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Holy cows, chained watchdogs

Suhas Chakma

The Government of India, in a "memorandum of action taken" of December 2003 on the 2001-02 annual report of the National Human Rights Commission of India, has rejected the NHRC's demand for amendment of Section 19 of the Human Rights Protection Act (HRPA) of 1993 citing "compulsions of fighting cross-border terrorism" and "widespread politicisation of human rights issues".
Under Section 19 of the HRPA, while dealing with complaints of human rights violation by the Armed Forces, NHRC "may seek a report from the Central Government" and "after the receipt of the report, it may either not proceed with the complaint or, as the case may be, make its recommendations to the Government". The NHRC basically serves as a glorified post box and it has been demanding the amendment since the last few years.

According to the 2002-03 Annual Report of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), 14 out of 28 states are afflicted by internal armed conflicts. Hundreds of thousands of security men from para-military forces and the army have been deployed. There have been reports of serious human rights violations by security men such as torture, rape, extra judicial executions and death in custody.

The NHRC reports provide testimonies to some human rights violations by security men. In its 1999-2000 Annual Report, NHRC cites the October 22, 1993, massacre in Bijbehara in Jammu & Kashmir, where approximately 60 people were killed by BSF personnel. The NHRC took suo motu action and issued notices on November 1, 1993, to the Ministries of Defence and Home Affairs and the Government of Jammu & Kashmir. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) informed the NHRC that 37 persons died and 73 others injured in the firing.

In an order on January 17, 1994, the NHRC recommended that "a thorough review be made into the circumstance in which BSF units are deployed and operate in situations involving civilian population." In a letter dated November 12, 1996, Mr AK Tandon, Director General, Border Security Force, informed the NHRC that "a General Security Force Court (GSFC) trial was conducted in respect of 12 BSF personnel involved in the incident, but confirmation of the trial was being withheld as additional ROE was to be conducted against Sub-Inspector Mahar Singh." Mr Tandon also informed that the trial was concluded on October 30, 1996, and the accused was found not guilty.

In a further order on March 16, 1998, the NHRC stated that before taking any final view in the matter, it first wanted to review the proceedings. It directed the MHA to produce records of the trial proceedings conducted by the Staff Court of Inquiry and the GSFC and the record of administrative proceedings. The MHA did not honour the request expressing "inability to show GSFC records to any authority other than those under the BSF Act". Consequently, NHRC was "compelled to move a Writ Petition before the Supreme Court", which was later withdrawn under mysterious circumstances.

Apart from the Bijbehera case, the NHRC also expressed concern that those responsible for the abduction and subsequent killing of a prominent advocate of Srinagar, Jalil Andrabi, on March 27, 1996, are yet to be brought to trial, in its 1999-2000 Annual Report. The Commission's insistent call that the killers be tracked down and brought to book met with little response and a single line comment came in the 1998-99 Annual Report: "The matter is sub judice."

Given occurrences of enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings, the NHRC requested the Government of India to direct the security forces to report to it any cases relating to death in custody. It fell on the deaf ears of the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The obfuscation of justice by the Government does not end here. Even the annual reports are withheld and not submitted in Parliament on time. Not surprisingly, in its latest 2001-2002 Annual Report, the NHRC states: "The delays (in making the reports public) have amounted to denial of the right to information... The delay in tabling the annual reports before Parliament has resulted in a corresponding delay in releasing its contents to the public. In the process, both the elected representatives and the public have, in effect, been denied timely and comprehensive information on the work and concerns of the Commission."

The NHRC rightly urged that impunity to the Armed forces bring no credit to the Government and the security forces and "it thwarts the purposes of justice and the prime objective leading to establishment of this Commission, namely the need to ensure `better protection' of human rights in the country". The impunity to the Armed Forces and insinuation against the NHRC lay to dust India's claim to being a democratic state.

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