Siddharth Narrain

It has sought reports on Lunawada grave

Protracted battle in Punjab mass cremations caseA.P. liquor policy assailedPlea to set up State-level commissions

NEW DELHI: The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had its hands full in 2005.

The Supreme Court upheld the appointment of the former Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, P.C. Sharma, as a member of the Commission. A two-judge Bench delivered a split verdict on a petition filed by the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). The matter was referred to a three-judge Bench, which by a majority of two-to-one upheld the appointment.

Responding to the PUCL's argument that since the public perception of the police was poor, Mr. Sharma's appointment would erode the people's confidence in the NHRC, the court said this remark was a generalisation, which would not apply to the entire force and that public displeasure was not confined to the police.

The Punjab mass cremations case before the NHRC witnessed a protracted battle between the petitioner, Committee for Information and Initiative on Punjab (CIIP), and the State government. The CIIP asked for an opportunity to demonstrate that there was a pattern in the alleged killings and illegal cremations by security forces.

Senior counsel Indira Jaisinghasked the NHRC to go into how the deaths occurred. Solicitor-General Goolam Vahanvati, appearing for the government, argued that the NHRC had already ruled that the scope of the enquiry was limited.

The NHRC declared that the matter was already decided in its earlier orders.

Sadashiva report

Almost two years after the Justice Sadashiva Panel submitted to the NHRC a report on the alleged atrocities by the Joint Special Task Force (JSTF) during its operations against forest bandit Veerappan, the Commission sent the findings to the complainants. The report, which questioned the veracity of the JSTF's version of 'encounter deaths,' found that in 60 cases it had shot at the victims from close range. However, there was not enough evidence to name individual policemen for torture. Nor was there enough evidence to confirm allegations of rape.

The Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments, in their responses to the report, said the panel had exceeded its brief, enquiring into complaints that were not referred by the NHRC.

During the year the Commission took a number of positive initiatives. In a report on suicides in the Singareni coal belt, NHRC Special Rapporteur K.R. Venugopal slammed the Andhra Pradesh government's policy of promoting the sale of liquor, which led to financial debts, illnesses and domestic problems in the families of workers.

Seeking repeal of Act

The NHRC joined civil society organisations to help to halt the Centre's plan to repeal the Infant Milk Substitutes, Feeding Bottles and Infant Foods Act (Regulation of Production, Supply and Distribution) or the IMS Act. It expressed concern that the repeal would lead to unethical marketing and thus interfere with breast-feeding.

The Commission, continuing its pro-active role in monitoring relief for victims of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, sought reports from the State government and the CBI on unearthing of a mass grave at Lunawada in Panchmahals district. The NHRC called upon States which did not have human rights commissions at the State level to set up the forums and ensure that they were structurally and financially independent. The Centre is yet to respond to the NHRC's demand for changes to the Protection of Human Rights Act. It called for overarching powers to deal with issues of rights violations and granting relief. The Commission has also asked the government to modify the law to allow it to take cognisance of matters after the expiry of one year. Currently the law has fixed a limitation period of one year from the date on which an act occurred.