Blood on My Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters
* Harper Collins India, September 2015, New Delhi*
*“Clean pick – live human being that will be killed and framed as a
Senior Journalist Kishalay Bhattacharjee’s controversial new book ‘Blood on
My Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters’ raises uncomfortable questions
about the very basic structure of the Indian state machinery and its
operating procedures. The exclusive confession of a senior army officer who
was once posted in Assam and Manipur has blown the lid off of one of the
darkest chapters in the history of the army.
Most of the vocabulary around the excesses of the security agencies in
troubled regions such as the north east and Jammu & Kashmir is primarily
limited to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and its misuse.
Bhattacharjee’s book takes us beyond this cliché and delves deep into the
real modus operandi of the agencies arising from other acronyms such as
Military Intelligence (MI) funds and the Annual Confidential Report (ACR).
The former play a major role in staged encounters because these
unaccounted, unaudited funds are often misused to buy ‘live kills’ by the
army and the ACR also helps the army in its illegal killings because of the
confidentiality it bestows.
But *Blood on my Hands* is also about what the author and his fraternity
have missed out in all these years of conflict or counter-insurgency
reporting. In many cases, lack of resources prevented journalists from
probing beyond the official account while in others, journalists were just
too lazy to find alternative versions. The official version, as the book
reveals, is often corrupted but reaches the public through reporters,
journalists and newsrooms accepting it without further investigation or
questioning. Knowingly or unknowingly then, the fourth pillar of Indian
democracy ends up colluding with illegal killings.
Some argue that the role of the vernacular media has been much better than
the mainstream media. Yet the book reveals startling facts about an
operational mafia in Assam and neighbouring states selling live bodies to
the security agencies which are then used as part of staged ‘encounter
killings’ which have been ignored by the regional media as much as the
An eerie silence has prevailed since the book launch and the important
points made by Bhattacharjee have been neglected. Are we afraid to talk
about this because it involves our glorified Indian army? Or because it
concerns areas like the Northeast? Or are we, as media persons, afraid to
admit that we have made blunders and therefore share a part of the guilt of
not doing enough?
Another way of looking at this silence is to say that know our failures and
there is nothing new in Bhattacharjee’s book. If that is the case, why have
so few of us made the effort to write about these failures? And, by not
confronting these failures head-on, are we not weakening the foundations of
The book reveals the links between the awards given to officers and the
‘body count’ method used by the army. It elaborates in detail how army
officers need to collect a definite number of ‘points’ to receive ranks and
gallantry awards. These ‘points’ are usually a headcount from staged
encounters of innocent civilians, mostly illegal immigrants who have no
documents on them. Bhattacharjee reveals how officers earn extra money to
buy these civilians, or ‘live kills’ by smuggling timber or narcotics and
even allowing human trafficking.
There are multiple versions of these stories and while some human rights
activists fail to comprehend that Bhattacharjee’s book is only the version
of the perpetrators, at no point in the book has he negated the fact that
there are other versions. Perhaps the book is a bit less articulate about
the fact that the encounter killings not only involve ‘purchased live
kills’ by the army and police but also many other innocent people who were
picked up at gunpoint only to return as dead bodies.
The fact that the names and details of the confessors have been kept in the
dark might raise uncomfortable questions about the authenticity of the
book. But it has to be understood that the content of the book only
surfaced in the first place on the very basis of this anonymity. While one
might argue that Bhattacharjee has failed to maintain journalistic ethics
by hiding the identities of the perpetrators, let’s not forget that even in
academic research, the identities of case studies are often concealed.
The book also yields an interesting observation, namely, that the very fact
that insurgency is in decline all over India has only made this illegal and
horrendous system of purchasing ‘live kills’ more active. Driven by the
typical middle class mentality of Indians to do well, to get more
promotions and medals by hook or by crook, this has led to forced results.
A certain number of points are needed by a unit to earn a citation and of
course each unit wants to do well and so does the commanding officer of the
unit and, in this rat race, human rights and instincts often take a
backseat. This has been a standard operating procedure all these years and
each battalion that moves out passes it on to the next as something as
commonplace as exchanging contacts.
Bhattacharjee writes: “In the army, the system of unit citations is based
on points, which are earned by eliminating militants, apprehending
militants or having militants surrender in designated counter-insurgency
areas. Thus, a unit which gets awarded a citation may land a United Nations
mission. This will earn its personnel more money and allow them to receive
other benefits. It is like a bonus granted by the government for the ‘good
work’ they have done. The ‘good work’ may include extrajudicial killings or
hosting fake surrenders of ordinary young men and women, who willingly
carry on with the charade.”
This is not in the book but Bhattacharjee has said on other occasions that
“the scale of such practice is almost 70% of all units operating”.
The book, he says, happened by chance when he came across this particular
army officer. Later, the officer agreed to confess on condition of
anonymity. According to Bhattacharjee, he confessed for two reasons: as a
form of closure for himself and because he wants this depraved practice to
end. Another serving general reportedly thanked the author, as mentioned in
the book, because he too felt that this sordid mess needs to be cleaned up.
The army officer’s confession is written in an expansive fashion with
Bhattacharjee describing their evenings together and the whisky and food
they consumed, portraying the mood and setting of the confession. So the
officer is in the middle of describing a cold blooded killing and turns to
ask Bhattacharjee ‘soda or water?’ It makes the confession even more
For anyone wanting to know the actual reality of counter-insurgency
operations in India from the perpetrator’s side, this book is essential
reading. It leaves you with unsettling questions. For one, the very fact
that the word ‘encounter’ in this part of the world means ‘illegal
killings’ in contrast to the West where it means a romantic meeting,
perhaps signifies that something in our psyche has gone badly wrong.
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