BJP MP Satyapal Singh, who, earlier as a cop, had filed complaints against Dr. Zakir Naik during the UPA regime, has been honest enough to acknowledge that there are police excesses and sometimes the wrong persons are detained by the police and his being the former police commissioner of Pune lends greater validity and gravity to what he has said. It is only to the credit of the democratic machinery in India that we have cases against the policemen also. As recently as April this year, the 47 police personel who were accused of killing 10 Sikh pilgrims in the Pilbhit fake encounter case of 1991 were given life imprisonment. The 18 policemen who were accused of fake encounter in Uttarakhand of a man called Ranbir Singh were also convicted.
It is still a matter of great shame for a truly democratic country like India that some aberrations shall exist, because it does not only present a bleak picture of Indian democracy to the outside world but sometimes destroys the lives of the individuals who are wrongly framed. While this cannot be exaggerated to the extent that the legitimacy of Indian democracy is called to question, it is absolutely necessary to condemn these life-destroying mistakes in the strongest terms. The acquittal of some Muslim individials accused in the Malegaon blasts cases is indicative of the fact that the Indian judiciary, as sluggish as it may be, is ultimately capable of doing justice to the wrongly accused. The ATS had picked up 9 wrongly-accused Muslims and then meted out violence to them in the prison. One of them had not been allowed to say his Eid prayers because he, according to the ATS officers was too “kattad” (rigid in following religion). The acquittal of the two Kashmiri Muslim youths languishing in our jails for sixteen years, falsely accused of being responsible for blasts in Lajpat Nagar in New Delhi, is a shameful revelation for our democracy, and instances like these promote a sense of anti-India resentment among Kashmiri Muslims. This is not a solitary case, there having been many other such cases in the past, in spite of anti-terror statutes making convictions for terror suspects much easier with relaxed evidence regulations. For example, Nisar ud-din Ahmed and his brother Zaheer were also accused of terrorism and jailed. While Zaheer was released on health grounds because he had lung cancer, Nisar was kept in custody for 23 years before being exonerated of all the charges. In the Malleswaram blast case, too the court filed a suo moto case against the Bangalore after three persons charged with terrorism were released.
In India, an oft-cited argument one hears is that human rights activists are absolute cranks who only care for terrorists. This argument is shouted from the rooftop by the saffron brigade, resonates even with tolerant Hindus averse to the saffron brigade and is recycled by Bollywood movies. In this article, I venture to explore whether this is really the case.
The conception of human rights bases itself on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which has been given a more binding character by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), besides other specific conventions targeting specific groups of people such as the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). These conventions deal with a host of issues ranging from the right to freedom of speech and expression to the right to privacy to the right to food and the right to housing, and indeed, the right to life, the right to a fair trial and the right against torture.
In the light of this, let us first examine a human right activist’s approach to the issue of terrorism. Till date, I haven’t come across any human rights activist contesting the obvious fact that any killing of innocent civilians amounts to a human rights violation, nor have I heard of any human rights activist saying that security personnel shouldn’t shoot down terrorists if they have opened fire in a public place to protect the innocent people who are his potential targets. They do, however, assert that someone declared by the police to be a terrorist shouldn’t simply be assumed to be one and deserves a fair trial as soon as possible, and they also demand that security personnel should not be exempted from judicial scrutiny for allegedly killing innocents.
Our soldiers have been punished for rapes, killings and forced disappearances in Kashmir and the north-east, though the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), similar to many other such statutes in the world, practically immunizes them from judicial scrutiny to a great extent. We may romanticize our security personnel as all being very honest and patriotic men ever-ready to die for the motherland, but what we often overlook is that mercenary fighters too have existed across the globe, and money is a key driving factor for many joining the forces. Besides, loyalty to the country doesn’t necessarily mean that one never does any wrong. A person who may exhibit heartfelt patriotism while cheering for India in a cricket match or while singing the national anthem may very well be a tax-evader or someone who gives bribes to derive benefits for his business. In fact, misguided patriotism can take extreme levels just like religious fanaticism, with anyone seen as not being on the side of your country being deemed as not being worthy of a dignified existence.
In our Indian context, the Republic of India always being morally right in all its foreign policy decisions or in its engagement with secessionist forces is taken as axiomatic by far too many people, which is rather immature (though similar immaturity is also exhibited by far too many people in our neighbouring countries as well as among many of those living within our borders not identifying themselves as Indians, such as many Kashmiris, who blindly tend to believe versions of events that suit them), and public anger against terrorism is so strong that anyone branded as a terrorist is simply assumed to be one, though statistics of conviction rates show that special anti-terror statutes have been heavily misused (as has been the case elsewhere in the world, including the West, too), and this misuse has alienated certain sections of our society, boosting terrorism even more, and these sections of the society don’t only include Muslims but also people from Naxal-infested regions or regions in the north-east with secessionist aspirations or even Sikhs when the Khalistan Movement was at its peak, and one may also point out the commendable research by Human Rights Watch on arbitrary detentions and maltreatment of innocent Hindus following the blast in a mosque in Malegaon (this is relevant in the light of the false propaganda by Muslim communalists and even pseudo-intellectual Hindus that this is a problem only for Muslims, though one may point out that in the context of Malegaon, innocent Muslims and Hindus both had to suffer, and the NIA under the Modi sarkar too seems to believe in the alleged involvement of Hindu extremists like Purohit). Some of the people who have been falsely accused still retain a love for not only this country but also for the just systems in place (remember the dialogue in the movie Shahid wherein the protagonist is told by a fellow prison inmate that the Indian judiciary, howsoever sluggish, does work?!). It is only because of these apparatuses that the truly innocent people are acquitted and are able to lead a dignified life (although they may have lost unjustly a significant chunk of their life by being in jail). The case of Mohammad Amir Khan should be specially mentioned in this context as an example of a Muslim who was wrongly accused and spent several years in jail and yet realizes that the judicial system and other state apparatuses are necessary. He was accused of being a terrorist after a trip to Pakistan and he claims that he was kidnapped by the police. But his experiences in jail (a non-Muslim brought dates for him during Ramzan), or the simple fact that when he was put in jail, there were many more Sikhs in jail as the Khalistani movement was still on, convinced him that it was not only religious identity that is the most important factor. After he was released from custody, and after having worked as a researcher with activists like Harsh Mander, he has also become a part of the National Human Rights Commission project on prison rights and jail reforms. Mufti Abdul Qayyum Mansuri was accused of the attack on the Akshardham temple in Gujarat and spent 11 years in jail. Qayyum Mansuri, in spite of suffering so much, does not reserve any hatred towards the state. In his view, India is still “far better” than most Muslim countries. The ones who were fighting for him – his friends and lawyers were mostly Hindus – and so he does not believe in the idea that the Indian society favours one particular community over others.
In 2011, a small boy, who was a Hindu, was shot down for climbing an almond tree in an Army cantonment in Chennai (a gun in someone’s hand often gives him a berserk sense of power and authority) and a blind, mentally challenged Hindu beggar was killed in 2011 by Army men in Kashmir, branded as a terrorist with the ‘encounter’ supposedly having lasted 24 hours, and innocent Hindus branded as criminals too have been killed in fake encounters by the police (remember the Ranbir Singh episode in Uttarakhand?), and all this, obviously for promotions and medals! Incidents of corruption in the Indian Army, like the Adarsh scam or the Tehelka hidden camera expose, should open our eyes to the fact that our security forces are not without their rotten apples. Indeed, none other than Narendra Modi, Arun Jaitley and Manohar Parrikar gave acknowledged excesses in Kashmir by elements in our security forces, as discussed here. Some convictions have also happened, as you can see here and here.
Terror suspects are indeed suspects but only until they are proven guilty and deserve their day in court. Torturing innocents presuming their guilt is not on. Some argue against human rights activists, saying that they protest only against alleged misuse of power by security personnel but not against terrorist attacks. The refutation to this hollow argument is very simple — demonstrations are organized to get an entity to accept your demands, and mere protest marches will not impact terrorists but are expected to impact the government in a democracy (though people from communities in whose name terrorist attacks have been committed often carry out demonstrations against terrorism to disassociate themselves from the terrorists), and this does not, in any way, imply that human rights activists in general don’t necessarily feel strongly against terrorism like other citizens do. Terrorism can be defeated by reaching out to those perceiving themselves as marginalized and/or reposing faith in inhuman ideologies on one hand and by the efforts of intelligence agencies and security forces on the other, but certainly not by way of demonstrations by human rights activists, though on the other hand, it can be argued that such demonstrations against excesses of the state can help integrate whichever community from which the terrorists emanate by making more and more people in that community realize that the civil society of the country cares for them, thus helping prevent terrorism.
Finally, it should also be noted that human rights activists, including those working in the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), quite often the very same people who raise their voices for humane treatment and fair trials of terror suspects, have actually often done quite a commendable job of successfully agitating for the availability of affordable and qualitative education and health care for the underprivileged and against child labour, besides ensuring that forcibly displaced tribals and the disabled get their due; so, the work of human rights activists is, by no means, only about dealing with the rights of suspected terrorists.
I do, however, have my differences with those of our human rights activists who oppose the death penalty, support reservations based on caste or religion and/or offer narratives, which are, in my opinion, consciously or subconsciously biased in favour of certain communities they regard as oppressed, but these issues are indeed very different from considering them supporters of terrorism or even insensitive to the victims of terrorist attacks for raising their voices for the rights of terror suspects.
In fact, not everyone in human rights circles is a complete bleeding heart liberal, as the European Court of Human Rights verdict in connection with Irish Republican terrorists being subjected to sleep deprivation and other things when a bomb was ticking in 1971 stated that the treatment meted out to the terrorists did not amount to torture, and it also upheld the earlier Turkish ban on headscarves. And yes, human rights organisations have documented excesses of violent non-state actors (like in the Indian context, Maoists and Kashmiri militants) too, as you can see here, here, here and here. Indeed, many Indians exhibit confirmation bias when they reject reports of international human rights organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch critical of the Indian state but exhibit no such skepticism when it comes to reports dealing with the Pakistani state, such as this one, this one, this one, this one, this one and this one (the vice versa is true for many Pakistanis too inasmuch as they exhibit confirmation bias when they reject reports of international human rights organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch critical of the Pakistani state but exhibit no such skepticism when it comes to reports dealing with the Indian state). Amnesty International has also documented human rights violations by the Hamas against Israelis and even Palestinians, as you can see here, here, here, here and here. Interestingly, in a personal capacity, Aakar Patel of Amnesty International (who is a very ardent critic of the Hindu right, and who, even in my view, in his personal capacity, often unduly exaggerates Muslim victimhood) had, back in 2010, in his personal capacity, denounced the Kashmiri separatist movement as theocratic and communal.
Thanks to my friends Suvankur Sukul and Ankur Sharma for their inputs.
(Image Courtesy: Flickr)