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India: Where freedom & dignity remains a mirage

AHRC-STM-228-2013
December 8, 2013

A Statement from the Asian Human Rights Commission

Human Rights Day commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, which declares freedom and equality for every human being in the world. The Indian constitution, adopted by the people of independent India a year later, guarantees each Indian citizen right to life with human dignity, reflecting core values of the Universal Declaration.

Today, to mark the occasion of International Human Rights day, 64 years after the Indian Constitution was borne, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) releases its Report on the State of Human Rights in India, 2013.

The report may be accessed here.

Law-enforcement agencies are the frontline state apparatus, which guarantee the protection, promotion, and fulfilment of human rights to citizens. Any critical assessment of a democratic state must examine the functioning of these agencies, most importantly, the police. Therefore, apart from reflecting on national events and the legislative contortions of criminal politicians, the AHRC has examined India's law-enforcement vis-à-vis the normative rule of law guarantees that it promises its citizens. AHRC has used its assessment of India's justice institution framework to ascertain the country's larger human rights landscape.

The picture that emerges is not pretty.

The very mention of the police, the primary complaint registering entity in India's justice system, generates fear and repulsion in Indians. Any person approaching the police runs the risk of being humiliated, tortured, raped, shouted at, and implicated in fabricated charges. Rare is the Indian who wishes to approach a police station, as complainant, witness, or as an accused. Those that have no choice scramble for help from local politicians or try to ascertain the going bribe rates.

What dignity can the Indian state provide to its citizens, when, today, 64 years after its celebrated constitution came into being, the primary agency in its justice framework, is itself in a state of enforced rot?

Take for instance the subject of sexual assault in India. The gang rape and subsequent death of a medical student in December 2012 raised phenomenal debate all over the country and across the globe. However, sexual violence remains strong as ever. This is because the fundamental defects in the day-to-day functioning of the central component in the law enforcement framework, the police, has not been addressed.

AHRC is deeply concerned about the fact that despite several legislative amendments made early this year, women in the country prefer not to approach law enforcement agencies seeking justice. AHRC demands a thorough review of India's criminal justice policy. The foundational premise of criminal justice reform must be the certainty of punishment, not the severity of it. This correct premise will reduce crime.

AHRC is deeply concerned that, so far, India's policy on police reforms is, in fact, not to have any policy. The country's diversity in terms of caste, language, culture, and ethnicity breeds a wide range of human rights problems, making it a complex region for administration of justice. Excessive use of force, including lethal force in crime 'investigation' is, however, the defining character of the law enforcement agencies.

The state exonerates such practice, granting impunity for crimes like torture, extrajudicial killings, and custodial death by statute. This year too, AHRC reported a substantial number of such cases, including those involving torture and custodial death, committed by the police and security forces in India.

Draconian laws like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, are being dragged on to ravage new generations, never mind the ruin already left in their wake. Statutory impunity built into such laws, and, in fact, their very nature, has contributed to India's appalling human rights record.

Human dignity cannot be ensured if torture is not declared a crime. Yet another year has passed by and torture is not criminalised, though the promise is renewed every year without fail. In 2012, during the Universal Periodic Review at the UN, the Government of India informed the Council that the Prevention of Torture Bill 2012 will be made into a law once the definition of torture is fully reflected in domestic legislation. It is still not known when the Bill will be converted into law. The ratification of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) is overdue – the country being a signatory to the Convention since 1997.

Institutional reforms are an essential part of modern democracy. Calls for reforms in the country – especially when privileges and non-transparent power of policy makers are targeted – are opposed vehemently to nip them in the bud. Reforms initiated by the Supreme Court of India, such as removing criminals from the political landscape and bringing greater transparency to political parties has met staunch opposition.

In June this year, in line with public opinion that overwhelmingly supports greater transparency in governance, the Central Information Commission (CIC), in a ruling, brought six national political parties under the remit of Section 2 of Right to Information Act, 2005, by defining them as public authorities. However, the government proposed a Bill in Parliament to negate the order and is waiting for it to be converted into a law.

In the prevailing conditions in India, human rights defenders who assist victims in their pursuit of justice are easily silenced by threats to their life and person. AHRC has documented cases this year where human rights defenders have been harassed. They have been summoned and monitored by state police, without legal sanction, and arbitrarily detained on fabricated charges.

The AHRC's State of Human Rights Report in India, 2013, analyses such aspects.

While the world celebrates the concept of human rights with dignity, freedom and equality today, they remain a challenge in India.

ENDS

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