NEW DELHI — A series of photos purportedly showing the extra-judicial execution of a young man by Indian police has thrown the spotlight on alleged human rights abuses by the country’s security forces. The sequence of photographs published by news magazine Tehelka and aired on TV shows police dragging the man into a building in the northeastern state of Manipur in broad daylight, and ends with his lifeless body flung on a truck.
Security forces say the 27-year-old hospital attendant was killed in an exchange of fire, but activists say the death is an example of a “fake encounter,” a practice in which police gun down a civilian and claim the victim initiated the shootout. According to a sharply critical report by New York-based Human Rights Watch published last week, such incidents are frequent in India.
The rights group interviewed more than 80 police officers and said nearly all of them believed illegal detention, torture and even killing were legitimate tools for law enforcement.
“The government should be concerned that for everyone who is now entering police custody, there’s fear from that person’s relatives that he or she will end up dead,” said Human Rights Watch senior researcher Meenakshi Ganguly.
Sanjay Patil, a consultant with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and author of a report on police reform, says fake encounters are “glorified” in India because of the influence of Bollywood action movies and a slow-moving justice system which means suspects sometimes await trial for years.
“People like the immediacy of that justice but they only like it when it’s somebody else,” Patil said.
India’s home ministry refused to comment on the Human Rights Watch report, but junior home minister Ajay Maken told parliament earlier this month that as many as 28 fake encounters had taken place between April and July alone.
In one high-profile case in 2005, police in the Hindu-nationalist ruled state of Gujarat gunned down a Muslim man, Sohrabuddin Sheikh, claiming he planned to assassinate chief minister Narendra Modi.
The state admitted in court that police had killed Sheikh in a staged gunbattle in the suburbs of the western state’s largest city Ahmedabad and that Sheikh’s wife had been killed as well, apparently to silence her as a witness.
The Indian press has likened such cases to Clint Eastwood’s 1971 vigilante cop thriller “Dirty Harry,” with critics decrying the emergence of police officers ready to take the law into their own hands.
Six officers have been suspended over the Manipur killing and three top officers were jailed for the Gujarat shootings.
In an interview by Human Rights Watch with a police officer about alleged shootouts, he said: “In 99.1 percent (of cases), it’s fake…. In a real encounter, the police would also get injured.”
The report said overstretched and under-resourced police forces often resort to violent tactics to please superiors and fulfill public expectations of being valiant crime fighters.
“I fear being put in jail (for killing a suspect) but if I don’t do it, I’ll lose my position,” the report quoted another officer as saying.
Police also often act on anecdotal evidence or tips from powerful people with vested interests or a political grudge, rather than conducting their own investigations when pursuing cases, Patil said.
Arun Bhagat, a former director of India’s domestic intelligence agency the Intelligence Bureau, says instead of being punished, officials are often promoted for rights abuses.
The fact many officers must work round the clock, earn tiny salaries and live far from their families in filthy barracks, undermines morale and pushes them to breaking point, the rights report said.
The low wages have fuelled rampant police corruption and people often pay bribes to get police to investigate a case — or drop cases.
What has prevented any major reforms is that “politicians feel they will lose a lot of authority and a lot of power” and that they will be unable to get police to do their bidding, Bhagat said.
Now after more than six decades of independence, most people accept police strong-arm tactics and impunity as the norm, observers say.
“India is modernising rapidly, but the police continue to use their old methods: abuse and threats,” said Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams.
“It’s time for the government to stop talking about reform and fix the system.”
By Yasmeen Mohiuddin (AFP) – Aug 9, 2009