See no evil, hear no evil
A new report finds that 40 percent of human rights violations cases in India go unheard. Is the commission for human rights listening? Shriya Mohan finds out
On December 10, 2007, 30-year-old Shriti Wanniang was marching as part of a street protest against an eviction drive by the Shillong Municipal Board in Meghalaya. In a move to impose control on the enraged mob, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel resorted to lathi charge at the protesters and pedestrians. Wanniang was one of the five women who were beaten severely. After she was rushed to the Civil Hospital in Shillong, her medical report stated: “Bleeding in private parts, tenderness and soft tissue swelling in both legs and right arm. Patient not able to move right upper arm and shoulder joint.” On January 2, 2008, upon receiving a complaint, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the Indian government’s Human Rights wing, issued notices to the Superintendent of Police, Shillong and the Director General of CRFP, directing them to file a report regarding the incident within four weeks. While the CRPF failed to reply, the SP submitted a report two months later stating: “The force used by the CRPF personnel on duty was a mild one and not disproportionate as alleged. No serious injury was reported to have been caused to anyone”. While Wanniang awaited justice, on September 2008, 10 months later, NHRC closed her case based on the SP’s report stating that Wanniang’s suffered only “a simple injury”. Wanniang received neither compensation nor a hearing for her case.
Wanniang’s case is one of the 45 cases that reflect in a comprehensive report released a week ago by the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) called ACHR’s action against torture and other forms of human rights violations in India. The ACHR is a registered Indian trust dedicated to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the Asian region. Speaking about the human rights situation in India, the director of ACHR, Suhas Chakma said, “India has an abysmal human rights record. Even over the span of a decade the degree of violations has remained static simply because you cannot prosecute yet for human rights violations and still need the approval of the government. How can such a policy inculcate a fear of law?”
Over the years, both civil society and the public have lost faith in the NHRC. Receiving 100,000 complaints of human rights violations a year, the NHRC is a body vested with the powers of a civil court. Yet, according to ACHR, an estimated 40 percent of the cases brought to notice by them get dismissed without even a hearing. Since its inception in 2003, the ACHR has filed 531 complaints with the NHRC from various states on a range of human rights violations. A total of 186 complaints have been adjudicated by the NHRC; the rest have been closed or dismissed. The publication aims to portray a fair analysis of the NHRC’s work through these cases.
From 2001 to 2009, the deaths of 1,184 persons in police custody were reported to the NHRC. An overwhelming number of these deaths had taken place as a result of police torture in custody, mostly within 48 hours of the victims being arrested. During this period, the highest numbers of custodial deaths were reported in Maharashtra (192 cases), followed by Uttar Pradesh (128), Gujarat (113) and Andhra Pradesh (85). When comparing number of deaths to state population, Assam ranks the highest with 74 cases. Each state’s torture mechanisms have a story to tell --- Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh’s deaths in police custody, Madhya Pradesh’s atrocities against its tribals, Manipur’s encounter killings, the list goes on.
Although it is hard to find supporting statistics, it is likely that India’s growing anti-State movement could be a direct outfall of the high degrees of human rights violations inflicted upon its citizens. The Naxalites in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh could have emerged as a direct consequence of the denial of justice. “There is a reason why these states form breeding grounds for Naxalites. Afterall, who is an adivasi or a tribal for a naxal, but a perfect scapegoat on which their model of rebellion can be tight fitted?” asks Chakma.
The NHRC is a body headed by a five-member commission, which hasn’t had a chairman since Rajendra Babu retired last month. It has only appointed an acting chairman --- Justice G.P Mathur. The other four members of the commission are former chief justices of high courts and retired judges of Supreme Court. The NHRC’s laid back approach could be attributed to the centralised nature of its decision making authority resting only with the commission members. It is only reasonable to doubt whether a five people can really handle the complaints of a country with a billion-plus population. Apart from its own incapacity to take action on a mountain of pending cases, some gaping flaws in its policies answer why several cases are dismissed without a fair hearing. ACHR’s report mentions an interesting example: NHRC makes it compulsory for all the District Magistrates and SPs to report all custodial deaths and rapes within 24 hours of their occurrence. Since the police and jail officials are the first to be informed about a death in their custody, they are usually the first to inform the NHRC. The problem is that the NHRC treat the initial report of the police or jail authorities as a compliant. This then excludes all other complainants, including that of the victim, their families and their representatives, from the case. Under such a circumstances the police and jail officials also become the respondents, as the NHRC directs the State authorities to reply in all the cases. When an institution investigates itself, this has serious negative implications for justice.
When Tehelka asked Justice G.T Mathur, Acting Chairman of the NHRC, to respond to ACHR’s allegations, he refused to come on phone and his assistant asked Tehelka to leave him alone.
“The publication is a serious attempt to point to civil society and the public where NHRC has been successful and where some of their serious procedural failings --- such as failure to give a hearing and failure to verify post mortem reports --- have resulted in a denial of justice,” says Chakma. Comprehensively addressing the issue of torture state wise and divided into categories of Torture --- by police custody, armed forces, armed opposition groups, judicial custory and non state actors --- the ACHR’s report should be a wake up call to the supreme body for human rights in India for some urgent policy changes and decentralisation of its decision making processes so that justice is brought to hundreds who have waited only too long.