After appearing to have encroached on matters within the realm of the executive, the Andhra Pradesh High Court did well to recall an earlier order that struck down the award of compensation to 70 Muslim young men who were wrongly arrested in connection with the 2007 Hyderabad Mecca Masjid blast case. The court seems to have realised that such awards are not expressly prohibited by law, and that the government needed no particular “legal basis” for paying compensation to citizens who have been the unfortunate victims of wrongful arrest and torture in criminal cases. Neither the fact of their arrest nor the proof of their innocence was in dispute. The actual perpetrators of the blasts had since been identified and were on trial. The withdrawal of the compensation was thus bad in law and effectively subverted the ends of justice. Admittedly, the court’s initial objection was technical: the victims, it said, were free to file a civil case for compensation. While it is true that mere acquittal or discharge from a case does not entitle an arrested person to compensation, this was not merely a case where the prosecution had failed to prove its charges in a court of law. It was not just that the guilt of the men was not proven, but also that their innocence was now established beyond doubt. When the State is free to compensate victims of accidents and natural calamities, why can it not do the same for those who have suffered injustice at the hands of its own police force? In the past, courts too have intervened to provide compensation to victims of State violence.
But the larger issue of accountability of police officials responsible for the wrongful arrest and torture of the innocent Muslim young men remains. Justice demands that the police officers who unthinkingly put innocent young men through such a harrowing time be made answerable. Torture is illegal and policemen who use cruel and unusual methods of interrogation must be prosecuted. The speed with which the police arrested Muslim men when the perpetrators of the blast were Hindutva sympathisers shows how deeply ingrained the automatic association of Muslims with terrorism is among law-enforcers. The award of compensation was just one small step toward correcting this and sensitising the police force, sections of which are vulnerable to communalisation. Indeed, the National Commission for Minorities had recommended that the compensation amount be recovered from the salaries of the policemen responsible for falsely implicating the young men. The A.P. government’s decision to award compensation must be established as a healthy precedent, and police officers who use torture to extract ‘confessions’ should be made to face civil and criminal liability.