“Encounter Killings” As a Counterinsurgency Tactic In India

This article deals with the so-called “encounter killings” of two Maoist leaders in India. Encounter killings have been going since the early days of the insurgency 40 years ago.

Here’s how it works. Indian The state arrests people who they think are guerrillas. Probably in most cases, they are armed guerrillas. Then the state handcuffs and blindfolds them and drives them out into the jungle where they murder the POW. Then they say that the person was killed in an armed “encounter.” Thing is, sometimes there are shootouts with guerrillas in which guerrillas are killed. Guerrillas are also taken from hospital beds and jail cells to the jungle to be murdered. This is the way the Indian state operates.

Well, I don’t agree with that.

A normal state working according to the rule of law arrests suspected guerrillas.

It’s hard to say what to do with them afterwards. Sometimes, but not typically, they are put on trial in a civilian court. That’s the fairest method. The problem with this is that often they are acquitted of the charges, so states don’t like to use this method.

Another thing to do is accuse them of “rebellion,” or “terrorism,” which are civilian penal offenses carrying stiff sentences. Guerrillas are typically arrested under these civilian statutes, although really, they are a belligerent force that ought to be subject to the UN rules and kept as POW’s.

But almost no state ever recognizes a guerrilla force as a belligerent deserving of UN rules. This is one thing that the Colombian guerrillas have demanded, status as a belligerent. That’s why they “kidnap” enemy soldiers and lawmakers who either run counterinsurgency programs or vote for them in Congress (arguably, belligerents).

Clearly, state police and troops are enemy forces and may be captured by the Colombian guerrilla and kept prisoner, which is what they do. Incredibly, the entire world media says these POW’s are “captives” who were cruelly “kidnapped” by the evil guerrillas. Like Hell, they’re POW’s like any other in any other war.

The guerrillas keep these POW’s in order to trade them for imprisoned guerrillas who they see as guerrilla POW’s held by the state.  The state has refused to trade POW’s with the guerrilla, so the guerrillas just keep their POW’s forever. And why not?

In many wars, guerrillas often capture state security forces, disarm them, and ask them to join the insurgency. If they don’t want to join, they often just release them. The NPA in the Philippines typically just disarms and releases many state and private security forces. This works well for them, as, since the state is total crap, even many security forces have no allegiance to this Army of the Rich. Knowing the NPA’s reputation, state forces often just choose surrender, give up their guns and be released instead of standing and fighting.

It’s stupid of guerrillas like Iraqi Al Qaeda to execute state security POW’s. If you have a reputation of executing enemy POW’s, most people are going to fight you to the end instead of surrendering, since you’re going to get killed after you surrender anyway.

Hamas has found that a live Israeli soldier is worth far more than a dead one, hence they go to great pains to keep even badly injured IDF captives alive, and treat them well, using them to trade for guerrillas in Israeli prisons. Very smart.

Most guerrillas tend to execute or assassinate state spies. Spies are a serious problem for any guerrilla force, and you can’t let people get away with it, otherwise lots of folks will spy for the enemy, and your forces will get decimated.

Ideally, guerrillas should just hold enemy spies POW, but most guerrillas lack facilities for holding POW’s, hence there’s nowhere to keep them. You either release the spies back to probably spy again, or you do something with them. The only thing to do with an enemy spy is to kill them. You really need to make an example out of these folks.

The Indian Maoists often put spies on trial in front of the people. The people decide either we can trust this person again, or we can’t trust them. If they can’t trust them, they are killed. Guerrillas catch a lot of shit about this from human rights groups, but what are they supposed to do? You can’t just let spies go unpunished.

Guerrillas also sometimes execute enemy security forces who are members of death squads. Death squads run around massacring the civilians who support the guerrilla, and killing death squad members is arguably killing a war criminal. Human rights groups flip out over this too, but why should the guerrilla release death squad members to kill again? Forget it.

Typically, in many insurgencies, when guerrillas are captured, they are just murdered soon afterwards, usually after being tortured to death. This was the case in El Salvador and Guatemala. The Israelis also often arrest Palestinian fighters and just take them out and murder them. It’s pretty much standard procedure.

In some cases, the state sentences guerrillas to death on rebellion or terrorism charges. This is what Iran does. I’m not necessarily opposed to that. The guerrillas have often killed or injured state security forces. Although they are probably POW’s, states seem to treat them as common criminals instead and try them as one would try a murderer. That’s arguably reasonable.

Another thing you can do in counterinsurgency is run an assassination program. I suppose this is fair, provided you are actually targeting guerrillas. Anyone who is part of the guerrilla may be targeted at any time, night or day, wherever they are. You don’t need to offer enemy forces an opportunity to surrender first. You can just fire on them as soon as you see them. Guerrilla spies may be arrested at any time, but they should not be assassinated, since they are probably not armed.

One thing I do not agree with is arresting guerrillas and then murdering them or torturing whatever information you can get out of them and then murdering them. That’s ridiculous. I don’t see how you can justify it in any way.

But this is standard counterinsurgency procedure, and it’s taught in US military schools, especially the School of the Americas. US, South Korean, Taiwanese and especially Israeli advisors go to foreign lands and train rightwing armies in how to fight guerrillas. An essential aspect of this program is to kill and torture, often to death, guerrillas after you capture them.

They also teach the armies to wage war on the entire opposition political spectrum, by arresting, beating, harassing, torturing and murdering the unarmed civilian opposition. Opposition villages are to be razed, and opposition women are to be mass-raped. This is all US standard counterinsurgency doctrine cooked up by the Pentagon and the CIA and taught by the US and its buddies to far right governments at war with their peoples all over the world for many decades now.

I don’t agree that that’s how a civilized state fights a counterinsurgency, sorry. Count me out.

Stop Encounter Killings In The Name Of Countering Maoism!

Public Statement 23 March, 2010


We, the undersigned, strongly condemn the recent killings of senior CPI (Maoist) leaders Sakhamuri Appa Rao and S. Kondal Reddy in ‘encounters’ by the Andhra Pradesh police.

While the AP police have claimed that they were killed in gun battles in two different incidents in Prakasam and Warangal districts, there are strong grounds to believe that the two Maoist leaders were first arrested in Maharashtra, taken back to AP and then shot in cold blood. The use of assassination, kidnapping and torture by the forces of the Indian State to contain the Maoist insurgency is not new or surprising but remains even now, as before, an illegal, immoral and reprehensible strategy.

Firstly, the use of such methods by the Indian police, paramilitary forces or army – under whatever pretext- go against basic provisions of the Indian Constitution and puts them on par with ordinary criminals or even terrorists.

The fact that the Maoists do not believe in the Indian Constitution does not mean the Indian government should also abandon its commitment to the only consensus document that gives it its own legitimacy. The Indian State has a duty to uphold the Constitution, irrespective of the opponents it faces, and failure to do so robs it of its entire claim to represent ‘Indian law’.

Secondly, there is enough evidence to show that the use of such dirty methods, once justified by the political masters, unfortunately becomes a bad habit making the Indian security forces a threat to the lives of millions of ordinary Indian citizens. The fact that India has one of the world’s highest numbers of custodial deaths and ranks extremely high in the list of countries using torture is testimony to this dubious phenomenon.

The people at the receiving end of such violations of law by the Indian State on a day-to-day basis are the Dalit, Adivasi, Muslim, poor communities as also the people of Kashmir and the North-East and this is completely unacceptable.

We demand that the Home Minister of India and the Indian government put an immediate end to the use of abduction, torture and fake encounter killings to tackle the Maoist and other armed insurgencies. Lawless governance and impunity for wrongdoers in uniform leads to loss of faith in democracy. The institutional failures that give rise to insurgencies also need to be understood and tackled in a political manner for any lasting solutions.

A. Marx, Academic/Activist, Chennai Bhaskar Vishwanathan, Activist, Chennai

Amit Bhaduri, Economist, New Delhi Dilip Simeon, Academic/Activist, New Delhi Satya Sivaraman, Journalist, New Delhi Aseem Srivastava, Economist, New Delhi Amit Sengupta, Journalist, New Delhi Rabin Chakrabarty, Academic/Activist, Kolkata

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