold, he was startled to see a commotion on the road. Two young boys were being chased by two men with guns in their hands. One boy jumped over a compound wall and escaped, the other was shot at as he ran on ahead. On being hit, he stumbled and fell flat on his face – his pursuers caught up with him, covered him, and one of them lowered a gun to the back of his head and shot the prostrate boy dead.

By that time Laurence, the massgoer, had reached the scene of death. The man who had shot the boy turned around gun in hand and said, "You have not seen anything. You have not heard anything. Keep your mouth shut and proceed on your way!"

Laurence was too stunned to say anything. He walked towards the church, his brow covered with sweat despite the morning cold, his heart beating wildly.

The half-hour mass seemed too long and Laurence felt tired, his head was spinning and his feet were wobbly. As soon as mass was over, he rushed to meet his friend, the parish priest, and narrated what he had seen. The priest invited him for a cup of tea and said, "It must have been an encounter death."

"They shot the boy in cold blood when he lay helpless on the ground," protested Laurence.

"You only saw the final act. You did not see how it all started. But encounter deaths are common and you have been asked not to speak about it," said the priest.

"But how can I keep quiet? Here a life was snuffed out before my eyes, that too of a young man who was wounded and helpless."

"These days troublemakers are eliminated through police action. What can you do about it – courts take too long to deliver justice. A change in the system is required," explained the priest.

Laurence was not satisfied with the priest’s answers.

He told his wife of the shooting incident and the priest’s reaction to it. She was cool. "Encounter death," she said. "There are hundreds taking place everywhere. There are even encounter specialists," she added.

Laurence grunted. "But that was cold blooded murder."

"You have not heard the shots. You have not seen the dead body. You’d better be quiet," she cautioned.

Laurence was not deterred. "The event was a violation of human rights – what kind of society is this?"

"Are you fighting the police – the State and society? You will bring trouble on your head," she said.

The maid brought in breakfast – toast and eggs, coffee and butter. Sitting across the table, his wife buttered toast while Laurence poured himself a cup of coffee.

"Let us go away from this vile place for a while," she said. "There is no peace in this country – our children are abroad – let us go and spend a year with them."

Laurence was not persuaded. He did not care to reply.

"Then go to your brother’s coffee estate in Mangalore – you will find peace there," the wife persisted.

"There is neither peace nor coffee in the estate – it has all been ruined – and there is trouble all around," replied Laurence.

The wife was not put off. "No doubt the boy was shot in cold blood but are we not killing people when we deny them adequate food though we have food rotting in godowns and money in banks?"

"Now, do not try your economics on me. The starvation amidst plenty is a larger part of the story and this death by encounter is the smaller part of the story though both are no doubt linked."

"So if you put up with the larger reality, you can close your eyes to the smaller reality of today – otherwise you will be in trouble with the system," his wife added.

He pondered as he ate his egg and toast, drank his coffee and then rose.

His wife was alarmed. "What are going to do now?" she asked anxiously.

"Nothing much. I am going to the police station to register a police complaint."

His wife was shocked. "Look here, my dear man. Do not pursue this any further. It will ruin both of us."

Laurence ignored her pleadings. Dressed in his Sunday best, pants, shirt and a tie, he picked up his cap and walked out with his stick.

"How stubborn you still are! You are banging your head against a wall," his wife sighed.

At the police station, Laurence made his way straight to the cabin of the station-in-charge. Before the policemen realised what was happening, he was inside the cabin.

He told the chief what he had seen in the early hours of the day. The officer went red in the face. "We have no information about anybody being killed," he said.

Looking around, Laurence saw photographs of national leaders of yore, including one of Mahatma Gandhi. He said, "Then I will show you the place where the encounter took place if you come with me."

The police officer’s face grew redder. He said, "We had one call in the morning informing us about some shooting and dead bodies. When we went to investigate, there was nothing there. So we are not going to waste any more of our time on the subject." And he rose from his seat, trying to ease Laurence out.

Then he asked, "Have you not been told to keep quiet about this episode? Why are you asking so many questions?" and walked out, leaving Laurence gaping after him.

Laurence picked up his cap and walking stick and left. He went to the nearest phone booth and called his son’s close friend, a news editor. When he reached the editor’s house he explained what he had seen that morning.

When he heard the story, the news editor rose and said. ‘This is a grave matter. As the man said – you have not seen anything or heard anything – do not mess about in this. You may run into trouble."

Laurence replied, "I am well past seventy now so my life is not an issue – I want to get at the truth. I saw a cold blooded murder take place before my eyes – how can I keep quiet?"

"Here, high level politics is involved. You cannot quarrel with it. Either the police kill the criminal or the criminal kills the police," said the journalist.

Laurence pleaded. "Just get me the name of the boy killed – With your extensive police contacts you can do that."

"But my newspaper will not investigate it and I advise you that you too do not proceed any further with this."

He dialled a few numbers and managed to find out the boys’ names. The boys lived in a nearby slum close to Laurence’s house. They were activists who had earned the wrath of the builders’ lobby. So they had to be eliminated if profits were to be assured.

Laurence located the slum and the house where the boys lived. A distraught mother and sympathisers were huddled together in a tin shed.

Laurence narrated what he had seen that morning and assured them that he was prepared to give testimony – swear that he saw the boy being murdered.

"Then they will go after my other son who managed to escape. Your courage will not bring back my dead son. I dare not speak out though my heart is bursting," said the grieving mother.

Laurence could not persuade her to fight injustice. He returned home a sad man – grieving at the injustice in the world.

His wife was waiting for him anxiously. "Where have you been all this time?" she asked.

"I am okay," he reassured her, "Just made some enquiries – located the boy’s family but they will not fight. They have accepted death."

"They are wiser than you," she said, "They know when they have been defeated."

Night was falling and the wife wanted to go to evening mass. He told her to go ahead while he bathed and rested.

Then the phone rang. He heard the voice of the man who had threatened him that morning.

"Don’t you value your life? Do you dare fight us?"

This time there was no fear in Laurence’s voice. "I value all life and therefore I will fight you and your tribe."

"Be warned!" said the caller, and put down the phone.

Laurence was a champion pistol shot in his youth and had won many a prize in his line. He took out his weapon, cleaned and loaded it, and slipped it into his jacket before his wife returned from mass.

The next day, the afternoon tabloids bore the headlines: "Grave Tragedy in Encounter. An Old Innocent Champion Shooter Gunned Down. But Three Cops Lost Their Lives Before the Battle Was Over."

(Gilbert Lobo, a Combat reader, lives in Navi Mumbai).

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