Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Right to Information; and a follow-up on Human Rights/Terrorism in Punjab

[Incidentally, I wanted to express my ongoing concern about the humanitarian situation in northeast Pakistan/Kashmir. I might suggest donating to the Oxfam Global Emergencies Fund. While there are sometimes doubts about the effectiveness of certain relief agencies, it is clear from things like this that Oxfam is playing an active part in the current relief efforts in Pakistan.]

The Indian Parliament recently passed a law guaranteeing citizens access to a broad array of information about both local and national government. The new law is designed to increase transparency and give citizens a tool to combat government corruption.

It's a heartening event, though it may not help in one of the areas where India has historically been weakest, and that is its criminal justice system. The lack of police accountability for its treatment of prisoners is an ongoing national disgrace. Moreover, the widespread use of torture (illegal under Indian law) severely weakens the government's credibility in fighting its internal terrorism problems.

Somewhat relatedly, the human rights group ENSAAF has recently released a report detailing human rights violations in the Punjab Police's arrests' of alleged Babbar Khalsa International members this past summer. Members of ENSAAF went around Punjab and interviewed family members of people (men and women) who were arrested, and came away with some pretty disturbing accounts of torture, indiscriminate arrests, and intimidation by Punjab police.

It's a compelling report, carefully written and documented, with lots of references (links) to media coverage of the recent arrests. (See the footnotes in the PDF file.) One article they cite that stands out to me is this piece from the Chandigarh Tribune on September 2:

Sixteen persons are to be excluded from the list of those who have been booked by the Punjab police for allegedly harbouring or helping terrorist Jagtar Singh Hawara. Sources in the Punjab police said 60 persons had been booked during the past three months after Hawara was nabbed by the Delhi police in Patiala in June.

The Punjab police had alleged that several persons were linked to Hawara’s network and rounded them up. RDX was recovered from some while others just happened to know Hawara. Some of those to be let off knew Hawara but had not helped him.

In the last week of July, the Punjab Chief Minister, Capt Amarinder Singh, hauled up police officers for creating an unnecessary scare among people through hype regarding terrorist-related cases, "human bombs" and recoveries.

Recently, the police withdrew its case against Mrs Manjot Kaur in court allowing her to walk free. She had been booked for serious offences like possessing RDX. The police claimed she was arrested in Punjab. Her 10-year-old son claimed his mother was picked from their home in Sector 34 here. He had then called up the Chandigarh police control room in this connection.

The sources said the Chief Minister was aware that certain persons had been detained under the garb of "investigating cases against terrorists." He had cautioned police officers "not to harass and intimidate anybody." Following the dressing down from the Chief Minister, the SSPs were forced to change their investigating tactics. They started investigations before registering cases related to terrorist activity.

This article directly supports the claim made by ENSAAF that the arrests this past summer were at times indiscriminate. It also raises the worrying question of the possible police fabrication of charges relating to RDX possession. If some people were charged with having possessed explosive material that they did not in fact have, could it be true in other cases?

On the other hand, the critical response to the investigations by the Punjab Chief Minister suggests there is beginning to be some limited element of accountability within the Punjab Police itself. The last sentence would be funny, if it weren't so serious: "They started investigations before registering cases..."

My one criticism is that the ENSAAF report, with its exclusive emphasis on human rights, does not really recognize the potential danger the guilty individuals might have posed to society. For instance, there is nothing in the ENSAAF report that makes me doubt the widespread sense that Jagtar Singh Hawara in particular is a hardened terrorist, who actively attempted to revive the BKI organization in India in the year. I see no reason to doubt his involvement in a murder of a Sikh granthi at the age of 15, his conspiring to assasinate the Punjab Chief of Police Minister Beant Singh, his attempted assasination of Pari Singh Baniarewala, or his distribution of RDX, plastique, and weapons to a number of associates.

It could well be said in response that ENSAAF's mission is human rights, and it would be inappropriate to speculate on matters of jurisprudence. That may be true, and the need to ensure the humane treatment of prisoners remains pressing (both in India and in U.S. detention centers around the world). But a concern for human rights needs to be balanced by a concern for the greater common good, which in this case requires aggressively rooting out terrorist networks and capturing bomb-making material. I see no reason to doubt that these folks were in possession of enough material to kill many innocent people.

Finally, I should say that this post is a kind of addendum to my Sepia Mutiny post on Hawara and the Babbar Khalsa from the summer. While things look a little different now that some of the people in the summer's large-scale roundup have been released without being charged, I stand by my take on Hawara and the BKI.


Suvendra Nath Dutta said...


You have way too much confidence in the law. There can be no balancing of human rights and public safety. Human rights are always paramount. It is a violation of a person's human right to kill him because you suspect he might blow up London. There can be some balance between civil rights and public safety. It may be legal to arrest someone on suspicion they might blow up London. But of critical importance in all this is due process. I think what a lot of the complaining in India has to do with is a lack of due process. This is a direct consequence of our inheritance of a colonial police system. The colonial british police violated due process with impunity. This has continued unabated since then. I remember an assistant commisioner of Kolkata Police who was loved by the middle class because he stopped bank dacoities by the simple expedient of picking up any suspect, driving them over to the river and shooting them. This sort of stuff is rife everywhere. My entire confidence in India (and lack of confidence here) when confronting the law is that there I knew a lot of people (and here I know no one) who could get me out of trouble if I got into it. That wouldn't matter if I had confidence in the due process of law.

Nitin said...


The balance that you strike in this post is what Human Rights organisations need to strike to be be credible in public opinion.

Organisations that highlight human rights abuses in democracies play a useful role in safeguarding essential freedoms. But very often they ignore the actions of terrorists, who use violence to deny human rights to many others.

I've always used the chemotherapy analogy for this. Chemotherapy hurts, even does permanent damage to the human body, but cancer kills. No one goes in for chemotherapy for fun, but because it is absolutely necessary.

I agree with Suvendra about the importance of due process. This needs to be balanced with efficiency of the judicial system. One reason why criminal prosecutions take too long and get lost along the way is because of, well, process.

We often have the Gandhian view of justice, "even if 99 criminals get away, we should not punish that one innocent man" at the back of our minds in India. I'm not advocating a change in this philosophy, but look what the 99 have been up to.