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25 August, 2010

There is no cure for illusions, AHRC reminds India

The following is a statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong:

The expectation of the Union Home Minister, Mr. P. Chidambaram that the ordinary citizens will come forward to assist law enforcement officers in combating armed militancy and terrorism is unfortunately an illusion. The minister was reiterating his wish and request to his fellow citizens while addressing the top police officers of the country in a meeting organised by the home ministry in New Delhi, today. The Prime Minister is also expected to address the two-day meeting, convened to discuss about terrorism and armed militancy.

It is true that the Union Home Ministry has been consistent in its position of inviting armed groups operating in the country for discussions with the government to end extremist militancy, particularly of the extreme leftist origin. The approach, in theory, indicates the maturity of a government and underscores the importance of dialogue to resolve issues within a democratic framework. It is unfortunate that the Naxalites operating in the country have refused to accept the call, though they have their own reasons to trash the government's requests for dialogues.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is of the opinion that the Naxalites and other armed militia are merely exploiting democratic failures. Unfortunately in India, the list of issues open for exploitation is quite a few, ranging from poverty and malnutrition to loss of livelihood options and brutal forms of caste based discrimination. For a detailed analysis of the issue please read 'Naxalites and Maoists exploit democratic failures', published on May 19, 2010 and 'Maoists will not save the country's poor' published on April 7, 2010.

While it is the duty of a citizen to assist the government and its various agencies to counter anti-national activities, it is equally a citizen's right to expect that the government execute its democratic mandate as promised by the constitution. The government of India has largely failed thus far in complying with this mandate, and governments' failures consistently exploited by corrupt politicians and law enforcement agencies throughout the country.

For instance, the public perception of a police officer is that of a uniformed criminal, paid by the exchequer. The practice of torture is consistent and widespread in the country. In places like Jammu and Kashmir and Manipur, extrajudicial executions - encounter killings as it is referred to in India - is rampant. Witness protection is impossible in India due to the absence of any legal framework to provide protection to persons who are willing to depose in courts against criminals.

Going by the widely accepted definition of terrorism - premeditated use or threat of use of violence to obtain political, religious, or ideological ends - the Chief Minister of Manipur, Mr. Okram Ibobi Singh and his government could be prosecuted for engaging in terror acts. So is the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Mr. Narendra Modi, who allegedly masterminded the Gujarat pogrom of 2002.

While in Gujarat, the state police was plentifully used to facilitate what could be defined as genocide of Muslims, in Manipur, the state police have become a synonym of terror. Yet, those responsible for injuring and murdering citizens at the behest of their political masters and for sheer corrupt means have been largely left free and allowed to continue in their service. While some police officers in Gujarat faced investigation and prosecution, in Manipur none has been prosecuted yet, though every day the state police, in what is often claimed as encounter killing, reportedly murder some one or the other.

The very fact that despite the murder of an estimated 700 'suspected terrorists' each year in Manipur by the security agencies, armed militancy in that state has not reduced. Going by the state government's own reports, armed militancy in the state has instead increased over the past two years. In this backdrop there are also serious allegations against Ibobi and his government that the Chief Minister is posing terrorism as a means to extract money from the central government in the pretext of countering it.

The extrajudicial executions carried out by the Manipur state police is suspected to be undertaken at the behest of the Chief Minister and his political allies to prove to the union government that they need money to counter terrorism and the statutory impunity in the form of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 to prevent the security agencies from being investigated or prosecuted for their criminal acts. The union government's financial aid that amounts to several millions of rupees each year to the state governments does not require to be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, leaving it to be spend at the absolute whims of the state government.

While the tax money is spent in such fashion, the law enforcement agencies, particularly the state police, continues to remain one of the worst in the world. True, the Indian police might be better in comparison to some of their counterparts in the region. But Indians definitely disserve better.

Yet, it is no one's concern in India to address deep-rooted organisational and performance issues concerning police. Political parties of all colours continue to meticulously resist any attempt to free the police from political control. The police on the other hand let the politicians exploit them and have unilaterally declared their perpetual servitude to the politicians since they also benefit from the resultant cycle of corruption and nepotism. The furore in the Indian parliament about the nuclear bill was not visible when the Torture Prevention Bill 2010 was discussed. On the contrary legislators of all colours tried to water down the already week law. This important piece of legislation is useless if it is enacted in the current form.

The national media also have ignored the subject. There was literally no discussion at all about the proposed Bill against torture in the national press when the Bill was debated in the lower house of the Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha. Today the Bill is pending consideration of the upper house of the parliament, the Rajya Sabha. Yet, none is interested in raising this issue. Those who lament that democracy warrants public discussions on proposed legislations through media articles have remained silent about the complete lack of discussion about the proposed law against torture.

On the contrary, state legislations like the Kerala Police Bill, 2010 are drafted with utter disregard to human rights and fundamental guarantees provided in the constitution. The Union Home Minister has among his participants, Mr. Jacob Punnoose, the author of this unique law, that if enacted will allow even police constables to breach basic privacy of the citizens guaranteed in the constitution. This proposed law too, has been tabled in the state legislative assembly without any public discussion, and trashing a better law proposed by the Kerala Law Reforms Commission chaired by none other than Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer.

The logical question is why is this law against torture so important and what is its connection to the depleting national security? Rampant use of torture is the singular tool with which the police have generated fear among the citizens, that the average citizen today fears to approach the police even when they are in need. It is the absence of a proper investigating and prosecuting mechanism against torture that lets the police resort to torture even in cases where they can investigate crimes with whatever little training and facilities the police have in India today.

While international condemnation of torture today is as serious as that against genocide and other crimes against humanity, a large section of police officers in India today still believe that torturing a suspect is their right and that torture is a legitimate form of punishment and tool for crime investigation. These officers receive support from legislators with the 18th century mindset like Mr. K. Radhakrishnan, the current Speaker of the Kerala Legislative Assembly, who has repeatedly addressed police officers assuring them that in a country like India, third degree methods are required to police the people and that human rights is an 'occupational hazard' for the police.

While expecting and requesting support from the common citizens, the Union Home Minister must also bear in mind that the people from whom the government expects support are so alienated from their police due to the fear the police have generated among the people. For the citizenry there is hardy any difference between the colonial police and that of independent India. Though 1950 gave Indians a democratic socialist republic, the republic still carries the burden of having to be administered with the police and their political masters who operate with a coloniser's mindset.

Calling for people's participation without clearly articulated and enforced police reforms will only result in retarded response from the citizenry. Unless affirmative and visible steps are taken to change the unacceptable status quo, expecting the citizens to perform their duty while the state agencies engage in brutal crimes is sheer illusion.

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