“Reducing Police Torture against Muslims at Grass Roots Level by Engaging and Strengthening Human Rights Institutions in India”: Observations
- Sunil Kuksal
Working on a subject like Torture and Human Rights is a challenging task for any researcher or a student of social science especially in a country like India where torture is still a daily reality and its practice is systematic. Torture has not been criminalized in the Indian domestic law and impunity for alleged torturers is considered as a key factor in the failure to prevent torture. As the largest democracy in the world, the Indian government does not even acknowledge the existence of the practice of torture by the police and other security agencies. The fact is that India has not ratified the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) but has signed the Convention on October 1997 which requires India to take steps to ensure that its domestic legislation complies with CAT’s requirements.
I was associated as a Research fellow with the project on “Reducing police Torture against Muslims at Grass Roots Level by Engaging and Strengthening Human Rights Institutions in India” by People Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), Varanasi. PVCHR has taken this exemplary task to raise voice against the practice of police torture by highlighting the cases of torture against the minority Muslims in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Working in the project operational areas the experience brings out the fact that in a caste driven social and economic structure of Indian society there is a deep rooted perceptions about Muslim community as being inferior category in the given caste hierarchy. They are viewed below the status of the most deprived lower castes or untouchables. Muslims as a community is treated as second class citizens. This perception has helped in justifying the acts of torture and other degrading treatment with greater acceptance to the use of torture against the Muslim community. Moreover after the 9/11 incidents, the taint of “terrorism” has been wildly attached to all Muslims and they are being subjected to all sorts of victimisation and harassment under the draconian anti-terrorist laws by the security agencies including arbitrary arrest, detention and torture. Therefore atrocities against Muslims in this context are not acts committed in isolation but they are the results of an institutional mechanism affecting the Indian criminal justice system. As a researcher I believe that in a human rights perspective, a systematic inquiry and assessment of the incidences of gross human rights violations suffered by the minority Muslim community in various parts of India becomes the most relevant in the context of democratic governance.
People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights, Varanasi (PVCHR) in collaboration with Human Rights Law Network, New Delhi with the support of European Union has been jointly implementing the project on “Reducing police Torture against Muslims at Grass Roots Level by Engaging and Strengthening Human Rights Institutions in India”. This torture prevention project is being implemented in the four districts of Uttar Pradesh namely; Aligarh, Meerut, Moradabad and Varanasi. Though initially there were many practical difficulties in addressing the main project commitments. Most importantly in a Hindu dominated state it was difficult to convince even the project team members with the idea to empower human rights defenders from the Muslim community itself and create an awareness about minority rights and strengthen their ‘claim’ for justice. Torture occurs in secrecy behind the closed doors and reliable figures of its occurrences are not available. Therefore, it was a big challenge to plan and implement anti torture activities and preventive mechanism in the project operational areas.
During the course of implementation of programme, it has been realized that In India the poorest members of the religious minorities have been the targets of all kinds of discriminations, torture, cruel and degrading treatment. Muslim minority has been no exception as far as social prejudices are concerned. Discrimination has taken institutional form and its manifestation can be seen in the working of crucial constitutional institutions of public importance like police and judiciary. Religious bias against Muslims has been found all pervasive in legal institutions and governing structure. Moreover they have historically been placed at a disadvantageous position socially as well as economically. Under the project, consistent efforts are being made to explore and analyze the linkages between economic, social and cultural rights of Muslim minority and violence. In another words, instead of approaching the problem of torture in a purely legalistic manner in terms of looking at non-compliance with or non- enforcement of legal provisions regarding life and liberty of citizens, social and cultural norms and practices forming the basis of torture are also examined. Under the project torture intervention activities are carried out in a systematic manner with well-planned action oriented approach which is facilitated by building community capacity by promoting a strong cadre of Human Rights Defenders in operational areas, trained human right workers team to carry out fact finding operations, focus group discussion on existing laws related to arrest and detention, legal interventions to obtain redress, propagating testimonial therapy methods to help restore confidence and dignity of torture survivors, Human Rights Street Movement and Media Advocacy in the operational project areas or districts. The project facilitation helped in increasing the use of different means of Information and communication technology (ICT) for advocacy of cases related to torture.
Under the project around 2400 human rights workers have been provided trainings on existing laws related to arrest, detention, individual liberties and rights enshrined under the constitution of India. Under the project selected cases are documented from persons belonging to minority Muslim community who have been the victims of arbitrary or illegal detention, arrested and tortured by the police in these four districts of Uttar Pradesh. Cases are documented on the basis of fact finding missions and efforts are made to get justice for the survivors. Creation of data base and case studies is being used intensely for the purpose of advocacy. Case documentation has helped in making strategies for further action and to address the root causes of torture. The impact of strategic interventions varies from case to case which are dependent on various factors such as the responsiveness of the state institutions in question and the degree to which they are sensitive to the issue of torture and other degrading treatment towards minorities. Complaints letter for urgent action are issued to competent state police authorities and Human Rights Institutions who have a direct responsibility. Till today at least 900 cases of the torture survivors from Muslim community have been taken for legal action and support in courts as well as in various commissions. The cases are also presented to various commissions, administration, Chief Minister, Home Ministry and Prime Minister.
Besides that the Human Rights Defenders trained during the project implementation period along with the community members have been trying to use innovative ways to empower the most vulnerable sections of the Muslim community. Most importantly actions are being focused to develop a mechanism to increase the participation of the Muslim minority to influence the decision making process which is the most essential tool not only to empower the community but also to strengthen the democratic values and governance.
Regular follow-ups on these intervention activities are done to seek remedial action, monitor progress and, if necessary, to renew the demands. This has been effective in engaging and strengthening the justice delivery system of Human Rights Institutions such as National Human Rights Commission, National Commission for Minorities and State Human Rights Commissions. In many cases the survivors have also received relief and rehabilitation. Under the programme victims of police excesses are also provided legal assistance to represent their cases in the courts and obtain redress. With the consistent efforts of PVCHR in pleading the cases of human rights violations of Muslim minority, the National Human Rights Commission has been giving due consideration to these cases and in many cases, orders are being passed for quick action.
After a careful analysis of total 806 cases after the completion of fact finding exercises from January 2011 to April 2013 by the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights, it has been observed and testified by the survivors that many of them were subjected to torture just because they belonged to the minority Muslim community. Most of these cases relate to rape, police torture, custodial deaths, extra judicial killings, police encounters, sexual harassment and communal riots. One sided action by the police administration can be clearly marked in all these cases. It has been observed that in all the cases pertaining to communal riots, many innocent persons have been found to be implicated in false cases. In many instances false cases have been lodged on people who have never lived in the areas affected by rioting. Cases have been filed against 12 year old young boy to 80 year old persons. Even disabled persons have not been spared and found to have suffered police brutalities. It has come to light that whenever police enters the Muslim localities to investigate or arrest someone, they create a reign of terror in the whole area and misbehaviour with women has been a common practice. Police deliberately uses the language which is directed at a particular community.
In Uttar Pradesh it has been found quite surprisingly that police have devised new ways to oppress minority Muslims. One example of the new method is red cards which are issued officially to declare Muslim youth as proclaimed criminals. Muslim community persons playing a leading role at the regional level are harassed by the police on one pretext or the other. They are implicated in false cases and investigation and arrest are done with immediate effect. They are shown as anti-social elements in police reports as a result they face many difficulties in getting bails. So far around 80 human rights workers have been booked under various false charges. They are harassed again and again.
To ensure dignity and justice to Muslim minority in the state Independent People’s Tribunal was jointly organized in Varanasi in April 2013 by the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) and Human Rights Law Network (HRLN). This action programme was an attempt to identify and understand the patterns, its practices and the participants in the process of continued violation of human rights and discrimination against and torture of Muslim community members at the hands of state agencies like police. It was a democratic exercise with the sole objective to restore human dignity to those who suffered. It was also aimed to bring out the different dimensions of social and psychological effects on the survivors, their families and the community as a result of the practice of tortuous behavior.
As part of the organizing committee, our main task was to select the cases of torture survivors and prepare the documents. It was an open public event where victims of police torture or ill treatment were invited to participate and testify. Out of the total cases documented around 40 cases of victims were presented before the jury members. These were the representative cases which reflected a reality much bigger than seen. In these cases a certain pattern was clearly visible as far as issue of justice to minority Muslim was concerned. As majority of the survivors came from the poorest section of society and being Muslims they had been subjected to inhuman treatment resulting from long-held biases towards them by the civil and police administration. Written testimonies of the survivors and their family members were made available to the jury members in advance. Survivors shared their experiences in dealing with state police administration in seeking justice. Family members of the survivors also gave oral testimonies confirming their statements. It was observed that in many cases FIR was lodged but no action was taken by the police. In some cases, it was found that police authorities had avoided registering the cases. In many cases it was found that when victims tried to take the help of police to seek justice, instead of giving due consideration to their grievances they were falsely implicated by the police and their harassment by the police authorities continued. It was also revealed that it is not only the accused that is victimized but even the petitioners and complainants are subjected to cruel, inhuman and ill treatment. Moreover all the cases deposed before the jury, had already been submitted by the victims to various state authorities and institutions like Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), Director General of Police (DGP), Minority Commission, Women’s Commission and National Human Rights Commission for redress. The jury made their recommendations to devise means to put a check on the practice of torture, inhuman and ill treatments of innocents when they approach police or when they are in police custody. A report was prepared and sent to the Chief Minister, political parties and other legislators to assess the situation for further action. The most memorable and perhaps I would say, socially and politically most relevant event was a “Street March” or Human Rights Street Movement that was taken out in Varanasi after the Tribunal in which around 100 people took part including torture survivors from Uttar Pradesh, human rights defenders and community workers. It was a non-violent expression of outrage against human rights abuses to generate awareness among people against virtual impunity that the government and security agencies enjoy. The participants were carrying the placards and shouting slogans against the state police administration in dealing with Muslim minority.
In my view the sustained efforts of the organization with its intervention strategies have helped in increasing the understanding level of general public, civil society groups, political parties and the government on the issues related to torture and state biases towards Muslims which is being seen as a suspect community in recent years. PVCH and HRLN have been jointly working to forge communal harmony between majority Hindus and Muslim communities and putting their efforts to preserve and promote the composite culture in Uttar Pradesh. It was seen during the mob attacks and communal riots targeted at minority community in Tanda block of Uttar Pradesh in March 2013 when members of both the Hindu Muslim communities together came forwards to provide relief and rehabilitation to the affected members and families immediately after the incident. Similarly after the communal flare up in Narpatpur in Varanasi in 2012, many innocent Muslims were beaten and arrested by the police. They were booked under various false charges. After a sustained campaign to get justice for the innocent victims and continued intervention by the PVCHR, most of these victims are released now. PVCHR has been engaged its efforts at multiple level of interventions, like at the level of administration, different human rights institutions, district courts and high court. There have been positive results from the intervention activities. Experiences from the field areas in rural villages of Uttar Pradesh indicate that torture awareness has been increasing among grass roots communities. The organization has also been providing financial and mental support to the survivors of the police atrocities so that they can regain dignity and lead a peaceful life.
A team of PVCHR was invited by the Director General of Police, Uttar Pradesh for an interface meeting with the police related to project areas of Aligarh, Meerut, Moradabad and Varanasi. Uttar Pradesh police readily agreed to hold such regular meetings that would help in rekindling people’s faith in police system and establishing rule of law. The efforts of PVCHR also brought relief to the victims when 8 member delegation of the PVCHR under Dr. Lenin Raghuvanshi was invited by the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Mr. Akhilesh Yadav to hold deliberations on the issues of riot victims, electricity and debt facilities for the Muslim weaving community of Uttar Pradesh. The state administration was also given the cases of 40 victims of police torture from Uttar Pradesh for further action and speedy justice. In June 2013 the National Commission of Minorities, New Delhi in a letter addressed to President PVCHR has recognized the role of the organization at the grass root level for the marginalized group of the society including women, children, Dalits and tribes and its efforts in raising the voices against the human rights violations in Uttar Pradesh.