Politics on bloodshed against the backdrop of an MP wedding

A wildlife hunt staged on May 14 to feed guests at a wedding party in Guna district of Madhya Pradesh turned into a deadly incident when suspected poachers who had killed five black bucks shot dead three policemen who had gone to arrest them. Police killed three of the poachers while two were arrested; two others were at large when the report was filed.

The incident also took a political turn, with Congress and BJP leaders accusing each other of association with the poachers. Attacked by the “deterioration of law and order”, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan called an emergency meeting and announced that strict measures would be taken in the matter.

Details of the shooting or how it started are sketchy as there are no independent witnesses to the incident. Authorities are trying to piece together what really happened on the fateful night. What is known, however, is that Deputy Inspector Rajkumar Jatav had received reports that armed men had been seen in the Sherok Jungle near the village of Saga Barkheda in Guna. Jatav, accompanied by four policemen, left in a vehicle. He dropped off two constables to establish a ‘cut off’ point – a procedure adopted when something like an ambush is set.

Seven men on four bicycles arrived at where Jatav and two other police officers were waiting. Afterwards, it is unclear how the shooting began. The official version is that gunfire took place between the poachers and the police, resulting in the death of Jatav and Constables Santram Meena and Neeraj Bhargava, while the body of one of the poachers, Naushad, was found on next day. A police INSAS rifle with ammunition was reported missing, later recovered from a well.

The same evening (May 14), Shehzad Khan, one of the seven accused and Naushad’s brother, was shot dead by the police not far from the scene of the incident. On May 15, two other defendants, Zia Khan and Sonu, were arrested. According to the police, the vehicle used to transport Zia Khan and Sonu had gone off the road. The duo allegedly tried to flee and were shot in the legs.

On May 17, Chotu Khan, another defendant, was killed during an “encounter” with police near Dharnawda. A country-made pistol was recovered from him. Naushad’s father, Nisar Khan, and his son Siraj, whose daughter was to be married, were also arrested for conspiring to hide Naushad’s body and the stolen INSAS rifle. Two other defendants, Gullu Khan and Vicky, were at large when the report was filed.

While the final ballistics and forensic report is awaited, it appears the shooting took place at close quarters. Naushad appears to have been killed by a 9mm pistol used by the police while the officers were killed with a licensed 12 gauge shotgun, allegedly belonging to Shehzad.

Politically, BJP leaders including State Unit Chairman VD Sharma have accused Raghogarh MP Jaivardhan Singh and Congress leader Digvijaya Singh of links to the poachers. Congress retaliated by alleging an association between the poachers and Minister of State Mahendra Singh Sisodia, who is an MP from neighboring Bamori constituency. Congress demanded that details of the poachers’ calls be made public to reveal who they had asked for help. Then BJP leaders on May 17 made a misstep by posting photos of a Raghogarh youth with MP Jaivardhan Singh and falsely claiming he was one of the accused. Most of the allegations and counter-allegations are based on group photos taken at various events with politicians and prove nothing.

The incident exposed a number of flaws that were clouded by political slander. First, the killing of five black males in one evening suggests that poaching is rampant. The Forest Department, whose primary responsibility is to protect wildlife, was nowhere at the scene when the incident happened. Second, the police are clearly not trained to deal with situations where criminals shoot at them. The handling and use of weapons seems extremely poor. The fact that the poachers may have done better, even if the police had sophisticated weapons, and even carried a police weapon suggests that much needs to be done to prepare the police to react to such situations.

Black fallow deer populations in the MP have grown rapidly as public awareness of the animal’s protection has improved since the 1990s, particularly after the 1998 black fallow deer hunting case against the actor Salman Khan. Since the animal, which is protected by Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, inhabits revenue areas and agricultural fields and not forests, it is not counted in the wildlife census, which only takes place on forest land. Obviously, the forest department does not protect what is not in its inventory.

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