Identifying “instances of police and security force abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture and rape” as the “most significant human rights problems in India,” the Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 2016 from the US state department stated that a “lack of accountability for misconduct at all levels of government” persists in India, “contributing to widespread impunity.”
The report noted that widespread corruption is also to blame for ineffective responses to crimes – including those against women, children and members of the Scheduled Castes (SCs) or Scheduled Tribes (STs) – and societal violence based on gender, religious, caste or tribal affiliation.
According to the report, India’s other human rights problems include disappearances, hazardous prison conditions, arbitrary arrests and detention and lengthy pretrial detention. The report stated, “Court backlogs delayed or denied justice, including through lengthy pretrial detention and denial of due process.”
The report also dwelled on the fact that the “government placed restrictions on foreign funding of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including some whose views the government believed were not in the “national or public interest,” curtailing the work of civil society.”
Additionally, it mentions the actions of non-governmental groups too, stating “…separatist insurgents and terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir, the northeastern states, and the Maoist belt committed serious abuses, including killings of armed forces personnel, police, government officials, and civilians.”
The report stated that terrorism and insurgencies claimed the lives of 145 civilians, 114 security personnel and 324 terrorists or insurgents over the past year, in addition to over 90 people who were killed during violent protests in Jammu and Kashmir following the killing of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen militant commander Burhan Wani in July 2016.
It adds that Indian police killed 104 people alleged to be criminals or insurgents in “encounter deaths” last year.
Public support for repealing AFSPA
Noting that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) remains in effect in Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and parts of Mizoram, with a version of the same law in effect in Jammu and Kashmir, the report stated there is “considerable public support” for its repeal.
It also adds that in July 2016 the Supreme Court demanded that 1,528 alleged “encounter” cases in Manipur – which occurred over the last 20 years – be investigated. The ruling also added that armed forces personnel would not be immune from prosecution if the investigations revealed criminal conduct by them. The report also noted the Supreme Court’s derision for the Act, evident in its statement that the Act “mocks India’s democratic process.”
Prevalence of torture and custodial deaths
The state department report noted that NGOs continue to report torture despite it being banned in India. It said a study released by the National Law University, Delhi in May revealed that prisoners on death row reported living in inhumane conditions. The Death Penalty Research Project covered 373 of 385 death row inmates between July 2013 and January 2015, and 216 of the 270 inmates they interviewed said they had been tortured.
Internal conflict took its toll
The US state department report said Indian security forces’ indiscriminate use of shotguns loaded with pellets in Jammu and Kashmir resulted in 87 civilian deaths and led to thousands more, including children, being blinded.
It also referred to how Manda Kadraka, a member of a tribal community in Odisha, was killed by security forces during an exchange of gunfire with Maoists in Rayagada district. “Police claimed Kadraka was a Maoist and died after exchanging fire with security forces. The Niyamgiri Surakhya Samithi, an organization that works for the welfare of the Dongria Kondh tribal group, maintained Kadraka was not a combatant and that the police killed him to suppress protests against mining in the surrounding area,” the report said. It also mentioned how soldiers were killed by Maoists who “employed improvised explosive devices and small arms” in their attacks.
It also mentioned reports that “government security forces tortured, raped, and mistreated insurgents and alleged terrorists in custody and injured demonstrators.”
The report said insurgent groups were also using children to attack government entities in roles such as bomb couriers and said the central government stated that Maoist groups “conscripted boys and girls ages six to 12 into specific children’s units (Bal Dasta and Bal Sangham) in Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha” for use in combat and intelligence-gathering roles. Similarly, it said NGOs reported that a large number of minors were recruited by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) in Manipur.
Respect for civil liberties, freedom of speech take a beating
The US report also cited Human Rights Watch on sedition and criminal defamation laws being used to prosecute citizens critical of government officials or in opposition to state policies. It also noted several incidents involving students at various universities across the country.
It cited the February 12, 2016, arrests of Jawaharlal Nehru University students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar and seven other students, who were charged with sedition for allegedly shouting “anti-India” slogans at a protest. “The arrests and subsequent administrative disciplinary measures resulted in protests on other university campuses,” the report said recalling how Kumar was “abused and physically assaulted” inside court premises when he was taken there for a bail hearing on February 17, 2016.
The report also mentioned that while Indian law provides the right to peaceful assembly, police were accused of using disproportionate force against protestors on March 22 when students, activists and professors marched following Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide.
Freedom of media also curbed
The report said while “independent media generally expressed a wide variety of views without restriction,” the year saw authorities invoking laws that prohibit harming religious sentiments or provoking enmity among groups, “to restrict print media, broadcast media, and publication or distribution of books.”
It cited the March 21 arrest of journalist Prabhat Singh in Dantewada by the Chattisgarh police for allegedly sharing a message critical of the state police on a messaging application. They charged him under the Information Technology Act. Similarly, on March 26, Chhattisgarh police arrested journalist Deepak Jaiswal for inquiring about the Prabhat Singh case.
Clampdown on NGOs through FCRA
The US report also mentioned how, in June 2016, UN special rapporteurs on human rights expressed the view that the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) “provisions were increasingly being used…to silence organizations involved in advocating civil, political, economic, social, environmental, or cultural priorities, which may differ from those backed by the Government.” The statement highlighted the suspension of licences for NGOs including Greenpeace India, Lawyers Collective comprising noted lawyers Indira Jaising and Anand Grover, the Sabrang Trust started by social activist Teesta Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand.
In Setalvad’s case, the report said “representatives of certain international human rights NGOs sometimes faced difficulties obtaining visas and reported that occasional official harassment and restrictions limited their public distribution of materials.”
It said “police charged activists Teesta Setalvad, Javed Anand, Salim Sandhi, Feroz Gulzar, Mohammed Pathan, and Tanvir Jafri with embezzlement after donors claimed Setalvad, founder of Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) misused 1.5 million rupees ($22,500) collected to build a memorial to victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots. The Supreme Court granted defendants anticipatory bail after several denials in lower courts in Gujarat. The Gujarat state government froze CJP bank accounts in January 2014 pending the investigation. On August 17, 2016 the Supreme Court formally notified the Gujarat government it was seeking a response on a CJP appeal.”
Further, the report stated that “in July 2015 the CBI launched a second investigation of Setalvad and Anand for alleged misuse of grants from foreign donors” but on March 9, the Supreme Court extended the interim bail to Setalvad and Anand. “The activists alleged authorities filed the case in retaliation for their work on behalf of the victims in the Gujarat 2002 riots,” the report observed.