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A Watchdog Without Teeth

The annual report of the National Human Rights Commission for the year 1995-96 is out. The third such report since its inception in 1993, reading it one feels it could go well as a propaganda stuff for interested international quarters that all’s well in the Indian state with regard to human rights. In fact it was mainly international pressure rather than any felt internal need to check growing human rights abuses which prompted the government to set up this toothless watchdog body which hardly has any powers.

NHRC’s attention has been mainly on custodial deaths, violence against women, ‘weaker sections’ and victims of communal riots and other such types of human rights violations. These are some of the prickly matters that every now and then invite flak from the media and human rights groups as well as from international quarters. Understandably, there is a lot the report tells on the Commission’s commitment and involvement in setting right the human rights records in these areas but very little is said regarding its limitations and meagre performance as borne out by statistical charts given as annexures to the report.

Neither the Commission report goes into a situational analysis of the grim human rights scenario in Kashmir, Punjab, Northeast, Andhra and Bihar, nor does its acknowledge the prevalence of state terrorism as an inalienable part of state policy. The state with its police forces, the army and para-military forces is the biggest perpetrator of violence in these areas in the name of curbing insurgency. But the Commission reduces the problem of human rights violations by the state to some errors and excesses by the personnel of the otherwise balanced state. That is why to the Commission human rights violations are only matters of aberration on the part of individuals or organisations of the state which with necessary reform measures, human rights education, corrective measures by authorities etc., can be set right. Of course, the Commission operates within the limits of bourgeois democracy but its framework doesn’t stretch to cover a thoroughgoing terrain of even such bourgeois democracy. Hence it remains more of an ornamental piece sans necessary powers and its interventions remain tokenist.

The extra-judicial killings, illegal detentions, rape and torture in custody and other forms of state violence common in above-mentioned areas are generally off-limits to the Commission. This is evident from its poor record in such cases. Thus in 1995-96 the Commission admitted more cases from Haryana (107) than from Jammu & Kashmir (103). Only 4 cases of illegal detention were admitted in J&K though Frooq Abdullah promised to free about 4000 youth held in custody without trial after winning the elections. Likewise equal number of cases have been admitted from Assam and Karnataka though it is common knowledge that the human rights situations in these two states are vastly different. The report says nothing as to how many visits it made to these problem states to study human rights violations and how many hearings it conducted. In one particular instance when the Commission visited Andhra for a public hearing on police atrocities against Naxalites, the AP policemen in plainclothes went on a rampage, chased away the people who had come to file affidavits before the Commission, beat up renowned civil liberties leaders officially requested to assist the Commission in its work and prevented the Commission from doing its work. The Commission beat a retreat without being able to do anything about it.

This is probably why the poor Commission says it turned its priority attention to custodial deaths. Even here the Commission laments that many states do not comply with the Commission’s ‘instruction’ that custodial deaths should be reported to the Commission within 24 hours, the postmortem should be video-filmed and a magisterial enquiry ordered into each and every case. It however has not demanded immediate suspension of police or jail officials involved. During 1995-96, 136 cases of deaths in police custody and 308 cases of deaths in judicial custody have been admitted but the action taken does not match the gravity of this offence.

Among the cases admitted during 1995-96, there were 39 cases of disappearances including 14 from Punjab but only 3 from J&K. There were 112 cases of illegal detention out of which 35 were from Tamil Nadu but only 4 from J&K, 12 from AP, 1 from Assam and 7 from Bihar. Of 1115 cases of other police excesses including torture and other abuses, 107 were from Delhi while only 17 were from AP, 18 from Assam and 7 from J&K. The cases admitted regarding indignity to women numbered 93 and those relating to atrocities on SCs & STs were 35 though according to the Home Ministry sources the number of such cases runs into thousands. True, the Commission is not expected to duplicate the work of courts, but even in the most prominent cases like Muzaffarnagar rape case or Kodiyangulam atrocity on dalits which became national issues the Commission had no role. There is not a single landmark case where the Commission has played its effective role, even by way of exposure, to inflict some fear in the repressive state machinery.

During the year 1995-96, an impressive number of 11153 cases came up before the Commission for consideration including the pending cases. Out of these, 5894 cases, i.e. more than half, have been dismissed by the Commission in limni (literally, nipped in the bud!). Of the remaining cases taken cognizance of by the Commission, 1178 have been disposed of with instruction — one doesn’t know whether they were complied with or not — and concluded 546 cases and the remaining 3535 are still pending. This means the Commission has fully processed only about 5% of the cases. And what is the outcome? Only 79 police personnel have been suspended, departmental action have been initiated against 26 and 22 have been prosecuted. Only 3 criminal cases have been registered and 12 cases recommended for police investigation and compensation awarded in 13 cases.

And still often, one finds it preoccupied with trivia like when it spoke up against the Home Ministry to lift the ban on the distribution of Salman Rushdie’s latest book, The Moor’s Last Sigh or when its investigative team was sent scurrying into the fields in Assam on receiving a postcard from a poor villager who complained about his missing buffalo which strayed into a BSF camp and which was picked by BSF jawans and handed over to the civil authorities who subsequently auctioned it off. The Commission took pride in doing justice to the poor farmer by ordering a couple of thousands in compensation but did not bother to do anything about hundreds of missing young people who are the victims of army and BSF atrocities!

The setting up of the Commission hasn’t done much to change the human rights record of the central or state governments. Part of the problem lies in the meagre powers of the Commission. Upon a complaint, the Commission asks for a report from the higher ups of the very same repressive apparatus of the state and doesn’t have a machinery of conducting investigation on it own in all cases, asks for a departmental enquiry in most cases which turn out expectedly to be neat cover up jobs and, if some were still found guilty, it recommends punitive action to the concerned government. One wonders why a Commission is needed at all for this purpose.

The report confesses that in its efforts ‘to end custodial violence’, its recommendations for India to be party to the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, was shot down by majority of the chief ministers. In many cases where NHRC has made recommendations for departmental actions, various state government have failed to act on them. Or take the case of West Bengal — the report, by way of illustration, reproduces a set of two letters from an ongoing series of epistelic exchanges between NHRC and Jyoti Basu, the former reminding the latter of the need to take prompt action against cases of custodial violence in his state and the latter reassuring about his government’s ‘determination to take deterrent action' against the guilty policemen. And while this seemingly inert exchanges have been going on for months, Jyoti Basu’s Bengal tops yet again this year in the number of custodial deaths and rape and in many of these cases action against errant policemen have not been taken. This is perhaps the reason for the Human Rights Commission gradually shifting its focus from human rights abuses to social issues like child labour, child prostitution, conditions of juvenile homes etc.

State structures are inherently oppressive because state itself is an oppressive institution of the ruling classes. The growing involvement of the armed forces in internal security, raising up of new para-military forces like RAF, increasing attacks on revolutionary movements, police prohibitory orders against demonstrations and gatherings, clamping of draconian laws like ESMA etc. all show the response of the ruling classes to the deepening socio-political crisis. But modern statecraft also involves creating adequate internal space for institutions like NHRC, if not to act as checks and balances, at least to present a false human face. The UF, in its CMP, said nothing about enhancing the powers of NHRC. Even in the era of judicial activism, it is strange that NHRC should remain so timid. It is only through a relentless struggle by democratic organisations such institutions can be given more teeth.


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