Sunshine India: Encounter Killings, Torture and Custodial Deaths.
October 11, 2006
C R Sridhar
The Ruling elite of our nation is in the grip of delusions of grandeur. The GDP growth rate of 8% is trotted out as a sign that India is on the threshold of becoming an economic superpower. A bright future awaits India with its revitalized economic policy of liberalization, privatization and an open door policy of attracting foreign capital. A new animal energy is infusing corporate India, which is headed for gigantic growth propelled by innovation and its ability to create anything from nanoparticles to giant rockets. It appears that India's tryst with destiny is unstoppable.
To the less gullible, the picture appears less rosy as India is in the throes of a shocking agrarian crisis fuelled by falling returns from agriculture coupled with debt and crop failure. More disturbing is the violence that the State inflicts on its citizens through encounter killings, police torture and custodial deaths.
Though the Left party has questioned the gains of the new economic policy formulated by the UPA government, there appears to be very little concern about gross human rights violations, which occur throughout the country. While there have been impassioned debates for the Washington consensus favouring MNC's in the media, there has been at best a token concern for the marginalized poor facing police brutality on a day to day basis.
There is deafening silence in our media about the fact that though India has signed the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), there has been no ratification on the pretext that existing laws have adequate provisions to prevent torture, in addition to constitutional safeguards.
Respect for human rights is the sine qua non of any civilized society and the disrespect for human rights is inimical to civil liberties granted to its citizens by the state. By this standard, the Indian State lamentably fails and is a cause for concern for those who value civil liberties. The prevalence of torture and other human rights violations occurs both in communist and non-communist states in India. Both the states of West Bengal and Kerala have witnessed police brutality even with the Left parties in power.
The Amnesty International in its report dated 10-08-2001 about torture in West Bengal observed, "Police are being urged to use whatever means necessary to deal with crime and are often allowed to use torture as a substitute for investigations, while action is rarely taken against the perpetrators. This system of policing is having little if any impact on crime." CPI (M) leader Benoy Konar, defending police brutality once said, "It must be viewed whether police is carrying out torture with a correct aim or an incorrect aim...In a class divided society, the police has the duty of carrying out repression.... You [journalists] have the pen in your hands, the police has the stick." Hence, it would be a mistake to view human rights abuse from an ideological perspective.
The wide prevalence of encounter deaths or extra-judicial killings at the hands of the police has been documented by human rights organizations and remains a part of our dark history in post independent India. A study conducted by the Asia Pacific Human Rights Network noted that encounter killings were not isolated incidents but occurred throughout India. They are part of a "deliberate and conscious state administrative practice" for which successive Indian governments must bear responsibility. Indeed, successive Indian governments have adopted a de facto policy sanctioning extra-judicial killings by members of the police forces, army and security personnel.
The most horrific examples include the operations against Naxalite movements in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and the operations against Punjab extremists. Tamil Nadu and Kerala committed the excesses of encounter killing during the days of Emergency. The Vimadlal Commission took the lid off so-called encounters in Andhra Pradesh during the mid-1970s. Uttar Pradesh is noted for it's encounter deaths and this has assumed alarming proportions in recent times. The paramilitary operations in Jammu & Kashmir, Manipur and Assam cause grave concern as human rights activists report wide spread instances of encounter killings, rape and torture of militant suspects.
The complicity of State and Central governments in encounter killings could be gleaned by the fact that they do not vigorously conduct prosecution of the guilty nor is the investigation thorough to bring the guilty to book. The National Human Rights Commission has not proved very effective in checking encounter killings, as it's recommendations are not implemented by the State and Central governments. The guidelines issued by the NHRC in matters regarding encounter killings are rarely followed.
The long delays in courts in prosecuting the guilty police personnel creates a climate of impunity for such crimes to flourish. The governments also reward policemen or paramilitary personnel, which actually encourage encounter killing. The compensation paid to the surviving members of the victims murdered by the police personnel remains a pittance.
The use of torture and third degree methods against suspects in police lockups remains standard operating procedure in post-Independence India. Human Rights organizations note that torture is used against secessionist groups, against suspects belonging to the poorer sections of our society for extracting confessions and bribes and also used as extra-legal punishment (teach you a lesson).
In areas such as Jammu & Kashmir, there exist a number of detention cells where militant suspects are beaten and electric torture is meted out as routine punishment and to extract confessions or information. The methods of torture vary. For instance, in Assam, Jammu & Kashmir and Punjab (particularly in areas where the Punjab police or Punjab paramilitary units operate) dislocation of ball and socket of the suspect appears to be the preferred mode of torture.
Sometimes the choice is more eclectic with a judicious combination of aeroplane treatment (tying the hands of the suspect behind his back and suspending him over a beam, leading to shoulder dislocation), electric torture with cattle prod and roller treatment (crushing the muscles of the suspect with a wooden log being rolled on his leg). Of course, beating of suspects with belts and lathis is standard fare in most police lockups. Human Rights groups have recorded cases involving rape and sexual humiliation of woman suspects.
While the reported cases of custodial deaths are increasing in India, statistics are difficult to come by, as there is government apathy to transparency. However, on 12th May 2006, The Indian Evidence (Amendment) Bill, 2006 was introduced in the Rajya Sabha with a view to curb custodial deaths. The amendment provides the presumption that when a suspect dies in police custody it is presumed that the police have caused the death and the onus of proof rests on the policemen to prove their innocence. While the amendment is certainly a welcome change in official attitude towards custodial deaths, it remains to be seen whether it would be effectively implemented in the courts.
Human Rights activists have also warned against Anti-terrorism and security laws in India as facilitating human right abuse by primarily targeting lower castes and minority communities. The security laws abuse specially targeted groups by prolonging detention without trial and by inflicting torture, which is responsible for custodial deaths.
On September 25, 2006, the Committee on International Human Rights of the New York City Bar Association released a report, Anti-Terrorism and Security Laws in India, calling on the Indian government to limit its application of anti-terrorism laws. The report notes "Attentiveness to these human rights concerns is not simply a moral and legal imperative, but also a crucial strategic imperative. As the Supreme Court of India has recognized, 'terrorism often thrives where human rights are violated' and '[t] he lack of hope for justice provides breeding grounds for terrorism.'"
The report chillingly concludes that the sweeping powers given to the authority in such enactments as TADA [Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act], POTA [Prevention of Terrorism Act], and UAPA [Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act], were used predominantly not to prosecute and punish actual terrorists, but rather as a tool that enabled pervasive use of preventive detention and a variety of abuses by the police, including extortion and torture.
Another unpopular act called the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act has been sharply criticized for its 'oppression and high-handedness' by the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee and has asked for the scrapping of this draconian law. This act (AFPSA) was the rallying point of widespread protests in Manipur and in other parts of North East as it offered immunity to the army personnel guilty of indiscriminately killing innocent people.
Legislation to eradicate torture, encounter killings and custodial deaths may be effective up to a point and may decrease human rights abuse marginally. But laws need the backing of robust public opinion to be fully effective. Here, Sunshine India is seriously flawed. The middle class and the upper class seem to be totally self-absorbed in greed creed and its consumerist pretensions.
Moreover, there is wide acceptance of 'tough police tactics' by the middle and upper classes. The issues of liberalism, values for a just and humane society do not resonate well with this class. Instead there is, in the words of Praful Bidwai, a social commentator, "growing illiberalism and intolerance... lack of moral clarity among large sections of middle class on issues of justice, fairness, pluralism, secularism and other constitutional values, leave alone compassion for the underprivileged."
With public opinion fragmented, human rights violations would continue unchecked with the brunt of abuse borne by the marginalized poor. A prospect, which we must admit, bodes ill for our Republic.