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Death In A Quiet Corner

March 21, 2012

This op-ed appears in abriged form in Daily News & Analysis on the 19th of March, 2012.

‘Torture has long been employed by well-meaning, even reasonable people armed with the sincere belief that they are preserving civilization as they know it. Aristotle favoured the use of torture in extracting evidence, speaking of its absolute credibility, and St.Augustine also defended the practice. Torture was routine in ancient Greece and Rome, and although the methods have changed in the intervening centuries, the goals of the torturer – to gain information, to punish, to force an individual to change his beliefs or loyalties, to intimidate a community – have not changed at all.’ – from Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, The Dynamics of Torture, by John Conroy.

On the 11th of August of 2010, Mandangi Subarao of Kondabaredi village of Rayagada district of Odisha, allegedly committed suicide by hanging himself in the offices of the Anti-Naxalite cells of the police station.

He killed himself in the police station that specializes in tracking down and killing Maoists, in fear of the Maoists, according to the police.

His case was eventually sent to the National Human Rights Commission by the National Campaign For The Prevention Of Torture, who asked the state to submit action taken report by 2 February 2012. The police continue to be on duty. A similar situation had developed in Dantewada when the NHRC took cognizance of the death of Pudiyama Mada after newspaper reports detailed his torture by the Central Reserve Police Force, and his eventual ‘suicide’ in the Sukma police station.

Meanwhile, the medical report on adivasi teacher Soni Sori’s condition that reached the Supreme Court stated that stones were found lodged in her vagina and her rectum while she was in police custody.

The Supreme Court gave the Chhattisgarh government 55 days to respond, and sent her back to the Chhattisgarh jails, and has revealed once again, that the rule of law and the constitution is divorcing itself from the aspirations of citizen of the state, whose fundamental Right To Life has to be protected by the Courts, not something the Court grants her, or the police is allowed to take away the instant they consider her a Maoist sympathizer.

Her hearing was supposed to be held on the 25th of January, 2012, but its turn never came up. Instead, the Superintendent of Police Ankit Garg, who she accused of torturing her, won the President’s Medal for Gallantry on Republic Day, the day the constitution of India came into being. He was awarded for his conduct during an encounter with the Maoists in Mahasumand District in 2010.

To the state machinery: it remains a story of he said, she said, as the allegations of torture in police custody leave no witnesses besides the tortured themselves, but in this case, the accused has a medical report from Kolkatta to say that her body was violated beyond anyone’s imagination, unlike the Mandangi Subarao case, where a man who kills himself in the police station in fear of the Maoists has done so in a district, out of sight and mind, and buried in the quagmire of the hopelessness of raising one’s voice over endemic abuse.

The National Human Rights Commission has gone on record to say that 1574 custodial deaths took place between April 2010 and March 2011. And between 2001 and 2011, there were around 15,231 custodial deaths, according to The Asian Center For Human Rights who had done a similar study on custodial violence in 2008, where they had claimed around 9,000 people were killed in police custody since 2000, at an unchanging average of four per day.

The Police State Against The Woman’s Body

16 year old Meena Khalko was killed in an alleged encounter and accused as a Maoist. Allegations would surface that she was raped and murdered and not killed in crossfire, and the Chhattisgarh Home Minister parroted his police officials who said that she was ‘habitual about sex’ and had links with truck drivers.

Ishrat Jahan who the Special Investigation Team confirms was killed in a fake encounter recently was questioned by our own Home Minister G.K. Pillai who finds that her checking into a hotel room with another man is suspicious.

In none of the 99 cases of rape allegations against Special Police Officers or security personnel in South Bastar did the police file even a single First Information Report even after the Supreme Court ordered them to do so. The National Human Rights Commission Enquiry Team, (comprising of 15 police officials out of 16) only investigated five cases out of 99, where in one instance, they visited the wrong village and construed that the allegations were baseless as they couldn’t find the victims.

In the other village of Potenaar, there were discrepancies in the testimonies of women who were raped three years earlier and there was no FIR filed in the police station. Thus they construed again, that the allegations were baseless, as women traumatized brutally by assault have to apparently remember the intricate details of everything that was done to them and lodge a complaint against the same police that rapes them.

The women of Vakapalli of Andhra Pradesh who were allegedly gangraped by the special anti-Naxalite forces the Greyhounds, are still fighting for justice in a case that was widely highlighted in Andhra Pradesh but the accused policemen continue to be in duty, and the state continues to construe their allegations as nothing but Maoist propaganda.

Even though the women’s statements were recorded both before the police as well as the Magistrate: all of them stated that they bathed after the assault, they did not resist the assault as they were afraid of violence, thus, there was no sign of injuries (besides one woman who had a boot on her face), and thus no physical evidence of rape, and the case would run aground by a system that ignores the Supreme Courts own directives on rape, which mention that inquiries should be done on accusation alone and the burden of proving innocence falls on the accused.

A 12 year old girl who was allegedly raped by the member of the elite anti-Maoist C60 group of Maharashtra, in the village of Paverval on the 4th of March, 2009, the alleged rapist himself, claims with strong conviction, that it’s all Maoist propaganda mischief.

In Narayanpatna block of Orissa, in the village of Taladekapadu, on the 19th of April, 2011, a 14 year old girl was allegedly gang-raped by four security personnel, yet without making her medical report public, the Crime Branch claims the entire allegation is false. The girl’s family belong to the Kondh tribe who have been criminalized in a district that has seen mass arrests, police firings into crowds, mass abductions and tortures, and the burning of villages, and to them, the idea of approaching the judicial system itself is oppressive.

And the cases like hers are those that never receive the kind of attention that the Soni Sodi case has, where a woman stood up for her rights, who approached the media that would listen to her, who repeatedly spoke about the torture faced by her family by both the state and the Maoists, and would yet be condemned by the system, while those who defend human rights watch helplessly.

The State As A Bystander

A woman attacked with acid by a man in the middle of the market while a crowd watches without doing anything can be described akin to Soni Sodi being brutally tortured as the judiciary, the press, the senior police officials, larger civil society and the general public sit quietly.

A group of committed activists, a dissident media and international human rights organizations have been repeatedly bringing her case to the public eye, yet as a matter of fact, have failed to prevent her torture.

Bystanders, and the silent consent of the general public plays its role in perpetrating human rights violations. If a woman is being tortured, first it’s veracity is questioned, then when it is confirmed, she is dehumanised with the tag ‘Naxalite supporter’ so people can continue to be bystanders, and turn the pages over the suffering of a fellow human being. When it comes to rape, a victim is dressed indecently, not that men need to keep their dicks in their pants. When it comes to rape accusations against the police, the very lackadaisical and haphazard manner of the investigation, the complete lack of interest shown in even lodging FIRs, doesn’t entertain any seriousness of the crime and only manifests the complete bias of the police who are convinced that all accusations against their own, is malicious propaganda meant to ‘demoralize’ their ranks.

Bystanders, when there are many of them, will always pass on the responsibility of doing something when there are others in the crowd. Responsibility is diffused. Responsibility is further diffused, when the crowd looks around and notices no one is doing anything. Chief Ministers are quiet. Home Ministers are saying a rape victim was habitual about sex. The Highest Court of the land, sends a woman back to her torturers, to ensure procedure. But when a police official suspected of torture is awarded by the president of the nation, what kind of message does it give to the police?

The police however have been convinced that the Maoists have been using the laws of the land, the courts and Writ Petitio, to hamper their counterinsurgency efforts. And counterinsurgency is completely incompatible with human rights – what are human rights violations to one, are standard operating procedures to those in uniform.

State of Anomie

Psychologist Ervin Staub quotes in The Origins and Prevention of Genocide, Mass Killing, and Other Collective Violence, that ‘Dominant groups usually develop “‘hierarchy legitimizing myths” or legitimizing ideologies that justify subordinating other groups. They often see themselves as superior and deserving of their status due to their race, religion, intelligence, hard work, worldview, or other characteristics. Groups also embrace ideologies of development and visions of economic progress, identifying the victim group as standing in the way.’

And Jon Conroy quotes him extensively in Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, The Dynamics of Torture, where Staub studied mass human rights violations in Argentina during the military Junta, where “….over time, ‘the many kinds of victims made it difficult [for the perpetrators] to differentiate between more or less worthy human beings. It became acceptable to torture and murder teenage girls, nuns and pregnant women. Learning by doing stifled the torturer’s feelings of empathy and concern.’ Furthermore, the Argentine torturers could see that their actions were supported by the larger society. Their superior officers signed release forms for kidnappings, relieving the lower orders from responsibility for the acts they carried out. The judiciary commonly accepted the military’s versions of events. The press – threatened by prison terms for demeaning or subverting the military – largely accepted censorship and did not report on disappearances. Doctors were present in interrogation rooms…….The middle class, Staub says, was pleased by the junta’s economic policy and was unmoved by the repression that accompanied it.”

A considerable difference in India would be: the mainstream media censors itself not out of fear but for reasons it knows best.  The middle class, especially, is happier to be engaging with the indigenous adivasis as exhibitions in state-sponsered fairs. Doctors in Chhattisgarh had botched two medical reports on Soni Sodi.

In India, ‘development’, ‘economic progress’, have become the legitimate myths, justifications, war cries; the apathy, for the killing of the illegitimate children of the Republic.

That every day, four people are invisibly tortured to death in police custody reflects upon the society we are becoming, and the apathy that emanates from it, is the gasoline that falls into the tinderbox that is a lawless society holding a gun to its head, a neurotic world of violence where people kill each other for a packet of biscuits, or uncontrolable rage, or where the Border Security Force strips a man and beats him brutally and videographs it, as every institution of authority has broken down, where the new deities of profit, growth, development have destroyed the needs of human touch and conscience: where compassion, empathy, and mercy were quietly executed in some forest declared as a Disturbed Area or a ‘liberated zone.’

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