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July 30, 2010

Because Khairlanji is not just another murder story!

Published in The Hindu.
The recent verdict of the Bombay High Court in the Khairlanji massacre case convicting all the accused to life imprisonment could have been a welcome one and gone a long way in restoring ordinary people's faith in the country's justice system and its rule of law framework. It could have marked a historic juncture in the life of the nation announcing that the rule of law have firmly established itself despite all the inadequacies country's justice system demonstrates both in crime investigation and in trial. It could have ensured that Dalits and the other underprivileged groups will face no discrimination at least within the judicial system.

For these reasons, the verdict was long awaited. And in its final coming, it proved highly inadequate and farcical, rightfully outraging the civil society. The outrage, though, is highly misplaced. The failure of justice is not rooted in the commuting of the death sentence of six convicts into life terms for twenty-five years, as capital punishment is unacceptable in any civilised society. It is indeed painful to see some of the most genuine civil society members decrying the commuting and demanding for death sentence to the accused.

Retributive justice is no justice and no studies have confirmed any 'deterrence effect' of capital punishment. Rather any statics bears out the fact that it is used mostly against the poorest and the weakest sections of the society. In that it emerges as an official version of mob-lynching with the poorest of the Indian society often being the worst victims.

For the same reason, the death sentence announced by the session's court in this case was no victory for social justice. The judge has held the case as 'revenge murder' and citing the same, had refused to invoke the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The judge, seemingly, was convinced by the prosecution's poor case augmented by shoddy investigation with arguments to pass off the case as one of mere revenge killing.

The travesty of justice lies here. The 2006 massacre was not just another among 32481 reported cases of murder tucked in the pages of the statistical records of the National Crime Records Bureau. Nor was it just one of 19348 reported cases of rape (though the charges of rape were not invoked by the court). The gravity of the case did not lie in its being a gory instance of a mob bludgeoning a full family to death while also raping women and mutilating their bodies.

It was a massacre to uphold the feudal values in a modern, democratic India. The perpetrators had not massacred the family in a fit of rage. Their anger was not momentary. It did not emanate from any personal enmity. The family had not done anything to provoke or to tick them off. The only 'crime' the Bhotmanges had committed was making efforts to escape the low social status ascribed to their earlier untouchable caste. The fact that they were trying to come out of the dehumanised existence Dalits have been condemned to for centuries was a provocation enough for the killers belonging to the dominant castes.

That the prosecution tried its best to destroy the evidences concerning caste based atrocities and did not press the PoA Act shows the systematic and institutionalised nature of casteism. Further, the fact that the massacre took place in full public view and yet there was no opposition to the killings shows how deeply ingrained the ideology of caste is.

Further not bringing these spectators, complicit in the crime by acts of omission at least if not commission, to books show how state institutions tolerate caste-based atrocities or actually are conduit with them. The case proves that it is in fact the pre-modern, barbaric and regressive social structure of caste that rules under the democratic facade of the Indian nation and that the idea of modernity is a mere superimposition upon this primitive mode of social organisation. It reminds us that Indians are decades, if not centuries, away from achieving the goals we had set for ourselves on the night we made a tryst with destiny, the goal of becoming a sovereign, secular, socialist and democratic republic.

In this sense, Khairlanji is a negation of the very idea of India and its democracy. It is an assault on the basic principles the country is based upon. It shows what kind of a decayed and deficient democracy we have evolved into.

Unfortunately, Khairlanji is no isolated case of some rogue elements in Indian society going insane. Rather it is just one among many like Jhajjar, Haryana where five Dalits were lynched on the suspicion of trading in cows to Patan, Gujrat where a Dalit girl was gang raped and put into submission in the teacher's training school.

But then, till now the response of the Indian state and its civil society too has remained the same. Of getting outraged, making lot of noises and then forgetting the issue till another such gory incident occurs. And precisely because of that, Khairlanji should shake us out of the deep slumber and make us introspect, and act, to put an immediate end to caste based atrocities. By dealing not only with the perpetrators, but also silent spectators approving the incident, cracking down on illegal institutions like Khap panchayats legitimising caste. That would serve as a bigger deterrence than death sentence, as the caste communities will get to know that all of them would be punished and not only the 'heroes' carrying out their dictats!

Killing the demon of caste was the primary wish and clarion call of Dr BabaSaheb Ambedkar, the father of our Constitution, lest we forget.

Assault on Professor Joseph, an ode to Indian democracy

Rarely do individual tragedies reflect all that is wrong in a society. Even rare are occasions where their implications go beyond the lives of the individual, his family, or the neighborhood. But, when they do, they assume a significance that has bearings on the history of the community and the society.

The recent attack upon a college professor in Kerala comes under the category. The attack is no doubt tragic. The fact that it happened in front of his family is worse. The brutality of chopping the palm off the teacher has scarred the psyche of the family, scars that will probably never be erased. The significance of the event, however, does not lie in the personal tragedy inflicted upon the family by a gang of criminals. It goes much beyond the family, the town where they live, and the state of Kerala.

The attack, rather, is a marker of the times to come in India. Times when freedoms guaranteed by the constitution will cease to be guarantees and convert into empty words devoid of any meaning, buried deep down the pages of a book no one uses anymore.

Or these dark undemocratic times have already descended and the attack is just a grim reminder of that?

The details of the case point to nothing if not this. The attack did not emanate from any personal enmity. The intent was not only to hurt, or to kill, but also to terrorise everyone. That is why the assailants decided to attack him in full public view. The most bizarre thing about the attack, however, is the motive and not any of the above. The assailants allegedly belonged to the Popular Front of India, a fundamentalist Islamic political organisation. They were incensed at a paper allegedly having a blasphemous conversation between God and Muhammad, set by the professor for the examinations of the private missionary run college.

Just that nothing in the conversation pointed to the Muhammad being referred to as the Prophet Muhammad. Yet, there was a boycott of the papers and protest rallies were promptly organised. Realising the electoral ramifications of the controversy, the state government sprung into action and directed the college administration to suspend him. It goes without saying that the government did it without any proper inquiry. Yet the real question is a little more startling, that in what capacity a secular and socialist (literally as Kerala is ruled by an alliance led by the Communist Party of India Marxist) state directed a private institution to suspend a professor in absence of any enquiry, internal or by the state agencies.

The travesty of the justice and abuse of state institutions did not stop at that. The suspension of the professor was followed by a police case against him for 'hurting religious sentiments' and death threats issued by fundamentalist Islamic groups. Further, the police issued 'wanted' posters against the professor who had gone into hiding precisely because of the reluctance of the police to provide him with security in the face of death threats. But maybe we are just cribbing too much. Maybe it is the discretion of the police whether to provide security to a person or not, especially if the person is accused irrespective of the facts of the case.

Just when we might think that things could not go worse than this, they went. As if failing to provide security to professor and bringing the culprits to books was not enough, the police did go all the way wrong, post attack as well. The first thing the police did, as per media reports was convincing the Church leaders about their earnest pursuit of the attackers. The Hindu, one of the most respected news papers of India quoted T. Vikram, the Superintendent of Police, Ernakulam Rural, saying: "We have talked to church leaders to convince them that an all-out effort is being made to nab the culprits."

A person like me with limited understanding of democracy may wonder how the Church Leaders enter the scene and why exactly a senior ranking police officer was trying to convince 'them' about the 'all out efforts' the police was making to nab the culprits. This was a criminal assault after all and the police are required to do their job. To gather the evidence and produce the suspects for trial is in essence what policing is. Further, they should investigate the attack in all details, including the role of instigators and not only the perpetrators. They should have done all this, further, without even thinking of the identity of the victims and that of the perpetrators.

Does not the political identity of being a 'citizen' is the crucial and decisive one in a democracy? Does not Indian constitution guarantees the same while criminalising any kind of discrimination based on any of the exclusive innate identities attached to a person, like those of caste, religion or ethnicity? And does not the very act of convincing church leaders in this case proves that the trail must have been going cold more often than not in cases where neither the victims nor the cases were not high profile.

The question, that what police would do after nabbing the suspects and getting them convicted raises itself. Will police apologise to the leaders of Muslim community in case all the accused happen to be Muslims, as is most likely? This sounds absurd but then this very absurdity is the hallmark of Indian criminal justice system. Where a criminal is not just a criminal, but always has an identity to invoke and dodge the law.

The legal course-of-action should be very clear. Anyone, and just about anyone, violating the law of the land should be dealt with firmly. Further, citizenship should be the only identity recognised by the law, accepting none other barring those of deprived sections constitutionally mandated for positive discrimination.

The case, therefore , should have been treated as an outright case of criminal and murderous assault and investigated like that only. Further, the investigation should have tried investigating the roles of instigators as well and to bring the whole ring of such exclusivist and fundamentalist religious fanatics to books as they pose a grave threat to the very ethos of the country.

All this discussion makes it very clear that the police had no business of convincing the religious leaders. But they did it. So, the question becomes, are they, in fact, responsible or at least answerable to religious leaders? De facto if not de jure. And if they are, leaders of which religion are they answerable to? Or, they are answerable to leaders of all religion? In that case what would be the line of action in cases of communal religious riots?

They are, or at least seem to be. There was nothing new in Kerala police's actions. Police forces across the country have done the same. Right from being biased in favour of one particular religion, they have presided over the genocidal attacks of one religion on another. The way Delhi Police did in 1984 when murderous Hindu crowds butchered Sikhs, in the name of taking revenge for the killing of Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister, by her Sikh bodyguards. The government in charge of Delhi police was led by Indian National Congress, the party the slain prime minister belonged to.

Disgusting it may sound, but that was still better than what Gujarat police did in 2002 pogrom of Muslims by murderous Hindu crowds belonging to the Rashtriya Swyamsewak Sangh(RSS) and its affiliate organisations. This time they did not assist the pogrom just by looking away. Rather, they actually supported it by stopping the Muslims from trying to escape the attacks. They did this by firing, actually firing, at Muslim victims running for their lives. Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), the political arm of the RSS was in the government.

The Odisha police did this in 2008. Christians were the target this time though the perpetrators remained the same. The riots took place apparently for revenging the killing of a Hindu sadhu (preacher) belonging to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, another RSS affiliate allegedly by the Maoists. The police looked the other way again. Rather as per several victims, the police were quite friendly with them. The province was being ruled by an alliance of BJP and Biju Janata Dal, a regional political party.

These cases are just the tip of the iceberg. The gross ones. In all of these cases, the riots were led by the ruling party itself, which controls the police. Apparently, the police cannot go against their political bosses. For every riot this huge, there are hundreds if not thousands of small localised attacks on minorities.

Most of these attacks are supported, if not organised, by the local government and the police. And that is done for a simple reason, for democracy. This may sound weird to untrained ears but then this is it. These riots are organised to mobilise communal passions. The communal passion in turn animates communities herding together. And that translates into votes for the leadership of 'democratic' parties.

The governments, therefore, need the religious leaders, especially of the highly sectarian nature as mobilising communal passion will be very difficult without them. And the numbers would follow the age old dictum, the more the merrier, as there would be as many fault lines to play with as many religions/sects/denominations. What else can explain that the best political scientists of the country explain every election in the biggest democracy of the world, right from the village council to the parliamentary ones, in terms of the caste, sects, and religious and ethnic break ups of the constituencies. Forget that these were precisely the identities that should play no role in any democratic process, leave aside elections.

But then, India is a democracy more than half of whose parliamentarians have serious criminal charges against them. Where a chief minister of a rich state organises and presides over a pogrom of Muslims to win an election and retains his chair. It is a democracy, where the same chief minister mocks the commission appointed by the Supreme Court of the country for looking into the pogrom. It is a democracy where half of the top leadership of the main opposition party would have been behind the bars for inciting communal frenzy and destabilising peace.

This is this systemic and systematic cultivation of mechanisms to find the loopholes in the legal system and exploiting them to escape punishment for one's crimes that makes the flawed democracy India has evolved into. The failure of the system has resulted into the police evolving as the extra arm of the ruling parties which is often used to terrorise the opposition. The injustices committed by the police lead to the alienation of the whole communities from the system, leading to their taking recourse to the extremism. Can one forget the incidents like when the Mumbai police lined up more than a thousand Muslim youth immediately after the blasts that rocked the city? Or the fact that there had been no action or even an inquiry against officers of the Uttar Pradesh state police who killed the alleged masterminds of the bomb blasts in Varanasi, almost a year before the Delhi police killed a completely different set of people for being the masterminds of the same blast?

This is what leads to a situation where extremist groups belonging to all religions play victims and emerge as the saviours of their communities. The clash of these fundamentalist groups with the state placating the needed one on that hour becomes the inevitable consequence of such an unjust system. A system where murderers of Muslims and Christians take oath in the name of Indian constitutions and run governments, and where no action is taken against Muslim legislators even when they assault and incite their supporters to kill Taslima Nasreen.

Evidently, cracking down on the religious fanatics does not make sense in the democracy of Indian kind. Neither does secularism. Rather, it does. Not in the Nehuruvian sense though which defined secularism as 'equal state protection to all religions'. It makes sense in its current form, equal state protection and immunity to the highly organised and institutionalised, rogue fundamentalist fanatics of all religions. The fanatics then, of course, can protect the followers of their religion.

First Published by the Asian Human Rights Commission. can be accessed at--

AFSPA may be pious, but India is not a theocracy Lt. Gen Jaswal!

The Kashmir valley in India has witnessed more than 15 deaths in June alone, all of them caused by Indian security forces firing upon the protesting crowds. These crowds were comprised largely of teenagers pelting stones at the security forces especially in and around areas of old Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir. Most of these deaths occurred when security forces opened fire on crowds protesting similar murderous firings unleashed on common citizens by the security forces. The list of the dead includes minors, the youngest being just nine year old.

The vicious cycle of death started when security forces, purportedly in self-defense, opened fire on these teenagers claiming that pelting of stones caused grave danger to their lives. The first death caused by the security forces led to large scale protests by the common citizenry when the security forces fired again killing more people and inciting more protests as a consequence. Since then it has spiraled into a cycle of stone pelting, firing causing death, protests and more stone pelting and security forces causing many more deaths.

Quite understandably, the provincial and central government have been trying to justify these firings by claiming that the security forces were compelled to fire in self-defense. A laughable claim on the face of it indeed, that stone pelting teenagers can cause any serious threat to the members of Indian security forces wielding state of the art weaponry including assault rifles like AK47s and armored vehicles.

The claim stood exposed further by the fact that in one of the very first incidents of security forces firing over stone-pelting protesters R. K. Birdi, a senior officer of the Border Security Force, a paramilitary organization of India, was found guilty of ordering his subordinate to shoot at unarmed children and was subsequently arrested. In fact, Mr. P. Chidambaram, the Home Minister of the Government of India has cited the arrest as evidence for the Indian government's commitment towards no tolerance for human rights violations.

The question if the protesters caused any serious threat to the forces has been thoroughly debated in the Indian as well as international media. The discussions seem, however, to have missed a crucial point. The point that it is not the perceived levels of threat, or the intensity of the provocations that makes the security personnel fire upon their fellow citizens. It is far more than that. It is the mindset and the prejudices that pervade in the members of the security forces manning Kashmir. The mindset that the Kashmir is a 'different' territory, belonging to 'others', which they have to secure and guard, and not protect. Apparently, the most important thing for the government and the security forces is the territorial integrity of India and not the life and liberty of the people they claim to represent.

And that is why it is not about protests themselves. The existence of space for showing dissent, for protesting, is a central characteristic that defines a democracy, which India so proudly claims to be. Precisely for the reason, India has witnessed many protests. Protests over all forms of real or perceived injustices keep taking place across the length and breadth of country.

Many of them have been violent, very violent. Even a cursory glance at the recent past will bear this fact out. The movement for creation of a new state of Telangana, bifurcating Andhra Pradesh was a violent one. The movement opposing that was equally, if not any less, violent. But the same security forces rushed to contain these protests did not take recourse to indiscriminate firing even once.

Further, a few rightwing political outfits like Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) in Maharashtra are notorious for using violence as a political tool. The members of MNS have attacked everyone, from the poor taxi driver on the streets to legislators within Maharashtra assembly, inviting, unfortunately though, not much wrath of the provincial and the Indian government. Security forces as well as the state governments have shown similar leniency to very violent protests organized by the likes of the Sri Ram Sena and the Bajrang Dal.

Leaving the protests in these 'mainstream' and 'peaceful' parts of the Indian territories aside, the security forces, in fact, have shown great restraint while dealing with protests in Jammu, the other half of the province of the Jammu and Kashmir. For example, the security forces refrained from shooting at protesters in Jammu in 2008 when angry masses blockaded all traffic to the Kashmir valley protesting against the state government for backing down on transferring forestland to the Amarnath Shrine Trust. They did not take recourse to the guns even when the protests turned really violent, resulting in the killings of at least two policemen.

This fact raises a very disturbing question, a question which has bearings on the very basic nature of Indian democracy. The question that what makes these restrained, well-meaning protectors of the law of the land go trigger-happy in Kashmir as well as other such 'disturbed' areas like Manipur.

The answers, though tough and troubling, begin with the 'otherness' imposed on Kashmir is not a bit heartening. That in most of the cases where security forces did not fire even the crowds who launched a fatal assault on other people and security men alike belonged to the majority religion, and when they shot to kill teenagers pelting stones belonged to the minorities is a fact which we can ignore only at very high costs. And this fact does not reflect well either on the 'secular' or 'democratic' republic India claims to be.

Neither does the fact that Kashmiris seem to be more than willing to come to these protests risking their lives. Human beings are not known to put their lives at stake without sufficient reasons and without having exhausted all other alternatives. They do it only in extreme conditions. And conditions, in Kashmir, are extreme.

After all, untimely and unnatural deaths are not new to the residents of the valley. Neither are the tragic ways they come in. A whole generation of Kashmiris has grown up seeing unprecedented levels of violence, killings, abductions and all other forms of human rights violations. They have, also, seen the utmost disregard shown by the state to their grievances.

It would not be too much to compare their situation with that of Palestinians, who encounter uniformed police/paramilitary or military personnel dominating all aspects of their lives. They have witnessed the khaki, the colour of the uniforms of almost all major Indian security agency becoming the most dominant and ubiquitous colour in a valley known for white snow, lush green chinars and saffron. They have seen their dignity and dreams getting trampled over by these boots in khaki day in and day out.

They have witnessed at least 40000 deaths as per the most conservative estimates, and more than 70000 as borne out by the independent and impartial human rights groups. Needless is to say that the numbers of forcibly disappeared, arrested and tortured Kashmiris are bound to be many times more than this. The civilians dominate the list, ordinary innocent non-combatants citizens killed both by the armed insurgents and the security forces. Further, the members of the Indian armed forces have been accused of raping Kashmir women very frequently, a few of which has also been convicted by the courts. Is not this enough to alienate a population?

The governments, both at the state and the central levels, have done precious little to address the problem and ensure justice to the victims. This would had been, and still is, a basic prerequisite of restoring law and order, a euphemism the government uses way to often to suppress the people, to Jammu and Kashmir. What the governments did was exact opposite of this.

The government have overworked to save the officers guilty of killing, maiming, abducting and torturing common citizens by using the worst provisions of the notorious Armed forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 (AFSPA) imposed in the area since July 1990. The state has clinically and systemically foiled any attempts made by the civil society members to bring the question of grave injustices and human rights violations committed by the security forces in Kashmir.

The recent cases bear an eerie resemblance to the grimmest days of the life in the valley. A reminder of the calamities inflicted on the people since the beginning of the insurgency in the by the very people who are mandated to protect it. Civilian populations fired at by the security forces started becoming frequent since 1990. Like the incident of 20 January 1990, when security forces fired on unarmed protesters at Gawakadal bridge killing at least 100 people. The incident filled ordinary residents of Kashmir, aloof to the warring parties till then, with indignation and hatred towards the regime. They took to the secessionist movement and insurgency became a popular mass movement for the first time. The incident was followed soon by the unprovoked firing on mourners grieving for their dead leader Mirwaiz Maulvi Farooq killing another 100 the same year in May.

Needless is to say that the killings did not get probed and no officers or political leaders guilty behind the shootings were ever brought to the book, leave the question of delivering justice. Even more futile is to say that the suppression did not bring any peace or calm to the valley. Rather, the impact was exact opposite. Every single killing by the security forces added exponentially to the numbers of active armed insurgents and their supporters. And the violence became the single most defining feature of the Kashmir valley.

Only change is that Indian state engaged in a shadow war with heavily armed and a well-trained militant outfit is thus waging a war with stone pelting teenagers now. And its security forces are apparently scared, very scared. What else will explain the hurriedly organised press conference by Lt Gen B S Jaswal to refute the demands of scrapping AFSPA by none other than Omar Abdulla, the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. Lt Gen Jaswal termed provisions of AFSPA as 'pious' to him and to the 'entire Indian army'.

Only that, India is a democracy and not a theocracy. And that legality should be the sole criterion to retain or scrap an act and not religiosity or piousness!

Indian security forces and government have failed themselves badly. The situation, unfortunately, is not far better in case of judiciary, one of the most reputed and well functioning organs of Indian democratic system. The well-meaning judiciary, responsible for heralding an era of accountability and responsibility in the Indian political system through judicial activism, too has failed singularly when it comes to the injustice meted out to Kashmir.

The judiciary, known for taking suo moto notice of cases of grave violations of fundamental rights and redressing the grievances, often by challenging and compelling the executive to act against their will, had not shown any great enthusiasm for the same when it came to Kashmiris including in the famous cases like that of a famous and respected journalist Iftikhar Geelani who was incarcerated for almost an year under the Official Secrets Act for keeping information easily available on the internet.

The roots of the near perennial conflict in and over Kashmir are rooted in its chequered history and problematic present. It has emerged as a site which India and Pakistan, two perennially fighting countries, have used to project their claims and counterclaims. The existence of a constituency for freedom in Kashmir has added to the problems of any immediate resolution of the problem as well.

Yet, the only road to that elusive solution is by restoring the law of the land to the province while doing away with archaic, colonial and brutal laws like AFSPA made for disturbed lands. The road to peace can only be taken if the government of India pulls its act together and brings the officers responsible for firing at and killing innocent civilians under the ambit of the law while stripping them of the immunity offered under the AFSPA.

It should reopen all the cases of the violations of human rights, reinvestigate them and ensure rule of law. Or, it will remain the biggest hypocrisy of the world instead of being a self-acclaimed democracy.

Published in Counter Currents. can be accessed at--

Country's democracy stripped naked by Delhi police

On 23 May 2010, police officers, including a woman police constable reportedly tortured and abused a mother and her 12-year-old son in Rajouri Garden Police Outpost in Delhi. It is reported that the officers forced Mala (name changed) to strip naked in front of her minor son and demanded her to have sex with her son. Upon refusal, one of the police officers asked Mala to have sex with him. Mala, a slum dweller from Delhi's Mayapuri area had gone to the police outpost with her husband to enquire why her two sons were detained at the police station.

The police on 22 May arrested Mala's two sons, aged 12 and 10, on the accusation that they had stolen Rs. 6000 from a car. The torture and abuse was reportedly to force the 12-year-old boy to confess the crime and return the money. As the result of a complaint lodged by Mala with the help of a local human rights organisation at the office of the Delhi Police Commissioner, Mr. Y. S. Dadwal, suspended from service the Woman Head Constable Amrita Singh and Constables Pramod Kumar and Santosh of Rajouri Garden Police Post. The Assistant Sub Inspector who was in-charge of the outpost was transferred from the outpost.

A few Indian print media reported the case somewhere in the inner pages among several other articles in the 'city news' section. But the 'news value' that the media 'awarded' to the incident was not strong enough in this case to carry it beyond the first day.

Yet, had it not been for the media outrage over the blatant subversion of justice in the Jessica Lal murder case and in the recent Ruchika Girhotra molestation and abetment of suicide case, the culprits in these cases having access to power and influence in India would have never been punished. In the Jessica Lal case, the convict is the son of a powerful politician and in the Ruchika Girhotra case, the convict is a high-ranking police officer. The Indian media can claim credit in preventing persons like Pramod Muthalik, the self-styled leader of Sri Ram Sena, from roaming around attacking and assaulting women and minorities alike in his moral policing campaigns.

But in Mala's case was it that Mala is a Dalit a reason for the Indian media's lack of interest concerning the horrific experience of a poor slum dwelling family at the hands of the country's most demoralised public institution, the police? Or do the scribes too share the same mindset and prejudices as the powerful and mighty of India? Can it be that the media identifies itself far more with the affluent, urban and middle class India than the residents of the slums? Or do the media share the same class rigid mindset -- that the poor cannot be trusted?

Apart from the media, where are India's women and Dalit rights groups? Or do they also believe in the middleclass rhetoric that the 'poor will not mind to level false accusations of any degree to save themselves'? The very next day after the incident was reported the police admitted that there was the possibility of 'extreme verbal abuse' and that the woman has levelled these charges 'to protect her son'. Legalities apart, the human rights and women's rights organisations in the national capital are yet to utter a word publically against the incident.

Even a very superficial analysis of the case raises several serious issues beginning with, what law allows the police to detain two children aged 10 and 12 in a police lock-up overnight instead of sending them to a juvenile home or presenting them immediately before a magistrate having jurisdiction to deal with cases involving minors? What authorised the police to torture the victims in the police outpost for extracting a confession instead of investigating the case?

After being approached by the human rights group that took up the matter the police was compelled to take action against the officers. Ironically the superior officers did not see that the case as a horrific example of what the country's police have become, and for their own future convenience termed the case as an instance of 'not following proper procedure while handling juveniles'. A probe by the Vigilance Department of Delhi Police has been ordered to look into the allegations of stripping. What this probe will achieve, as the investigating agency is the same police, is anybody's guess.

The statement of the senior police officer while briefing the media only reaffirms the fear of bias in the probe since he only acknowledged the 'likelihood' of 'extreme verbal abuse' while refusing any possibility of stripping. Yet, the officer inadvertently shed light to what the establishment could do by saying 'we could have hushed the case up, but the fact that we have suspended the officers involved in the case implies that an impartial investigation will be undertaken'.

Impartiality in the Indian context means the exact opposite -- the accused investigating the crime; the judge being the prosecutor, accused, plaintiff, witness and the jury. Ironic, it may appear, but at present in the context of crimes committed by the police there is no other process available in India where an iota of impartiality can be attributed to police investigations of crimes committed by police officers.

On a deeper level, the case raises much more serious concerns having a bearing on the rule of law and consequently the notion of democracy itself.

Most importantly and unfortunately, the case is not a standalone incident of some rogue police officer going astray. Indian police and paramilitary units are infamous for sexually assaulting, including stripping and parading women in public spaces, to instil fear among the masses and to quell dissent. They are also known for looking the other way when locally dominant people, especially from the upper caste and class in rural India, commit crimes. After all, if some police officers can do it in Delhi, the national capital, despite the presence of all its media and civil society organisations, who can guarantee the safety and security of women in faraway places where there is no presence of any similar safety mechanisms?

Further, the case exposes the culture of silence when the victims belong to the Dalit or tribal communities, most disadvantaged and therefore most vulnerable. Logically, these are the people who should be supported the most by the civil society including the media. The ground reality, sadly, is exactly the opposite. Whatever are the reasons behind this, these are precisely the people abandoned by the abovementioned, left to fend for themselves against all odds.

Even a cursory glance will confirm the trend. Mala and her family underwent the traumatic experience by those supposed to protect the law on 23 May. The family was so terrified by the events that they kept silent for more than two weeks and could not gather courage to make any complaints to the authorities. It was only when the story reached a local NGO through neighbourhood whispers that the incident came to light and a complaint filed. Clearly, for every such case, which reaches the doors of law, there would be many pushed under the carpet. And with them there would be shattered dreams, disbelief in government institutions and, perhaps, democracy itself.

The case throws ample light on the issue that though India claims to be the largest democracy of the world, the barbaric ideologies of caste and gender based discriminations are what fuel it. It also shows that caste and gender based prejudices are as strong in the society as they were hundreds of years ago. Even worse is the fact that the caste based value system has remained internalised even in the educated elites who are primarily responsible for the constitutional mandate of eradicating it.

What operates in these cases is neither the free and fair implementation of the rule of law nor even a critical engagement with the issues. When it comes to justice for the poor and the downtrodden -- lower castes in most cases as the boundaries between lower caste and lower class in India are very fuzzy and highly vulnerable -- the reactions are often located in two extremes. One is the utter disregard and contempt to the sheer idea of justice treating the victims as dehumanised creatures bereft of any dignity and the other is highly patronising benevolence offered in response to qualified inclusion by various ways like the Sanskritisation. This patronising attitude too is missing when the victim is a Dalit, tribal or a minority woman suffering with the double burden of two underprivileged identities.

A case in point would be to see how the gender discrimination in India is superimposed on and organised along the skeleton of caste. That even the highest echelons of judiciary could deliver a highly misogynist verdict in the Mathura rape case (Tukaram V. State of Maharshtra, AIR 1979 SC 185) when the court overruled the decision of the Bombay High Court convicting two policemen for raping Mathura, a 16-year-old girl. The basis of the Supreme Court's decision that the complainant -- an illiterate, orphaned tribal girl -- was of loose character because she had eloped with her boyfriend and was brought to the police station only because of the complaint of her brother and that she was lying about rape because there were no marks of injury was unbearable to say the least.

The decision caused enormous outrage and led to strong movements for gender justice culminating in a reform of the laws relating to rape in 1983 including that in cases of custodial rapes, the burden of proving consent, once the sexual intercourse was proved, shifted to the accused. Unfortunately again the amendment in law meant little positive change on the ground as even today the first defence offered by the accused in rape and other cases of sexual assault is the 'loose' character of the woman.

In 1995, in the Bhanwari Devi rape case, a trial judge observed that because Hindu scriptures do not allow upper caste men to touch a low caste woman, the accused could not have raped the Dalit victim. The judge went on to cast aspersions on the character of the victim saying that she 'is lying' as the medical examination was done 'full 52 hours after' the alleged event. That this happened almost 16 years after the notorious Mathura case judgment and a full 13 years after the reforms of rape laws speaks volumes about the change in the mindset of those in the judiciary, leave the common citizen alone.

Political leaders are not far behind when it comes to having highly misogynist and anti-Dalit worldviews though they keep pretending otherwise. Just to remind an incident, can anyone forget the statement by Mr. George Fernandes, the then Defence Minister, justifying rapes of Muslim women during the Gujrat carnage by terming it a 'common enough occurrence' during riots and 'why to complain about it now'? That he said this in the Indian Parliament adds a little more to the meaning though. The point missed by many was simple enough that Fernandes tried to delink rape from a well-organised state-supported pogrom of Muslims and put it into the individual realm.

It cannot be just a coincidence that media did not go in the outrage mode even then. Definitely there was condemnation of the statement, the issue did find place in the inner pages of the newspapers and in non-prime time slots in the electronic media. But then that it was. The same way it is now. And should we fear that the same way it would remain in future as well?

Mala's case, together with thousands of the similar ones, is the conclusive evidence that the project of nation building through democratisation of the society has failed terribly. The India today is not what Dr. B. R. Ambedkar envisioned it to be. The idea of nation to him, and to every rational individual, was not just of political sovereignty but one where the people feel socially bound as a group and not as divided by a regressive and pre-modern mode of social organisation that caste is.

That any police officer can strip any woman, more so those from the disadvantaged backgrounds with impunity, knowing well that the officer would get the support of the superior officers. The criminal in uniform, which many Indian police officers are, is aware that the superior officers would be smart enough to differentiate between 'extreme verbal abuse' and stripping while completely ignoring the basic issue that with what right had he detained two children in a police station for more than a day.

The officers accused in Mala's case knew that in most cases the victim, terrorised and traumatised, would never knock at the doors of law. And even if she does, the case would not get the media attention other cases involving upper castes and upper class victims would get. And that the case would be buried under the files, to be dismissed after a decade or so, because of the lack of evidences.

But then, in every such case it is not just an ordinary Dalit woman who gets stripped by the police. It is the democracy of the country itself. And whatever pretensions that comes with it!

First Published by the Asian Human Rights Commision. can be accessed at--

Nandigram and Bastar: Has India failed its people?

India, supposedly the largest functioning democracy of the world, continues to shock the world by violating the human rights and dignity of its own people. So while boasting of being a democratically elected government, the state—both central and provincial—keeps on killing it own people with absolute impunity. Recently, India witnessed two gruesome incidents of mass killings—one by the West Bengal Government and its police forces and second, by an armed resistance group in the Bastar district of Chhatisgarh. In one incident, the police killed innocent citizens, while in the other, citizens killed police personnel.

The significance of these two cases goes far beyond what is being discussed in the mass media and during public discourse. Instead, what these incidents primarily indicate is more the failure of the Indian state in ensuring and ingraining the democratic ethos in its own agencies and the consequent loss of people’s confidence in the state. Today’s India is a highly divided and polarized society. On the one hand, there are the ruling elites and the urban middle classes who are reaping the benefits of the growth model the Indian state is committed to. These classes enjoy world-class facilities in almost all aspects of life. They have the best of hospitals catering to all their health needs—keeping in mind of course that India is fast emerging as the hub of medical tourism; they have the best schools—including international ones, the latest gadgets and other luxuries. This class, despite being numerically a minority, has emerged as the dominant social class, in command of most of the resources and power.

On the other hand India is also witnessing a rapid deterioration in the conditions of those who are not part of this growing and assertive middle class—namely, the impoverished peasantry and the pauperised urban poor. In fact, the alienation of the lower strata of Indian society is near-complete. Their main problem is that they do not own means of production have no access to the sources of livelihood and are being kept out of the required bare minimums of social security like access to healthcare and education.

History of Exploitation

A closer analysis of the aforementioned two incidents makes a few other points clear. Bastar is one of those nondescript places, which does not seem to merit any attention from the state and its agencies. It forms part of one of the most beautiful forest areas in Central India and most of its population is tribal. And despite being rich in minerals and other resources, the district fares rather poorly on most other social and economic indices. Tribals living in the area are largely illiterate, do not own any agricultural lands and are largely dependent upon minor forest produce to eke out a living.

They have a long history of being exploited by the colonial rulers and the situation does not seem to have changed even after Independence. There are numerous report of sexual harassment of tribal women by men of the dominant castes and government officials. They do not have access to even basic health facilities and instead have to dependent on quacks. They do not have roads, electricity and other basic necessities of modern societies. After the introduction of the new forest policy, they were driven out of the jungles and were deprived of even the little they had.

They naively believed that all this was happening because they were ruled by a ‘different’ people and their lot would improve if they got to run their own state. They thus, demanded that the state of Chhatisgarh be carved out of the state of Madhya Pradesh. Sadly however, even after the new state was formed the situation did not change—in fact, it deteriorated. Therefore, after exhausting all democratic means of improving their conditions, people began to lose confidence in the state and considered themselves as ‘cheated’. These were the circumstances under which they took to arms and declared ‘a war on the Indian state’.

In Nandigram, the situation is little different. There, an unauthorized notice announced that the agricultural lands of the people would be taken away by the state for establishing a special economic zone. But the people were not consulted and did not have any say in the process of decision making. This infuriated the people and led to mass mobilization against state policy, Quickly the state declared that the notice will be withdrawn, but the state had become unreliable to such an extent in the eyes of the people that they did not take its word and virtually cut of the area from rest of the province. They tore down bridges, blockaded roads and declared the area out of bounds for the police and other government agencies. This led to a stand off which culminated in the killing of 14 people (or many more).

Clashes between the police and villagers in Nandigram led to the death of more than 14 people (Photo: PTI)
The question is, why are people, across the length and breadth of the country, losing (or have lost) confidence in the government. The basic reason of course is the shabby treatment meted out to the people by it. And despite all the tall electoral claims of different political parties, little has change in ground realities—or in fact they have taken a turn for the worse. So while the food corporation of India are full to capacity, hunger deaths continue and are becoming endemic in areas, which have no history of them. Peasants are committing suicide, small scale industries are dying and life has become really tough for the urban poor. In such an environment, the government emphasizes on building SEZs, shopping malls and other ‘necessities’ of the assertive middle classes in total ignorance of even the basic demands of the rest of its people.

Moreover, the state has shown a peculiar tendency of frustrating the democratic aspirations of the people by sidelining their peaceful movements, all the while attempting to engage with armed resistance movements. Interestingly, an analysis of armed resistance movements spread over different parts of the country brings a curious fact to the forefront: That most of these movements started out as peaceful, democratic ones only to get converted into what they are today. Also one needs to keep in mind that the police forces, which are entrusted with the responsibility of maintaining law and order, are inefficient at the best and corrupt at the worst. Police posts are considered to be scary places in most of the rural and semi urban places in India. Most people are simply afraid of visiting the police to lodge a complaint because they fear of getting economically exploited.

Access to Justice

Then, there arises a different question as to whether people have recourse to the celebrated judicial process of the country. Firstly, the marginalized people have little or no access to the judiciary. Even if they reach the outer doors of the system, they soon discover their incapacities of bearing the enormous cost of litigation and the fat fees of the advocates. And finally, the courts are highly overburdened with never ending cases dragging on for decades. Thus even a simple case—say harassment by the local authorities—may take something like 20 years. In this whole scenario, so much so, the common man finds out it is better for him (her) to recourse to fate or karma than putting him (her) self to further risk.

Also, the Indian police have never been reputed for being impartial and contrarily known to be easily influenced by anything from money, muscle power of feudal land lords in the countryside to caste-based and communal biases and prejudices. One of the best illustrations would be the Delhi police ‘looking the other way’ when Sikhs were being massacred by rioters in 1984; or more recently in 2002 when the Gujarat police ‘allowed’ the right wing Hindu forces to unleash a chilling spell of terror on the Muslims including butchery and burning people alive, rape, looting and chasing away traumatized survivors from their homes and villages. Similarly, the Supreme Court in a recent verdict convicted 19 Provincial armed constabulary men of the Uttar Pradesh police for killing more than 40 Muslims in cold blood and throwing their bodies into a canal. Under these circumstances it is rather futile to query whether a poor person in need would opt to contact the police or not.

However, over the years, the judiciary has made an about turn in addressing the grievances of the people. Despite being reputed for delivering some really progressive judgments and in turn, paving the way for rule of law, it had taken a few leaps backwards on this tradition in recent years. For instance, it went back on one of its previous judgments regarding not letting the height of Narmada dam increase until all affected people have been properly rehabilitated, and allowed the state to increase the dam height. The Kerala High Court, in 1997, banned the bandhs and declared the ‘forcible’ hartals (strikes) to be illegal while leaving the definition of ‘forcible’ open to interpretations. In the given realities of social life in India, the interpretation is most likely to be carried out by the bureaucracy with—it is needless to say—extremely adverse consequences for the workers. The decision was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Later, in 2003 while disposing the petitions against summary dismissal of over 170000 Tamilnadu state government employees, the Supreme Court observed that government employees ”under no circumstances have any fundamental, legal or moral right to go on strike… even the trade unions, who have a guaranteed right for collective bargaining, have no right to go on strike.” While upholding the right of collective bargaining of the workers united under a trade union, the SC assaulted the same rights in no uncertain terms. What is more worrying is the fact that, this judgment goes against the fundamental rights of the working classes to form unions and associations, to collective bargaining and to resort to strike action following the procedures set out by the law. The ILO Convention, of which the government of India is a signatory, recognizes that civil and political rights of public employees are like those of other workers. And the SC order has violated these core rights ensured to workers not by the struggles of the Indian working class, but fought over and won by the International solidarity of the working people, and recognized by international bodies.

The deeper meanings of the recent events can only be deciphered if we read them in this context. And predictably the implications for the Indian state look gloomy. It must be understood, it is state failure—and not the people’s—that is leading to such ugly and gruesome killings and massacres. What is at stake for the Indian state and society is the very foundation of the belief in the democratic ethos and the principles on which the state was formed. Therefore, the Government of India needs to be urged to look into the matter and take corrective steps immediately.

This can begin with an immediate and impartial inquiry into the incidents of Nandigram. Then once the perpetrators are identified, immediate punitive action has to be taken against those who led such a brutal assault on unarmed citizens. Simultaneously, the state should take up all pending cases in different courts where its police and paramilitary forces personnel stand accused. And the state should stop patronizing these guilty officers and instead bring them to justice.

This is the first step that urgently requires to be taken to ensure that the law of the land prevails and the confidence of the people is restored in that law.

Posted on 2007-04-12
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