Frivolous litigations, caste and Indian NGOs

Indian judiciary represents a contrasting picture as India itself. There are very few judiciaries in the world which receive as much media coverage as the Indian judiciary. The liberalization of the electronic media brought further spotlight on the judiciary.


I. The Beacon of light


Recently the Supreme Court of India has been in the limelight for its intervention in the case of extrajudicial execution of Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kauser Bi in November 2005 and three senior Indian Police Service officials, Mr D G Vanzara, Rajkumar Pandian and M N Dinesh Kumar have already been arrested. The Supreme Court's unprecedented interventions brought increased spotlight on the systematic extrajudicial executions across the country. The Central government, various State governments and Vanzara and Co. have rightly been facing trial by media about the violations of the right to life. Ultimately, it is the evidence produced before the Supreme Court which will determine.


The Supreme Court intervened following a letter – the unique system of Public Interest Litigations (PIL) developed in India - from Mr Rubabuddin Sheikh, brother of Sohrabuddin Sheikh alleging that his brother was killed in a fake encounter. The Supreme Court ordered the Gujarat Director-General of Police (DGP) to look into the case. The DGP ordered an inquiry by senior Indian Police Service Officer, Ms. Geetha Johri of the Criminal Investigation Department. The interim report submitted by Ms Geetha Johri's team in December 2006 stated that after killing Soharabuddin on 26 November 2005, the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) led by D.G. Vanzara moved his wife Kausar Bi to another farmhouse in Gandhinagar and killed her on the night of 28 November 2005. The report also stated as to how the ATS destroyed the dead body of Kausar Bi. The Gujarat Government immediately removed Geetha Johri from the investigation and appointed Rajneesh Rai to complete it.


In January 2007, Rubabuddin filed a habeas corpus petition asking for an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation. In its reply to Rubbuddin's petition, the Union Government confirmed that the Sohrabuddin and his wife Kausar Bi were killed in fake encounters. After the Supreme Court questioned as to why Geetha Johri was removed, Gujarat government re-instated her. As the investigation by Geetha Johri continues, the patterns of extrajudicial executions across the country are being reported as never before.


II. Judicial delay vs frivolous charges


The case of Sohrabuddin is not the only exception. On 8 May 2007, the Supreme Court had to intervene to stall the proceedings by a lower court in Haridwar against India's celebrated painter, M F Hussain for allegedly outraging religious sentiments with his paintings. Following the order of the lower court of Haridwar, the Mumbai police sought to attach Mr Hussain's residential property. Mr Hussain has been living in self-imposed exile in London given number of such cases filed against him. In 2006, the apex court had transferred to Delhi four similar cases registered against him in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. While many frivolous cases have been filed against Hussain, no such case has been filed when cricketers have been regularly depicted as Hindu Gods especially during Durga Puja in West Bengal.


M F Hussain is not the only one. On 26 April 2007, a court in Rajashtan ordered the arrest of Hollywood actor Richard Gere for mock-slobbering over Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty during an AIDS awareness campaign for Indian truck drivers. Another TV anchor Mandira Bedi is facing charges for wearing the Indian national flag on her sari near her knee (along with the flags of other cricket playing countries) during the World Cup cricket final on 28 April 2007. On 2 May 2007, a case was registered by the Maharashtra Police against model Rakhi Sawant, who was shown in a bath tub against the background of a Lord Buddha statue on a TV show.


While one Poonam Chand Bhandari filed the complaint accusing Shilpa Shetty and Richard Gere of “obscenity in public”, one Pushparaj accused Mandira Bedi of denigrating the nation. One Mahesh Tayade filed the complaint against actress Rakhi Sawant for hurting the sentiments of the Buddhists.


One wonders how, the lower judiciary which is plagued with 2,53,71,503 pending cases as of September 2006 finds time for depicting what former Attorney General and eminent jurist Soli Sorabjee called “as proliferation of the Taliban mindset among Indian lower judiciary”.


III. Tribals as victims of the insensitive lower judiciary


While the lower judiciary finds time to address the bountiful laws of India that care for everyone, the tribals or Dalits often suffer from discrimination and violence, and the laws adopted to protect their rights have seldom been implemented by the lower judiciary.


Since the Andhra Pradesh Scheduled Areas Land Transfer Regulation came into effect in 1959, 72,001 cases of tribal land alienation were detected involving 3,21,685 acres of land in the State as of September 2005. Out of these 72,001 cases registered under the Andhra Pradesh Scheduled Areas Land Transfer Regulation, 70,183 cases were disposed off and 47.47% of the cases involving 1,62,989 acres were decided against the tribals. The State government sponsored Giri Nyayam, Legal Assistance Programme for Land, was able to restore only about 106,477 acres of land to tribals in 29,873 cases as of June 2006.  The main reasons for the majority of the cases going in favour of the non-tribals were attributed to lack of understanding of the laws on the part of the implementing authorities, absence of legal support to tribals, and in most cases, the tribals not being a party in the proceedings.


In fact in the three districts of Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi of Assam, non-tribals have been using the lower judiciary to deprive the tribals of their lands. False and fabricated cases were lodged against the tribals with a view to grabbing their lands. [1]


IV. Does caste mind-set extend to Indian NGOs?


According to the report of the three-member committee established by the government of India under the chairmanship of Mr S K Thorat, Chief of India's University Grants Commission and released to the media on 6 May 2007, caste discrimination is rampant at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the premier medical institution in the country. As many as 69 per cent of the reserved category students alleged that they did not receive adequate support from teachers, 72 per cent said they faced discrimination and 76 per cent said their evaluation was not proper while 82 per cent said they often got less mark than expected. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes students also alleged "social isolation" at various levels including even from the faculty members with 84 per cent students saying they faced violence and segregation in the hostel that often forced them to shift to hostel number 4 and 5 where there was a concentration of the SC/ST students.


The pertinent question is whether the caste mindset also extends to the vibrant Indian civil society. Obviously, it is too sensitive a topic to be discussed among the liberals. But for fair assessment, ask the Dalits, the Adivasis and the Chinky-eyed indigenous peoples from the North East India. They have always been the victims who sought help from the mainstream civil societies. In the lexicon of the NGOs and donors, they are the classical target groups for whom programmes should be developed and a few socalled civil society groups become so possessive that even the victims' history, narration, perceptions etc become their “personal properties”.


When activists belonging to these oppressed groups seek to play the reversal role to become human rights defenders themselves, skin-deep liberalism and deep-rooted caste mindset of a few civil society activists ogles out.  In ancient India, only the Brahmins had the monopoly to learn in Sanskrit. Using the judiciary for frivolous charges against the Dalits, tribals or minorities or their activists still remains the domain of the majority including the State and civil society.


India has a long history of oppression and discrimination. It has also a long history of social movements and social reforms. The cases of skin-deep liberalism among the NGOs are exceptions. Indian social and civil society movement has a long history to be negatively affected by a few liberal-pretenders. Like the upper judiciary in India, Indian civil society still remains extremely vibrant, and a beacon for protection of the rights of the oppressed.

[1] . ‘Protect rights of tribals of Barak Valley', The Assam Tribune, 20 June 2006

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