IF one goes by the proclamations of the mainstream political parties in India, all of them are critical of all forms of extrajudicial killing. Leaders of all parties have time and again raised their voices against encounter killings and custodial deaths. Their declamations become all the more intense when such an incident makes the headlines in a State governed by their political adversaries. The leaderships of the two principal parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have adopted such postures in various States. However, their own track record in the States they have ruled divest them of all moral authority to protest on this issue.
A historical overview of extrajudicial killings in India shows that the Congress has been in the forefront of championing this method of policing in several parts of the country right from the late 1960s, while the Hindutva-oriented BJP has advocated it vigorously since the 1990s when the number of States it governed increased significantly.
The Congress track record started with the so-called anti-naxalite (anti-Maoist) operations in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. Later, Congress governments in different States employed this method against a variety of alleged law-breakers and enemies of the State, such as Sikh militants, underworld law-breakers and Islamist jehadi extremists. In the process, Congress governments targeted legitimate political opponents, too, branding them as extremists of one variety or the other. The targets of BJP governments have been, by and large, the so-called Islamist fundamentalist extremists and Maoists.
The record of the Congress has some chapters of vehement repression in West Bengal, where the party reportedly pioneered extrajudicial atrocities in the 1970s. Hundreds of activists of all opposition forces, including the principal opposition, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), were hunted down by the Siddhartha Shankar Ray-led Congress regime, from 1970 to 1977, in the name of tackling the naxalite menace.
The same practice was followed in the southern States of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, albeit on a smaller scale. In all three States, encounter killings became the norm during the Emergency (1975-1977). The trial in the Rajan case in Kerala in the late 1970s and the early 1980s and the Vimadlal Commission in Andhra Pradesh exposed the wrongdoings of two senior Congress leaders, K. Karunakaran and J. Vengala Rao respectively. Karunakaran was the Home Minister of Kerala between 1970 and 1977 and Vengala Rao was the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh from December 1973 to March 1978.
According to the Lucknow-based political analyst Indra Bhushan Singh, a senior advocate who was a human rights activist during the 1970s and the early 1980s, encounter killing and mysterious escape from police custody became the most common alibis State police forces gave during that period to explain the killing of persons who were then labelled dacoits, naxalites or terrorists, depending on what was politically expedient.
A former senior police officer from Uttar Pradesh observed that many of the worst forms of torture used by the police were perfected during this period. These included the aeroplane treatment (tying the hands of the suspect behind his back and then suspending him from a beam, leading to shoulder dislocation) and the cattle prod or roller treatment (rolling a wooden log on the suspects legs). The officer said rape and sexual humiliation of female prisoners also happened during this period. He added that many of these forms of torture were a part of routine policing even now across the country.
According to Indra Bhushan Singh, in the period immediately following the Emergency years, which witnessed the rout of the Indira Gandhi-led Congress in the 1977 Lok Sabha elections and the ouster of Congress governments in many States, extrajudicial killings had decreased marginally, mainly on account of the intense public focus on the Emergency atrocities.
It was in this climate that India, in 1979, signed on to Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The ICCPR provides that every human being has the inherent right to life and that this right shall be protected by law and that law prohibits the arbitrary deprivation of life under any circumstances.
However, the atrocities of the Emergency years were forgotten with the advent of Sikh extremism and the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. From then on, what we have witnessed is a series a police and paramilitary operations in Punjab, Manipur, Assam, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir in the name of fighting militancy and extremism, said Indra Bhushan Singh. Uttar Pradesh, too, is notable for its encounter deaths, which have assumed alarming proportions in recent times, he added.
The thrust of most extrajudicial torture and annihilation operations now is on jehadi extremists and Maoists. The former have been and continue to be pursued aggressively by BJP-ruled States. Leading the BJP governments exercises is the Narendra Modi-led Gujarat government, which has been accused of engineering a mass encounter killing of Muslims in 2002. The BJP governments in Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand have also been accused periodically of extrajudicial torture, detention and encounter killings.
The track record of CPI(M)-led Left Front governments in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura has been better in comparison with those of the Congress and the BJP. According to informal estimates by some non-governmental organisations (NGOs), between 1977 and 1987 Left-ruled West Bengal recorded a significant decrease in the number of incidents of extrajudicial torture. However, in later years the governments track record has been criticised by a number of NGOs, including Amnesty International, particularly on account of custodial deaths. In Kerala, too, custodial deaths have happened intermittently during the regimes of both the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front and the Congress-led United Democratic Front.
The records of other secular parties, such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) in Uttar Pradesh, the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), whose leaders held the Home portfolio for many years in Maharashtra, have not been anything to write home about. All these States have a pathetic history of extrajudicial torture and custodial and encounter killings.
Human Rights activists such as Lenin Raghuvanshi of the Varanasi-based Peoples Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), which has studies the issue for the past 13 years, point out that all mainstream political parties have employed extrajudicial torture and killings at some time or the other.
Some like the Congress, the BJP, the BSP and the S.P. have used it blatantly and in an unrestrained manner, while others may have done so sparingly. But the fact remains that there is the complicity of State and Central governments in extrajudicial torture and killings. The very fact that governments do not carry out a proper prosecution of the guilty in these cases points to this complicity, said Lenin Raghuvanshi.
He pointed out that bodies such as the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) were not effective in checking encounter killings because NHRC recommendations were not implemented by the State and Central governments. The guidelines issued by the NHRC in matters regarding encounter killings are rarely followed. Moreover, the governments also reward policemen or paramilitary personnel, which actually encourages such killing, he said. He added that amendments brought to laws such as the Indian Evidence Act, with a view to curbing custodial deaths, had not been effective in terms of implementation.
He is of the view that the glorification of encounter specialists by the media and the establishment has to stop if extrajudicial killings and torture are to end.
Activists such as Raghuvanshi and organisations such as the PVCHR and the NHRC have raised their voices on these lines for long, but they are yet to get a positive response from the political establishment.