India: Police shoot dead a Muslim man in custody

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Accused of theft, 25 year old Shehbaz was shot as he allegedly tried to escape the police vehicle after the vehicle stopped to let some cattle pass

A young Muslim man from Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh, Shehbaz, was shot dead while the police were transporting him to a local court. He was suspected by the police of murdering Professor Alok Gupta and injuring several family members during a robbery earlier this week. The UP Police allege that they shot at him in self-defence as he tried to escape custody and shoot at the police.

The incident Shebaz was accused of took place on Tuesday morning this week in the Katra area of the town when a group of thieves entered the home of Alok Gupta, a trader and assistant professor, according to the police. When the Gupta family resisted the suspects resorted to violence and began stabbing them with knives. Alok Gupta succumbed to his injuries while being treated in a neighbouring district, Bareilly. Other injured family members are still undergoing medical care.

After the murder of Gupta, the area was visibly agitated. Traders from the area mobilised in large numbers and gathered at the Gupta residence and demanded swift action from the police. The local traders’ union even threatened to shut down all shops in the vicinity. According to reports, the crowd has demanded for the houses of the accused to be demolished via bulldozer.

Here is a video from UP Tak showing the events.

 

Inspector General of Police, Bareilly, Rakesh Singh arrived to address the crowd and reassured them of the strictest possible action against those responsible for the murder. Following this, the police arrested the suspect, Shahbaz, who was a resident of Mohalla Sarai in Katra. They also soon recovered the alleged murder weapon at his direction, according to Shahjahanpur Superintendent of Police Ashok Kumar Meena.

Shehbaz was being escorted to court following a medical examination on the evening of the incident when a stray animal blocked the path of the police jeep on a highway near Batlaiya village, causing the vehicle to lose balance. Inspector Meena recounted that police reinforcements were swiftly called in. During this, Shehbaz is said to have escaped the vehicle and tried to escape custody and also shot at the officers. Police have alleged that repeated warnings were issued to Shehbaz urging him to surrender. However, he allegedly opened fire on the police, prompting officers to return fire in self-defence. Local news reports also allege that a second suspect, Shehroz, was also injured in the firing. However, the police have denied this.

 

Therefore in this exchange of gunfire Shehbaz is said to have sustained injuries and was rushed to a community health centre where the doctors declared him brought dead. Shebaz was an e-rickshaw driver and is noted to have lived in a small sarai near the house of Alok Gupta.

An FIR has been filed at the Katra police station, invoking sections 307 (pertaining to attempted murder), 120B (related to criminal conspiracy), and 397 (involving robbery or dacoity with an intent to cause death or grievous harm) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

For the acts of the police, a reward of Rs 25,000 from the district police and an additional Rs 50,000 from the state government has been announced by the government.

The incident has left the public with questions arising about the circumstances surrounding Shehbaz’s death during police custody. Custodial violence and murders are not out of the ordinary. In fact, in India they are called colloquially as ‘encounters’. UP in particular has a particularly poor track record when it comes to extra judicial killings. According to a report by the Indian Express from last May 2023 an alarming number of killings have emerged in Uttar Pradesh since March 2017 when Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath assumed office. According to the newspaper, the state has witnessed a staggering 186 encounters during this period which has translated to more than one alleged fatal shooting by the police approximately every 15 days.

As per a Sabrang India report from July 2023, the Ministry of Home Affairs has informed the Rajya Sabha about a troubling surge in custodial deaths nationwide. The data revealed a disturbing trend where custodial deaths have witnessed a staggering increase of over 60% in the past three years. Even more alarming is the fact that over the last two years, this increase has spiked to a concerning 75%. In Uttar Pradesh custodial deaths have in fact doubled in number.

The Centre also reported in 2021 the staggering figure of 1840 deaths in judicial custody and about a 100 in police custody nationwide, between 2020-21. What is further concerning is that the Muslims and Dalits, both falling at the lower rungs of society, are most vulnerable to violence. Inherent bias within the police has also been observed as about every second Indian cop thinks that Muslims are prone to crime. These disturbing figures have raised serious concerns about the law and order situation and the future of democratic rights in the country.