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Human rights concerns

Published : Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST

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In violent conflict situations, the predominant tendency of all sections of the polity is to blame the police. The need of the hour is a balanced approach.

A CONTROVERSY is raging in Kerala over alleged police excesses in dealing with an agitation of Adivasis in the Muthanga forest area in Wayanad district. Since the episode has been well reported in the media, I do not want to go into its details. Basically, there is a conflict on two issues.

The police and the government maintain that two persons were killed - one policeman and one Adivasi. The other version, that of the agitators and the Opposition parties, is categorical that several persons had to be accounted for, and that the police were guilty of a cover-up. Another matter of contention is how to deal with the many allegations that are flying around. Chief Minister A. K. Antony is content with the initiative taken by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to ferret out the facts. The Opposition will not buy this. At the time of writing this column, it continues to scream for a judicial inquiry. Nothing short of it will be acceptable to it.

Against this backdrop comes the NHRC order that the State government should seek a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry because the Commission sees many holes in the reports of government functionaries - the Chief Secretary and the Director-General of Police (DGP). It is learnt that the Chief Minister has straightway agreed to this and has moved New Delhi in this connection. His swiftness in responding to the NHRC is commendable considering that many Chief Ministers would have questioned the need to summon the CBI. It is, in fact, in tune with his Himalayan reputation for integrity and transparency. Whether this will mollify the Opposition is a matter for conjecture. Let us hope that wiser counsel prevails, and the Opposition provides a congenial atmosphere in which the CBI can conduct the investigation quickly and efficiently.

What I am exercised about here is, first, the manner in which the Opposition has sought to queer the pitch. I am not holding a brief either for the Antony government or the police. In the light of the NHRC's misgivings over facts trotted by the government, there has possibly been an attempt to protect individuals who do not deserve such protection. I am appalled, however, by the Opposition's lack of appreciation of the objectivity of the NHRC or the quality of its inquiries. I am not at all sure that a judicial inquiry is in any way superior to an inquiry by the NHRC's. Very often it is not. This is because the presiding officer chosen for the judicial probe is sometimes not known for his apolitical stance. He or she could also be one who has not been the best of judicial minds while on the Bench. In contrast, the NHRC is presided over by a former Chief Justice of India who has laid down office not long ago. Hence, there is no doubt that the task of unravelling the facts of an incident will receive the application of a judicial mind when the NHRC is involved. Also, under the NHRC Act, the Commission enjoys most of the powers normally vested in a judicial commission under the Commissions of Inquiries Act, 1952. Further, the NHRC has a better track record for time management and completing its inquiries faster than judicial commissions, which are prone to leisurely and slow procedures. In fact, many governments, desperate to buy time to get out of tight situations, promptly announce the setting up of judicial commissions and also give them generous extensions of time - an act not unwelcome to some presiding officers.

The Central government is no less guilty than State governments in this respect. By the time a commission submits its report, the matter inquired into is almost erased from public memory, and not many are concerned about what the government does with it. Actually, after a report is received, the Secretariat takes its own time as per the bidding of those in authority to "scrutinise" the report to arrive at its own "findings"! When this is the situation on the ground, it seems sensible to opt for an NHRC inquiry, rather than a judicial inquiry. This, of course, is only if the objective is to punish the guilty. If, however, the intentions are solely to cause embarrassment to a government, the NHRC course of action is hardly attractive to a party in Opposition. This is what is happening in an eternally politically surcharged State like Kerala, which, ironically, has the highest literacy rate in the country and has a population that is more enlightened than those in many other States.

It is possible that the Kerala Police has been guilty of overreacting to the outbursts of a deprived section of society that had been led up the garden path through unrealistic, if not false, promises of assignment of land. I am also not surprised by the way the agitating Advasis conducted themselves, because any section of population that has traditionally been maltreated could be expected to resort to unconstitutional and unruly ways to get its grievances redressed. What pains me is that, as usual, the police has become the whipping boy of all sections of the polity. There is undisputedly a need to keep the police in check and come down heavily on their misdeeds. But this cannot be done in a manner that is bereft of emotions. In Muthanga, one of the two constables held hostage (along with a forest guard) by the agitators was brutally tortured, and he eventually bled to death. Apart from removing agitators encroaching on public land, the police were trying to rescue the three government functionaries who were at the spot performing public duties. It is sad that very few have spoken for the dead constable and his grieving family. This is what rankles in me. This, unfortunately, is the pattern all over the country where police casualties are a mere statistic and do not matter at all. We lose more than 1,000 policemen in action each year. How many of us in Tamil Nadu remember the barbaric incidents in which two police officers were set on fire, in two different places, during the 1965 anti-Hindi agitation for no fault of theirs, except that they donned the uniform? Many of those morally guilty of endorsing such savage acts went on to become celebrities! This has been the state of our polity over the years, and there are only faint signs of a change in perceptions.

AGAINST the background of Muthanga and the issues that contributed to the distressing happening, I am delighted to read the Third Report (1997-2002) of the Committee of Concerned Citizens (CCC), an organisation in Andhra Pradesh, which has made a mark for its fearless espousal of public causes. The Committee's Convener, S.R. Sankaran, formerly an IAS officer, is known for his total dedication to social change and for his crusading spirit. I have met him briefly on a few occasions when, I must confess, I did not avail myself of the opportunity to interact with him at length to understand his labours. His committee's report only squares up with what I have heard of his selfless and relentless pursuit of unpopular issues in a positive manner. I wish we had more Sankarans amongst us, especially in the bureaucracy, if only for highlighting inequities in a society that has been vitiated by unremitting violence, excessive manipulations and unfathomable intrigues.

Sankaran's group, which commenced its work in 1997, looks upon itself as "part of a large democratic section of the society which feels that there is need for a meaningful search for a lasting solution to the social issues." The CCC is rightly perturbed over the extremist violence in Andhra Pradesh and also the nature of the state's response to it. What is most refreshing about the CCC is its balanced perspective and approach. In this, it is so different from many other groups in Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere that bay for police blood, the moment something like Muthanga happens. Showing indifference to the mindless violence perpetrated by extremist groups towards law enforcement agencies and sections of the community as well, cannot be condoned by right-thinking people. The Committee no doubt questions the propriety and morality of the many "encounters" that the police have carried out leading to untold misery and loss of life in the Telengana region. Police highhandedness had undoubtedly been in evidence during many such dubious incidents. The Committee does not at the same time ignore the violence unleashed by the People's War (P.W.) itself. It squarely finds fault with the P.W. for a variety of senseless acts: liquidation of people, especially suspected police informants; targeting individual police personnel; planting landmines leading to a number of deaths; destruction of public property; issuing death threats and imposing a "ban" on political parties. In sum, the P.W. has been accused of behaviour inconsistent with democracy and the objective of bringing about greater social justice through a peaceful and orderly process.

The Committee also bemoans the fact that "the thrust of the Naxalite movement is also more on the military actions rather than on the mobilisation of people for social transformation." The Committee no doubt attributes extremist violence partly to the "repressive" culture in the State. Nevertheless, it pleads with the extremists to abjure action that will further "brutalise the society and lead to the shrinkage of democratic space for mobilisation and direct participation of the people". It further advocates that naxalites should re-examine their strategy and preserve existing values in society, including respect for human rights. I have not come across a more perceptive critique of the extremist movement in the country.

Sankaran and his group had been exerting constant pressure on the Andhra Pradesh government and the P.W. that they should establish strong channels of communication to clear the air of bitterness and distrust. This was, at least partially, instrumental to the dialogue that commenced between the State government and the P.W. in June 2002. This welcome development led to a cessation of hostilities which lasted a month. Unfortunately, an exchange between the police and the P.W. in Karimnagar district on July 2, 2002 put paid to the exercise. Peace has been fractured since then. This reverse should not lead to dismay or demoralisation.

The moral here is that bodies such as the Committee of Concerned Citizens should not be ignored, even if a few of them displayed some chinks in their armour in the form of internal feuds and a craving for publicity. It must be remembered that they have a distinct role to play in diluting bitterness and identifying areas of agreement. Sankaran's initiative is something that deserves publicity so that it serves as a model in other spheres of conflict. His emphasis that it is not only government agencies but also extremist organisations that should show respect for human rights, is especially a welcome departure from the usual practice of mounting a tirade only against the police and other governmental organs when an event like Muthanga happens.

Let us hope that Muthanga does not repeat itself. If, however, it does, let us bring a balanced approach while deciding on a course of action on how to cope with its fallout.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Apr 11, 2003.)

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