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Custodial Deaths Are A Blot On Nation


In the midst of a heated campaign for the upcoming national elections, the death of a local school teacher in police custody in Jammu and Kashmir did not make the headlines. In Jammu and Kashmir it has set off a new round of protests, angered more citizens and made it that much more difficult to win people over at a very sensitive and difficult time in the history of the state. This is not the first time that Jammu and Kashmir and the nation face the consequences of deaths in police custody. The latest death highlights once again all that is wrong with methods of investigation that cannot solve any crime or stop any terrorist but end up fuelling more distrust and hatred of a system in which the protectors are seen as the killers.

The official account of what happened to the school teacher, Rizwan Pandit, is terse and does not reveal much. The Jammu and Kashmir police issued a statement on March 19 that said: “In pursuance of terror case investigation, one suspect Rizwan Pandit, resident of Awantipora, was in police custody. The said person died in police custody. In this matter, while following the procedure laid down in Section 176 of CrPC, a magisterial inquiry is underway. Separately, police investigation has also been initiated in the jurisdictional area of incident.” The version of the family members of the late Rizwan Pandit and other accounts coming in from the local area leave a trail of unanswered questions that the state will be hard put to explain. Worse, a newspaper has reported that an FIR was lodged against Rizwan for attempting to escape from a police vehicle after he was reported by the police to have died in custody. This particular incident therefore indicates the total breakdown of due process, an investigation machinery that has crossed all boundaries and is working with weak or non-existent supervisory checks and balances.

Mood in J&K

What is particularly distressing is the lack of concern of the state leadership once the incident has been reported and raised the kind of protests it has. The mood can be seen from the fact that a range of business and civil society associations have come together to address a news conference to “express our anguish at the perennial silence of the world community and human rights organisations over the repeated brutalisation of our community.”

Their statement airs the general mood in Jammu and Kashmir: “The repeated perpetration of serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law needs in-depth fact-finding and investigation. With the view of providing avenues of justice and redress for victims and to deter future violations, we appeal to the Hon’ble Governor Mr Satya Pal Malik for setting up of a time-bound Independent Special Commission of Inquiry. Till the time the Commission submits its report, it would serve the ends of justice if the case is treated to be one of custodial killing and all persons associated with it are put behind bars and kept away from active duty.”

The state machinery will do well to heed the call, launch investigations and signal to the errant officials that they will be held to account for their actions. A full-fledged, complete and rigorous investigation is the least that the state can promise the family members of the deceased, of the people of Jammu and Kashmir and the people of India. That is the national call of duty, and would be an act of patriotism because any other action only means signalling that the people have no voice and that gross violations of rights of ordinary citizens will go unpunished. This separates the people from India as a democracy in which they have an equal part as equal citizens of the nation. Lack of action harms the Union of India and supports terrorists because it quite simply makes their arguments against India gain currency and credibility.

Human rights violation

India has had a long history of violations of human rights, and more so in sensitive states where the police agencies have been given special powers, like in the case of Jammu and Kashmir. Special powers must come with special safeguards. But more than rules, regulations and processes, which are anyway available on paper, the biggest safeguard is the leadership that must make it clear that officers will be singled out and set out for exemplary punishment wherever violations are found. When the state begins to function like a police state, all manner of wrongs begin to take place. The slide can be very fast and dramatic. Nowhere in the world have brutal tactics worked to win over hearts and minds – which is at the root of the alienation faced by the people of Jammu and Kashmir. In the past, violations have gone unpunished, first because prior sanction is required and this is rarely if ever given, and because the investigation itself is not conducted in the proper manner that it ought to be.

This policy of tolerating brutalisation and turning a blind eye to heinous atrocities committed in uniform requires a rethink at the national level – the people of India should be alarmed at this approach. The problem is not limited to Jammu and Kashmir but it acquires special significance in the state given the sensitive nature of the situation there.

It does not require much to explain that the investigative agencies may be doing more harm than good with such methods. Take the example from Mumbai, when there was a time that so-called gang wars flared up and died out but police encounters began to be tolerated as each gang leaked out information on the other. It did not take long for police teams of “encounter specialists” to emerge. These then seamlessly quickly organised into two teams – one working for one gangster conglomerate and the other working for the rival gang. In short, the gangs outsourced their rivalries to the police, who willy-nilly became their agents. Eventually, the state had to act and police encounters came to a halt.

Those who argue that Jammu and Kashmir is different and that only tough methods will work here are missing the central lesson learned in Mumbai and elsewhere. There is nothing as rigorous and effective as due process. In the end, hard work, superior investigative skills, good intelligence gathering particularly for a border state and an ever-alert citizenry – is the only way to win the battle against crime and terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir.  Any other method
will fail.

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