Will anti-torture law have the desired effect?
Just days after 76 security personnel were killed by Maoist rebels in Chhattisgarh, a long-pending bill to prevent torture has been cleared by the cabinet for introduction in parliament, which aims to align Indian law with the U.N. Convention Against Torture.
Activists have for years demanded ratification of the 1984 U.N. convention, which India signed 13 years ago, to curb alleged brutalities by state agencies especially in disturbed areas like Jammu and Kashmir, the North East and the “red corridor” where Maoists operate.
But some cabinet members reportedly felt the bill was ill-timed in the wake of the Dantewada killings, arguing it could be demoralising for security forces who are trying to maintain security in hostile environments.
The police and security forces are often accused of using violence to extract confessions from suspects, and activists say hundreds of custodial deaths and other alleged human rights violations stoke separatist sentiments in Kashmir and contribute to the growth of Maoists in Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa.
Special legislations like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which gives extra powers to the armed forces, have been blamed for many rights violations especially in the north-eastern state of Manipur, where protests demanding the repeal of the act are common.
The government’s proposed Prevention of Torture Bill, which is likely to be placed before parliament in the second phase of the budget session, prescribes a maximum of 10 years in jail for a person found guilty of torture.
Being the world’s largest democracy and a self-proclaimed emerging power, India needs a law which clearly defines physical and mental torture, to be regarded as a responsible nation.
But with recent heavy setbacks suffered by security forces against Maoists, where some felt false information led security forces into a trap by rebels, will a strict law against harsh interrogation of suspects come in for opposition from some quarters?
Even in the United States, some right-wing politicians have defended heavy-handed methods of extracting information from suspects.
Dick Cheney, who was vice-president when the Sept 11, 2001 attacks took place, defended harsh interrogation tactics like waterboarding used on terror suspects in 2002 and 2003, claiming authorities extracted information that helped protect the country and saved “thousands” of American lives.
But President Barack Obama said the present U.S. administration would not compromise its ideals to fight terrorism, thereby ruling out torture.
Activists also argue that torture is no guarantee for obtaining the right information as someone experiencing extreme pain will say whatever he is asked to say — true or not — to get relief.
The question then is where should security forces draw the line — should they follow the anti-torture law in letter and spirit or should they be given leeway in special cases where information could be vital?
And more importantly, will the anti-torture law actually have the desired effect on the ground, in the faraway tribal areas of Jharkhand or the tense mountains of Kashmir?