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October 4, 2009 / Tom Hill

Extra-Judicial Killings in Mumbai: Vigilante Heroes and Self-Interested Villains

A while back I posted about certain Pakistani Taliban using trained suicide bombers as a business opportunity for settling family scores, and how this echoes similar dynamics in many other cases. Another interesting case has come to light in India, reported in the New York Times. There has been a longstanding practice of police killing suspects in serious crime, but at the NYT explains:

Known euphemistically as “encounter killings,” such extrajudicial executions have been a tolerated and even celebrated method of dealing swiftly with crime in a country with a notoriously slow and sometimes corrupt judiciary. An officer in such cases invariably “encounters” a suspect and kills him, supposedly in self-defense.

In cities like Mumbai, which was for decades gripped by violent organized crime syndicates, officers who killed notorious gangland figures were often seen as dark folk heroes, selflessly carrying out the messy business of meting out justice. These officers, known as encounter specialists, became celebrities, even boasting about the number of gangsters they had killed.

But Indians have become increasingly wary of police officers crusading as judge, jury and executioner. Since 2006, 346 people have been killed in what seem to have been extrajudicial police killings, according to the National Human Rights Commission.

In many of these killings, investigations have found, the motive was not vigilante justice. The police often staged such killings for personal gain: bumping off a rival of a powerful politician in the hopes of a big promotion; killing a crime boss at the behest of one of his rivals; settling scores between businessmen.

Just as the Chilean government and certain other Latin American regimes used the threat of terrorism as a cover for the covert mass murder of dissidents, so too (as in this case) can police and politicians use the threat of organised crime to cover their own malicious activities for shoring up power and personal aggrandisement.

It is quite remarkable how whenever there is some form of regularity in the application of violence, where violence comes to serve an institutional function (whether in a civil war situation where collaborators are denounced and dealt with, or in a crime environment where violence plays a role in criminal or police enforcement), there consistently emerges cases of individuals abusing that institutional regularity to cover the pursuit of very different covert interests. It is the sheer frequency in the recurrence of this phenomenon that I find remarkable, but most of all makes me highly pessimistic about human political nature.


Leave a Comment
  1. vanderleun / Oct 5 2009 02:44

    Not remarkable in the least and it goes far beyond the coy context of “human *political* nature.”

  2. Tom Hill / Oct 5 2009 08:48

    Perhaps you’re right Vanderleun, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by this kind of thing. However, robustly nomothetic features of social activity in violent contexts are very rare (at least in the views of people like me who’ve spent some time studying the sheer variety of war zones), so I naturally consider it unusual when the evidence suggests the plausibility of positivist conclusions regarding complex human behaviour in conflict situations.

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