Six policemen were wilting in the sun outside the house of the murdered Delhi detective, Rajbir Singh. There was no one at home, the khaki-clad men said, the family were still at his village, still grieving over the loss of one of India most controversial policemen.
What could you call it but irony? When he was killed this week – shot in the back of the head by a long-time friend who owed him money – Mr Singh's police bodyguards had been sent back to the police station. It was a fatal error by a man who was no stranger to the deadly Delhi underworld.
The death of Mr Singh has done more than leave his children without a father. It has drawn fresh attention on the phenomenon of so-called encounter killings, a practice operating at best on the very outside edges of the law in which police "encounter" and kill suspected criminals in "self-defence". Championed by a public tired with the ineffectiveness and slow pace of the judicial system, these official vigilantes have been widely celebrated by popular culture, and there are at least half a dozen Bollywood movies about such officers. Pradeep Sharma, a Mumbai officer who has shot dead more than 100 alleged suspects, once said: "Criminals are filth and I'm the cleaner."
The burly, moustachioed Rajbir Singh was the Dirty Harry of Delhi, and perhaps the best-known "encounter specialist" in India's teeming capital. His ruthless eradication of at least 45 possible criminals won him rapid promotion to Additional Commissioner of Police, but then he was apparently set aside as someone too controversial for the present climate.
The man said to sleep with a .38 revolver in his pocket, first shot dead a suspect in 1995 and this set him on the fast-track and ensured his transfer to the Special Cell, the Delhi police unit dedicated to counter-terrorism.
Mr Singh shot his way to five awards for gallantry and was lionised by a media to whom he provided gripping copy. He was credited with several crucial coups, which included the arrest of four men blamed for a terrorist attack on the national parliament in December 2001 within hours of the incident.
But many of his encounters were far more controversial. In 2002 for instance, after his team shot dead two suspected terrorists at a Delhi shopping mall, a witness came forward to say he had seen the police bring the men to the car park and shoot them. Even his daughter apparently stopped talking to him after this.
Human rights campaigners have been increasingly outspoken about the practice, especially about the allegations of fake encounters in which police are said to simply shoot suspects dead without giving them a chance to surrender.
Worse, there are allegations that in some cases police have murdered suspects already in custody, then fixed the evidence to make it appear they died in a shoot-out with officers. "Since we were established in 1993, we have been giving guidelines to try to stop encounters," said M L Aneja, a legal officer with the National Commission for Human Rights, which has filed several legal actions against police. "And we issue guidelines about how investigations into these cases should be operated, always by an independent body."
This week, Mr Singh's senior officers defended him, saying he had been cleared by investigations after all his shootings. "When you go to intercept gangsters, if they fire at you, you defend by shooting back," said Ashok Chand, police superintendent for the Andaman Islands, who had been Mr Singh's boss in Delhi.
Crime reporters say encounter killings began in the late 1960s to deal with Maoist militants and reached a height in the 1990s. "The conviction rate in India is just 50 per cent; in Delhi it may be 55 per cent," said a crime reporter with a leading Indian newspaper who asked not to be identified. "So people are upset about the judicial system and feel criminals are getting the benefit of the doubt." The reporter said he believed that in some encounter cases, the intelligence services tipped off police about the location of suspected militants. "They feel if they go to court, these terrorists will get off."
Public opinion supports people like Mr Singh, who followed his father into the police force after being rejected by the Indian army because of his poor hearing. A poll yesterday by Delhi's Hindustan Times suggested 77 per cent of people support encounters. The poll also found that about 80 per cent of people believed encounter specialists such as Mr Singh should be treated as heroes.
Given the special protection Mr Singh had – a pair of bodyguards, a second car following his vehicle wherever he went and a specially defended home built for him in Delhi – the circumstances of his death were all the more peculiar.
Last Monday, he had gone to the offices of Vijay Bhardwaj, a property dealer with whom Mr Singh had been friendly for 20 years. The dealer owed Mr Singh money and the officer had gone to collect his cash at Mr Bhardwaj's office in Gurgaon, a satellite city of Delhi. Mr Bhardwaj told Mr Singh's bodyguards to report back to the police station, then Mr Bhardwaj apparently walked behind his friend and shot him in the head. That night he confessed in front of television cameras, saying: "I did it with the revolver Rajbir gave me last Friday."
Despite a slew of conspiracy theories, including the purported claim of responsibility from a celebrated underworld figure believed to be living in South-east Asia, police are not looking for anyone else, after arresting Mr Bhardwaj.
Those working next to Mr Bhardwaj's shuttered real estate office – the steps still smeared with blood – could also offer little insight to what the newspapers described as Mr Singh's final encounter. Rajender Singh, an insurance broker, said: "Everybody is very shocked."Reuse content