Monday, September 20, 2004

Human Rights in India: Still a Problem

An exchange with one of the 'Gene Expression' people (think: George Will + Dartmouth Review) on Sepia Mutiny has me riled up about the question of human rights in India.

Specifically, what I have to say is this: there is a problem. It is serious. I'm not sure what awaits Paramvir Singh Chattwal, an asylum seeker in Florida who faces deportation after he failed to show up for a hearing. He may be detained by Indian police upon return to India, or he may not. He may be tortured yet further or even killed, or not. I don't know, and I don't think anyone knows.

But there are two things I think people need to remember:

1) Being detained by the Indian police is a very dangerous proposition, even to this day. A human rights activist cited in a recent Washington Post article claimed that there 1,300 people died in police custody in 2002. (I linked to that article in an earlier post)

2) The Indian police has a history of human rights violations it has never been held accountable for. Nor has it ever directly acknowledged that there is a problem.

On this note, let me offer a link to a blog produced by an acquaintance of mine named Jaskaran Kaur. Jaskaran has a Harvard law degree, and lives in Boston. Earlier she worked with an India-based activist named Ram Narayan Kumar to push through full documentation of the disappearances of Sikhs in Punjab. They performed many, many interviews with surviving family members of the 2000+ Sikh men who had been 'disappeared' in the 1980s, and kept the attempt to hold the government accountable alive. Some of the fruits of this research is available at this website. Further documentation is in a book published by the CCDP called Reduced to Ashes.

The point is, this stuff happened. Many, many people have been summarily killed in the interest of India's law and order. I don't know Paramvir Singh Chattwal from adam, and can't say whether I believe him. But if he says he was tortured and still has the scars from stab wounds on his body, I take that seriously. If he's being deported and sent back, that's a concern.

I should be clear: I am not sympathetic with those who want parts of India to secede in the interest of a dubious ethno-religious purity. I love India; I think it's an amazing country. I spend a lot of my professional energy trying to convince people -- colleagues, students, readers -- to take notice of it.

I'm only making these criticisms because I think India would be a much better place if the criminal justice system were radically reformed, if transparency were introduced, and if law-enforcement officers who've crossed the line were held to account for their actions. The first step is to admit what happened. The second is to recognize that it still happens (often for non-ideological reasons now).

But those are steps some people do not seem willing to take.


Kumar said...

Dr. Singh:

Yes, of course, India needs reform of its criminal-justice system (along with nearly every other facet of Indian bureaucracy) but....

Mr. Chattwal's case needs to be decided on its own merits. Not only must he show that he was tortured/detained for political reasons, he must also show that he faces a threat if deported now. My impression is that police in Punjab don't resort to extra-judicial means nowadays in such cases, even if they are notorious terroists.

I do have to add that Mr. Chattwal's claims seem dubious to me, prima facie. A man wanted by police, yet able to get a business visa! Moreover, the timing of his asylum claim is curious--why didn't he claim asylum immediately on touching these blessed shores?

As an aside, does Ms. Kaur investigate (equally energetically) the depredations of terrorists? A casual perusal of her blog page suggests she concentrates on the misdeeds of the GOI. But perhaps you know her work better. Do correct me if my first impression is mistaken.


1:08 AM  
Nitin said...


You are right about police brutality. The behaviour of the police is a shame and does not befit a democracy like India. As Kumar points out, that is something that needs to be fixed. But that is another item in India's huge laundry list.

I think Jaskaran is doing a good job on her blog, but to be taken seriously she must highlight human rights abuses by terrorists too. I said as much on her blog some months ago. Equivocation or silence on acts of terrorism is often seen as a sign of hypocrisy or vested interests.

As for Chattwal he may be right - for India uniformly discriminates against all its citizens :-)

9:36 AM  
Amardeep said...

I think Jaskaran's focus is on the GOI.

I agree with your sense that one has to also keep track of the violence committed by terrorists, and be wary of naive claims that everything would be better if the government would just behave. India has serious problems in Assam and Kashmir, which would tax any democracy.

A question I have (and this gets to the question of whether it's enough to just focus on state violence) is, whether the two forms of violence (state and terrorist) are qualitatively different.

I'm not sure, but I do feel strongly that they don't balance each other out or cancel each other: 1+ (-1) = 0. If anything, they complement each other, and reinforce each other: (-1) + (-1) = -2. India is at -2.

Also, as a matter of semantics, I wonder if it is really possible to say that terrorist actions constitute human rights violations? Perhaps in areas where secessionist groups have a measure of authority (like, say LTTE controlled Sri Lanka). But kidnappings, bombings, etc. committed by other groups should probably just be called "terrorism." The state has a monopoly on human rights violations because it is the institution primarily entrusted with human rights to begin with.

That said, it is no longer true that the state has a monopoly on violence!

10:07 AM  
Rob Breymaier said...

It seems improper to consider terrorism on the same level as state human rights violations to me. Similar to Amardeep's question of qulaitative differences, state human rights violations are distinct because the state is supposed to act fairly toward its citizens. Terrorists are supposed to blow things up and kidnap people etc. Not that those are good things. But, terrorists aren't breaking a social pact nor are they directly violating their own legal system.

Furthermore, I think that ensuring a fair system free of abuse works to undermine terrorist efforts. While the opposite encourages terrorism. It's not that terrorism is always a consequence of state actions or inactions. But, terrorism is influenced by the actions and inactions of states.

12:07 PM  
Kumar said...


Thanks for distilling the moral confusion of so many on the left. So, where do I begin...

"....the state is supposed to act fairly toward its citizens. Terrorists are supposed to blow things up and kidnap people etc..."

Ummm...well no, Brey. Moral rules, at least those regarding human rights, are universally applicable. Both govts. and terrorists are supposed to respect human rights.

Of course, you realized the absurdity of what you wrote and so added "... Not that those are good things." Thanks for that info., Brey. Who'd have thunk it?

But after that brief lurch into a sensible comment, you scurried back onto your original confused path. To wit, "...terrorists aren't breaking a social pact nor are they directly violating their own legal system..."
Own legal system? What could you possibly mean by that phrase, Brey ?

Once again, there is really only one standard in such matters. Everyone must respect it. There is simply no principled distinction between terrorists run amok (i.e., well-funded, well-armed, with control over substantial sectors of the population and/or land) and the 'state'. In such cases, the 'state' no longer has a monopoly on violence, as Dr. Singh notes. Even your phrase "...own legal system..." underwrites that view. That is the problem afflicting so many countries today, including India.

Your comment is studded with 'oughts' and 'shoulds', yet you apply them only to govts. One would think you were dealing in moral absolutes. But then you write that terrorists, apparently, have their "...own legal systems...", and lapse into a moral relativism.

I'll be charitable and assume your confusions stem only from muddled thinking, and not from the left-wings' usual disdain for (imperfect) democracies.


4:31 PM  
Nitin said...


Violence brutalises society. The ultimate damage done is more than (-2); but I always use the chemotherapy analogy to characterise this situation. Chemotherapy hurts, but left unchecked, Cancer kills. No sane person would go in for chemotherapy unless cancer is diagnosed and all other treatment options exhausted. So is it with counter-insurgencies.

Terrorism and proxy-wars (as in Kashmir) are just simply wars without the old rules that distinguish combatants from non-combatants. They are human rights violations, because they violate the right to life.

In a way, I can see what you mean when you say human rights violations are exclusive to states and governments. But violation of rights must be seen in the context of the government's violation of the states' own laws. Human rights may or may not be universal, but their applicability has to be enshrined in the laws of the state concerned.

Also, to complete the picture, violation of human rights (in India's context, the fundamental rights) must be seen in the context of a system which allows the affected people recourse and redressal. In India, in theory and in practice, these recourses exist. The common argument is that the wheels of justice grind very slowly in India; but the grind slowly for everyone - its a country of a billion people.

Here's a thought: the Indian state with its legitimate monopoly over the use of violence offers recourse, redressal and even reparations to its victims. Do terrorists, with their illegitimate use of violence ever provide that to their victims?

And Brey - not everyone who perceives themselves unfairly treated resorts to terrorism. Heard of Tibet?

6:21 AM  

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