In recent weeks, human rights violations in India have slowly been seeping into the mainstream Western consciousness — and not just because of Sergeant Srinivas. A flurry of media stories and human rights reports draws attention not only to particular extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and incidents involving torture at the hands of Indian police and security forces, but also to the prospect that such incidents may be part of more systematic patterns of abuse than is typically assumed.
Numbering in the thousands every year, "encounters" or "encounter killings" are shootouts between the Indian police or army and any criminal element, from terrorists to petty thieves. Many Indians believe that at least some are stage-managed — with, say, a police officer placing a gun in the hands of a dead person — leading to the popular phrase, "fake encounter killing."...
In almost all, India’s limited forensics capabilities make investigating the claims of either side hard to verify. But the national news media often accept the police’s version,which puts them in harmony with many in their middle-class audience who fear rising crime and terrorism. Meanwhile, Bollywood and Indian media lionize “encounter specialists” — soldiers or policemen who, like Dirty Harry, specialize in shootouts. [NYT]
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Human rights activists have for years protested the growing incidence of encounters, some of them allegedly staged. "Encounters have become the norm," says Vrinda Grover, lawyer and human rights activist. "They have become the police's preferred method to deal with not just terrorists, but criminals of all kinds." Legends of "encounter specialist" cops abound, and one of them was even the subject of the Bollywood film Ab Tak Chhappan ("So far 56", implying the number of people he had killed).
Activists allege that in numerous instances, evidence has been planted after a shooting in order to justify police claims that officers had acted in self defense. Encounters are meant to be probed by a magistrate following a post-mortem, but critics point out that the investigative work in such probes is undertaken by the police themselves. They also allege that such tactics enjoy tacit approval from the authorities in areas plagued by insurgencies. [Time]
Both stories focus on encounter deaths that took place in January, with Time focusing on the killing of two men in Noida, just outside of Delhi, and the Times discussing the killings of 19 tribal villagers in Singaram, in the state of Chhatisgarh. (Details about the Singaram killings were previously recounted in an exhaustive investigative report by Tehelka.)
When such incidents of abuse have been acknowledged, Indian government officials, like their Bush administration counterparts on the subject of torture, have tended to characterize them as isolated or aberrational. (Indeed, when Indian officials initially reviewed "Slumdog Millionaire" to give its approval, their only objection was that it was "inconceivable that anyone above the rank of an inspector could be involved in torture," a complaint that reportedly prompted the filmmakers to revise the script to have a lower ranking police officer, rather than a deputy commissioner, commit the torture.) Media coverage tends to echo such characterizations.
However, human rights reports suggest that far from being aberrational, such abuses may be systematic and widespread. As the Time story observes, "'[e]ncounter' has been a dirty word in India for decades, especially since the Punjab insurgency of the 1980s and 1990s." A report released last month by Ensaaf and the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) at Benetech undertakes a comprehensive empirical analysis of over 21,000 records of encounter deaths, disappearances, and other lethal violence in Punjab during that period. According to its authors:
[The] report uses quantitative methods to scientifically demonstrate the implausibility that these lethal human rights violations are random or minor aberrations as suggested by Indian officials. The strong correlation found between lethal human rights violations and overall lethal violence across time and space supports the conclusion that enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions were part of a specific plan or widespread practice used by security forces during the counterinsurgency.
The analysis also demonstrates that between 1988 and 1995, militant deaths reported from an “encounter” or exchange of gunfire with the security officers were strongly correlated with lethal human rights abuses reported by the victims’ families. This correlation supports assertions by human rights groups that these encounters were fabricated by security forces to conceal extrajudicial executions.
The report further demonstrates that when human rights violations increased dramatically after 1991 and fewer families were able to recover the bodies of their loved ones, "illegal cremations" acknowledged by the Indian National Human Rights Commission also increased. The strong correlation between these events suggests a shift in state violence during the height of the counterinsurgency towards large-scale enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions, coupled with mass cremations to dispose of the bodies. [Ensaaf-HRDAG]
The report is accompanied by a podcast summarizing its findings (which is available to the right) and a photo essay. Ensaaf and HRDAG characterize the report as a "preliminary analysis," anticipating that after collecting and analyzing additional data, they may be able to estimate the overall number and pattern of disappearances and encounter killings that took place in Punjab during the course of the government's counterinsurgency campaign.
The U.S. State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices was also released in February. As in previous years, the State Department again reported "major problems" in India with "extrajudicial killings of persons in custody, disappearances, and torture and rape by police and other security forces," noting that for the majority of those abuses, the "lack of accountability created an atmosphere of impunity." According to the report:
There were credible reports that the government [of India] and its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, including extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals and insurgents. A high rate of encounter killings occurred in the Northeast, particularly in the states of Assam and Manipur. Sources also reported encounter killings in Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, and Chhattisgarh. Custodial deaths remained a serious problem, and authorities often delayed prosecutions.
Despite the National Human Rights Commission's (NHRC) recommendations that all police encounter deaths be investigated by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), many states conducted internal reviews only at the discretion of senior officers....
As in the previous year, there were credible reports that police throughout the country failed to file required arrest reports for detained persons, resulting in hundreds of unresolved disappearances. Police usually denied these claims. [State Dept]
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