A version of this article originally appeared on VICE India
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"If you want the best stories, go meet Surya Kumar Shukla. He's very dabbang [fearless]," a security officer at Lucknow's police headquarters told me. Shukla was one of India's "encounter specialists". Before he retired, he was part of a team of police who investigate and confront suspected gangsters and terrorists.
It took a couple of days to set up, but Shukla finally let us into his living room, walls adorned with pictures of him posing with various political players from the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Stuffing our faces with motichoor ladoos, I asked him about serving in nearly every district of India's largest state, carrying out over 100 "encounters" and the psychology of doing so.
VICE: So how does an encounter take place?
Surya Kumar Shukla: I'll explain with an example. There was an incident where we killed four criminals in the rocky terrain between Etawah and Bhind in 1992. We found out there was a gang resting there, because that area is difficult to traverse. They had kidnapped four people from Agra. They didn't know that the police actually incentivised inspectors in the area to capture criminals, as only those who were interested and knowledgeable about the terrain were stationed there.
We went there at night, to stay out of sight of their spotter. We came to know that they had chained the kidnapped people to trees using the chain normally used to control bulls. We had surrounded them, but our movement gave away the element of surprise and they started firing in the air. There were nearly 20 of us, and we responded back by firing in the air. They then started shooting at us and we lunged for cover. We crawled towards them and kept shooting a light pistol in the air for some visual aide. Usually dacoits [armed bandits] get way more practice shooting than the police, but we got lucky in that they didn’t have their best shooters that time, since they were just waiting for money to exchange hands. The encounter went on for an hour and we ended up killing all of them.
Did you kill someone that night?
You never know that for sure. There were 20 of us: five in front and 15 at the back. When they fired at us, the 15 fired back. It becomes very difficult to ascertain ki meri goli lagi ya teri goli lagi (did my bullet hit the person or did someone else’s?). After an encounter the police count the number of used cartridges, but during an encounter, very rarely do you come to know who ends up shooting whom. It’s very chaotic.
You were 20 against four; why was that encounter so long?
People not in the know ask us that. They even tell us to shoot a little "up" or "down" and kill criminals more easily. That’s not how it goes. When the bullet leaves the gun, especially old ones, it moves a lot during recoil. Even if it moves a centimetre it reaches the target 10 metres higher, lower or sideways than intended; that’s why it takes time. Only the great ones, the snipers, get it right almost every time; they're the ones who practice shooting regularly. People like Olympic medalist Abhinav Bindra shoot every day, and only then can people develop such control.
How often do the police practice?
Well, the police don’t have enough bullets to practice regularly! Usually they get one practice session a year, with 30 bullets; and one hopes they’ll only use [a gun] when it’s needed, as it’s very expensive. It’s why our fire isn’t very controlled. We shoot a lot in encounters, hoping some of the bullets hit.
When you’re shooting, you’re shooting to kill. What does that feel like?
In an encounter, we function on a philosophy – that a person who has murdered others, kidnapped others, is listed in multiple crime [sheets], and living in a jungle, will continue doing so in the coming months. Some of them have 45 to 60 cases on record. They are the snakes of society, and if left alone they will bite others.
Don’t you get scared?
The fear dies once you keep doing the same thing again and again. Like you, I felt weird when I saw a burnt dead body, a swollen one floating in the water. Her body had bloated in the water, but the jewellery she was wearing hadn't changed size, so the jewellery had cut through her body. The first time I saw [a dead body], it was that of a victim of a dowry death. I had just been made a Commanding Officer in 1984-85. This girl had been first hanged from a fan, then burnt alive. Her tongue was inflated and sticking out, her body was black, like the image of Kali maa brought to life. We take out bodies like these, and we get scared. But when you do this again and again, you get hardened. After encounters, too, we carry out bodies of people we know we have killed. Slowly, your conscience loses fear and sensitivity, but gains strength. Similarly, when you fight criminals, you see them die, and watch your fellow policemen die too. Often officers of my rank are shot and killed in encounters, hit with bombs. The last one was in Chitrakoot in 2010, when an Inspector General (IG) not far from me was hit with a grenade in an encounter. How will you fight criminals if you aren’t mentally and emotionally strong? You’ll just pass out.
Why are there so many encounters in UP? 1,100 in the last year alone…
Uttar Pradesh is not only a large state, but you must have noticed it’s a very alive place. Whatever people do here, they do it with spirit. There are many dacoits here, but there are also many krantikaris [revolutionaries]. People like Bhagat Singh were born in Lucknow. Chandrashekhar Azad in Unnao. Mangal Pandey in Baliya.
There is a tradition of rebellion in many parts of UP. There are many rivers in India, but why are the dacoits of Chambal valley the most famous? There is something in the water of Chambal river, a tradition of the area, that a son will follow his father even if he’s a dacoit. The geography, the fact that it’s difficult to reach or access, is also important.
They don’t call themselves criminals, they call themselves baghi, or rebels of the system. In their eyes, taking revenge from punitive zamindars [landowners] is genuine, so they fight them, kill them too. The jungle is their home, so they stay there and don’t leave the area. They help with the weddings of people’s children, help with their loans, and so the locals also love them, like in the Daduan area.
There isn’t a big difference between a usual criminal, a dacoit or an extremist leader. They want the same thing: to ensure their survival and further the goals of their group. To accomplish this, they go to any length.
Tell me about dacoits.
They operated in Agra, Etawah, Farukabad, Jalaun, Chitrakoot, Chambal when I was an SSP [Superintendent of Police] from the late 1980s to the mid 2000s. The famous ones were Nirbhaya Gujjar in Etawah, who gave statements from the jungle about his political connections. Others were the Lalaram-Shriram gang, Kusuma Nain, Phoolan Devi and Tahsildar Singh.
I had youthful energy then, so I used to pick up weapons and take people to the jungle to chase down dacoits. I learnt that hunting them down is difficult the hard way. They used to buy people from local kidnappers from places as far as Delhi and Kolkata. For example, they’d buy them for Rs 1 lakh. The kidnapped was called pakad or "the catch". They would then take them to jungles. Now they can keep people for longer in jungles, since the police take time to come there. And when the police do come, they don’t fire quickly. Their strength lies in hiding in dense forests, and placing snipers up top. They don’t fire first, to avoid giving away their position. Often they used horses in the forests, because nothing else could go in there. It’s why Bombay’s films also depicted dacoits on horses.
Do you remember an encounter with a dacoit on a horse?
In 1995, when I was Farukabad’s SSP, a mukhbir [informant] came to us at around 4PM. Informants are competitive and greedy, because the police pays whoever gets correct information. This one told us that, near the border of Badauin and Farukabad, a gang would come on horses to deal with an issue. That was my first experience with a horse. The informant had a trustworthy background, so we went to the area. Usually we take three times the police of the expected number of dacoits. We were told there would be five, but we took 20 people. We traversed the jungle through the night. You can’t even use a torch as it gives away your position, so we walked slowly in a human chain. The informant walked in front, because he knew the area. When we reached the place, we divided the group into two and laid on the floor at around midnight.
We heard some movement, and the informant told us that the dacoits had arrived. Now, we can’t just kill them; they could be innocent people on errands going for medicine or something. So we screamed, Khabardaar tum charo taraf se ghir chuke ho. Tum saare ke saare bhoon deiye jaaoge ["You’re surrounded on all four sides. Surrender quickly, or you’ll be killed."] We knew that if we can catch them alive, they can give us information on other gangs, so we didn’t want to shoot first. And because we were speaking from multiple spots in different directions, they thought we had a lot of force, and so they surrendered.
The problem started when we rounded them up and started taking their weapons from them. The horses got scared and started running in all directions. So we had to ask them to catch the horses and get up on them with police personnel. We brought them back to a nearby police station on foot. We put the dacoits in jail, but didn’t know what to do with the horses. They needed to be fed, so we had to let go of the dacoits and send them handcuffed to arrange the feed.
We got officials from nearby villages as well to figure out what to do with the horses. We didn’t know the law surrounding captured horses. We then took them into custody outside the police station and were told we could use them for local travel. The horses were later auctioned off.
You’ve also acted in some movies. Are police allowed to do that?
It was in 2004, when Bhojpuri star Manoj Tiwary was acting in a film. He contacted me about playing a police officer. He knew me, and usually not many people sign up for something like this. The film was Sasura Bada Paisawala, and I played the role of a police officer fighting a dacoit. They thought I displayed an artistic temperament, and was successful in the police force, so I would be good for the job.
There was another film called Gundairaj. It was smaller, made in 2010, and in it I played a police officer again. Also in a film called Daroga Babu. They weren’t long shoots as I just made guest appearances. I didn’t need a lot of practice, since it was like my usual work, so we wrapped up both in a day each. But I couldn't go for the dubbing in Mumbai as I didn’t have time.
If it’s a cultural activity, the police are allowed to partake, as long as we don’t oppose any view of the establishment. There are many policemen who sing well, write poetry. I really liked these experiences, so I directed a movie, UP Police in Action. It was about the stories of police in different zones and how they react to murders and robberies and solved them. It showed the real stories of police successes.
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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.