Thursday, 3 December 2009

Law-enforcement Agencies Need to be Made Accountable to the Rule of Law

India: Law-enforcement agencies need to be made accountable to the rule of law

Asian Human Rights Commission Press release
December 2, 2009

The Indian media often report with contempt the killing and maiming of the citizens by non-state actors. The limited debate in the country upon the issue is centred on the illegitimacy of violence used by the terrorists, insurgents and armed resistance movements, and is highly polarised. Except for the effort of a few publications like the Tehelka, the deliberations so far have missed a crucial aspect, the issue of disproportionate use of violence by the state upon its own citizens.

The significance of this subject is on the logic that the state is the custodian of the law and is principally responsible for governing by the rule of law. It implies that the state must ensure equality before the law and must not allow the arbitrary abuse of authority and power by its agencies. Further, it casts a legal obligation upon the state that it can resort to force only through legitimate and controlled procedures, that too in extraordinary circumstances where the lives of its citizens are under immediate threat.

The constitutional framework in the country that guarantees rule of law to its citizens thus restricts the state from unleashing disproportionate violence upon its citizens. Unfortunately, the Indian state is engaged in systematically negating this legal premise for the past several years.

A cursory glance at the statistics produced by the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC), brings this fact to the fore. From April 2001 to March 2009, the NHRC has recorded 1184 deaths in police custody; which is murder committed by the police, without any sanction or approval of a court of law. Further analysis of this data brings out even more startling facts.

Most of these murders have taken place in relatively calm and problem-free states in the country, with Maharashtra state having the dubious distinction of topping the list with 192 murders. The other states ranked high in the list are Uttar Pradesh (128), Gujarat (113), Andhra Pradesh (85) and West Bengal (83). All these states are within the peaceful and prosperous parts of the country, with no insurgent activities.

It becomes apparent what would be the state of affairs in states like the Jammu and Kashmir, and in the seven states forming the Northeastern territory of the country where armed insurgent activities have been going on for the past 60 years. Deaths in police custody and extra judicial executions in fake encounters are rampant in these states, and the perpetrators of the crime go unpunished. For instance, in a recent statement, the Director General of Police in Manipur state, Mr. Y Joykumar Singh, said that in the past eleven months his officers have murdered more than 260 persons. Of course, the officer added that all those who are killed are terrorists, murdered in armed encounters.

It is a fact that these statistics is a gross underestimation of the actual numbers since only very few cases reach the NHRC and/or judiciary. The reason behind this is that often the victims' families, being from the most underprivileged backgrounds, have no means or the courage to approach the courts. The complete absence of a witness protection programme or even a law to that effect, coupled with court delays often makes complaining against the law enforcement agency a suicidal act in the country.

Further, in states like Manipur, the security forces have unlimited and unaccounted power to carryout their operations under the statutory protection of the draconian law, The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958. This law allows even a non-commissioned officer to shoot to kill based on mere suspicion in order to "maintain public order".

The euphemism, "to maintain public order" is widely misused by the security forces for unleashing unbridled terror where they operate, thus supporting a trigger-happy culture of governance. The July 23 killing of Mr. Chongkham Sanjit and Ms. Rabina Devi in Manipur, exposes the degree of lawlessness resorted to by the security forces in these areas. For further information please see: AHRC-UAC-098-2009.

Placed in this context, the recent developments in the country have been highly disturbing. Despite all the evidences pointing to the worthlessness of the idea in delivering peace to the disturbed areas by use of force, the state is increasing its pitch for declaring war on its own people. Even more unsettling is the fact that the union home minister himself leads the campaign.

An example of this is the home ministry's argument for a cohesive, clinical and all out operation against the Maoists named as Operation Green Hunt. What is missing in the aggressive rhetoric for a war on Maoists is the question about the people living in the area -- poor, hapless tribal -- marginalised to the peripheries of the Indian state for long. Caught between two warring parties armed to the teeth, the tribal pay the heaviest price in this battle.

Yet, they are nowhere cited in the public discourse. The only occasion they appeared to be included in the discussion was when the government decided to withdraw more than 100000 cases against the tribal 'to win their hearts and minds'. Cases that were slapped on them for 'stealing' firewood, honey and other minor forest produce and a constant source of their exploitation by the police and the forest department were withdrawn.

The government did not care to answer why these cases were charged against them in the first place! After all, they have been living in these forests for centuries and the forest belonged to them. Why did it take an armed rebellion to force the state to think about their plight, and why the government could not act on its own for this long are two important questions that are yet to be answered.

Similar is the case with the people of Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, the Jammu and Kashmir and other states hit by insurgent activities in the country. The people residing in these states are compelled to resort to war like efforts just to ensure survival. Day after day, they are forced to walk through an alarmingly reducing narrow corridor of neutral space, maintaining equal distance from the sate and the non-state actors. In addition, the state does not help its case for garnering their support by the amount of terror it unleashes. After all, the state is the legal guardian of all its citizens, for it is the state who had solemnly promised and which had been bestowed the authority under the constitution to protect and preserve the inalienable human rights of its citizens.

For this reason alone, extrajudicial executions committed by the police and other state agencies deserve not only the strongest condemnation but also concentrated action against them. The deaths in police custody, committed with impunity provided by the uniform and authority, instigates not only public anger and protest but also hatred towards the state. The insurgents, whichever colour they belong to, tap this hatred for mobilising people into an armed rebellion against the state.

For this reason, declaring a war on its own people is a humongous error of judgment on the part of the state. What the state needs to do is reengaging those who are up against it, addressing all their concerns. The state also needs to go for a systematic and systemic overhaul of the system and correcting the flaws within the administration at the earliest. For this, it is elementary to conduct a revision of state policies ensuring public participation.

Further, guaranteeing equality before the law and ensuring punishment to the perpetrators of violence including those enjoying political power is required. The country needs to put an immediate end to murder in police custody and fake encounters. Those who are responsible for committing these acts must be prosecuted, with no exception to incidents that have happened in the past. The government needs to put people in command of their life, their habitat and resources and stop the state-sponsored corporate plunder of natural resources. The future, otherwise, does not seem that bright.

The Supreme Court of India has repeatedly warned the government that 'custodial torture, violence and killing' as 'a naked violence of human dignity' and a 'calculated assault' upon the people and their fundamental rights. The judgments delivered in the D.K. Basu and the Bhajan Kaur cases categorically declare that it is the state's duty to ensure that persons live, behave, and are treated like human beings. The state must neither condone nor tolerate deprivation, oppression and violation of the right to life and liberty.

Yet, custodial killings in India have assumed alarming proportions, that it has adversely affected the belief of the citizens in the rule of law and the administration of justice in the country. Arbitrary misuse of authority with statutory impunity has also demoralised the security agencies in the country. If the functionaries of the state become lawbreakers, it results in a situation where might means right, leading to lawlessness and anarchy.

The Supreme Court has also directed the government that it must undertake innovative measures to deal with terrorism and has said that 'state terrorism would only provide legitimacy to terrorism which is against the rule of law'. The state must thus ensure that its agents deployed for combating terrorism acts within the bounds of law and do not become law unto themselves.

India cannot afford to kill anymore of its citizens without plummeting into a state of anarchy. The prophetic vision of the court has proved to be true. It is now the duty of the state to undo its wrongs and prevent the ensuing anarchy.

It is time for the government to put an immediate end to the use of arbitrary means in dealing with dissent to safeguard the life and liberty of the citizens. The government cannot reject its constitutional and sacred duty to the citizens by becoming the unlawful arbiter and the executioner of humanity.

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