Sexual abuse in police stations. Crimes “solved” by countless extrajudicial killings. Life-threatening prison conditions. Widespread torture. Thousands of unpunished murders in politically inspired pogroms. Sixty million children in forced labor.
For decades, American leaders and opinion makers have chosen to ignore the dark side of democratic India. Now new reports documenting the pervasive abuses committed by the Indian police are providing firsthand evidence not only of warrantless arrests, illegal detentions, torture and the deaths of thousands of citizens but also the complicity of parties and political leaders who have turned police and paramilitary forces in a number of states into bodyguard agencies and private armies.
The title of the latest report from Human Rights Watch, Broken System: Dysfunction, Abuse and Impunity in the Indian Police, leaves no doubt about its conclusions. But Human Rights Watch, which has been the most diligent of American organizations in monitoring and reporting on India in recent decades, is not alone. Another report, on the state of police reform in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, is soon to be published by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, based in New Delhi. A former Indian police official who has seen it says it will make many of the same observations.
The United States State Department has also been cataloging Indian rights abuses. Its latest survey of India, a chapter in the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, released on February 25, 2009, summarized pages of evidence this way:
Major problems included extrajudicial killings of persons in custody, disappearances, and torture and rape by police and other security forces. Investigations into individual abuses and legal punishment for perpetrators occurred, but for the majority of abuses, the lack of accountability created an atmosphere of impunity. Poor prison conditions and lengthy detentions during both pretrial and trial proceedings remained significant problems. Officials used special antiterrorism legislation to justify the excessive use of force. Corruption existed at all levels of government and police…. Increasing attacks against religious minorities and the promulgation of antireligious conversion laws were concerns. Violence associated with caste-based discrimination occurred. Domestic violence, child marriage, dowry-related deaths, honor crimes, female infanticide and feticide remain serious problems. Trafficking in persons and exploitation of indentured, bonded and child labor were continuing problems.
The killing of Sikhs, a largely prosperous religious minority in India, has been exhaustively documented by Ensaaf (Justice), a US-based shoestring human rights group founded by Americans of Indian descent. Its findings have not been significantly challenged by leading judges and government investigators in India, who are nonetheless powerless to force an end to extralegal behavior. About as many innocent Sikhs were murdered in the week following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by Sikh bodyguards in 1984 as all the Chileans who were killed or disappeared in seventeen years of Augusto Pinochet’s regime. The Sikh killings, and illegal cremations of bodies, without documentation or notification to families, continued into the 1990s.
The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative operates on the principle that “democratic nations need democratic policing.” Ironically, the Congress Party, dominant for most of India’s sixty-two years of independence and recently re-elected to power at the head of a coalition, would have the political clout necessary to see that multiple commissions and court rulings on police abuses were enforced. It has not done this; nor has the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, whose chief minister in Gujarat state has been widely reported to have been behind the massacre of up to 2,000 Muslims in 2002.
The Indian media have often been the most effective virtual enforcers of prescribed conduct, reporting ceaselessly on the kind of dubious police actions and too-quick findings of guilt that have created wide questioning and disbelief in many official investigations among the public.
“While India rightly touts itself as an emerging economic powerhouse that is also the world’s largest democracy, its police forces–the most visible arm of the Indian state–are widely regarded within India as lawless, abusive and ineffective,” Human Rights Watch concludes.
Human Rights Watch has studied in depth the weaknesses in police departments, especially in rural areas, where underpaid, overworked constables are kept on 24/7 call and often expected to do VIP escort duty as well as their regular jobs. Police stations are often without phones, electricity or vehicles. In a barracks in the holy city of Varanasi, four policemen had to share one bed, and there was no extra living space. It is a recipe for brutality and corruption, with lowly constables who have no chance of advancement taking out their frustration and lack of human rights training on people even lower in society than they, the ethnic and religious minorities and Dalits, or “untouchables.”
Middle-class Indians, and certainly the rich, inoculate themselves against the pervasive disease of impunity by paying bribes to the police, as well as to other public service agencies. Perhaps that is why, despite the hard work of many Indian nongovernmental organizations, a truly national movement against both police brutality and police deprivation never seems to get traction. In the US, a strong Indian lobby made up of professionals and business people–working with profit-hungry American corporations–plays down or rejects reports of endemic abuses. Indian political leaders escape censure by their American counterparts with the excuse that Indian democracy is self-correcting.
When American reporters comb the annual State Department human rights reports, they are looking for the usual suspects: China, Cuba, Burma, Pakistan and lately Sri Lanka, which has lost its UN Human Rights Council seat under a barrage of criticism from human rights campaigners. A closer reading of the chapter on India, with its almost 1.2 billion people, soon to be the world’s most populous nation, might be in order.