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25 June, 2013

The pain of progress: Torture and India's culture of oppression

by Vivian Ng

The United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture observed around the world on June 26 serves as a sober reminder of the reality that this ugly side of humanity is still very much alive in our contemporary and supposedly civilized society. It is a reality that is even harder to grapple with in democratic societies which preach the ideals of equality of freedom, dignity and justice.

India is often dubbed the world's largest democracy, and it has a remarkable space for civil society engagement. Yet, democratic progress has to be thought of as a process, for which India is still on its way towards the democratic ideals that it speaks of. As the country moves towards democracy, there are still many remnants of undemocratic practices which continue to plague India and hinder its pace of progress. Torture is but one of the many serious problems that plagues India till today.

The culture of oppression stemming from the caste system has perpetuated and infiltrated modern India and its existing institutions, because that system of discrimination has not been completely weeded out and also because that culture reinforced over so many years is deeply ingrained in Indian society. This culture of oppression coupled with a weak institutional set-up has provided the ideal conditions for a practice like torture to grow and even to thrive. Instead of having firm laws in place to prevent and punish such crimes against humanity, torture has been cultivated as a policing tool, as a preferred method in criminal investigation because it is perceived to be most efficient and effective.

With corruption as its political culture, torture is a useful tool for controlling what people say or not. This enables the ruling elite to maintain the power balance and existing power structure. Instead of ruling by law, policy makers choose to rule by fear because there is a perverse belief that a country like India cannot be administrated without torture. There is a lack of adequate training, equipment and facilities for law enforcement agencies, and in its place, high levels of impunity exist to protect criminal police who use torture for extortion and corruption.

India has signed but has not ratified the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment 1984. There is a lack of commitment in addressing this issue even though India has signed the above-mentioned convention in 1997 – there is no official definition against torture, much as a law against torture. The proposed law against torture is still pending in the parliament but without a definition for torture, it is difficult to imagine how such a law may pass and how it may be useful.

As it stands, having no policy against torture seems to be the government policy, which is in fact contradictory to its supposed democratic foundations where the right to life, liberty and security or person is fundamental. On top of that, the right to fair trial is also violated since torture negates all aspects of equality and the presumption of innocence. The Indian judiciary may have come down heavily upon the state for resorting to torture, but it is necessary for the state to be motivated to correct this fallen justice framework and restore the democratic republic that India sees itself as. Only then will the distant dream of reversing this trend be possible, and India can move forward as a country without its people losing their humanity in the process.

Vivian Ng is a student at the Singapore Management University, currently interning at the Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong. She  can be contacted at

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