Question:Some schoolboys were flogged and you gave directions that the biggest six boys were to be selected for that purpose.
Answer: I said, generally speaking, take the six biggest.
Q: Do you think that is a reasonable thing to do?
A: Yes, I think so, under certain conditions.
Q: It was a mere accident that a boy being big should invite on himself punishment.
A: It was his misfortune.
Q: His misfortune was that he was big?
This is an account given by Penderel Moon, an Indian Civil Service officer who served in Punjab, of the violence during Partition. Moon speaks of how six schoolboys, suspected of having participated in the disturbance, were flogged in Bahawalpur sub-jail at the magistrate’s instructions. India carries this colonial legacy of treatment in custody even today. Law and order enforcement is still defined by arbitrariness and impunity in executive action.
The custodial killing of five Muslim undertrials who were on their way to court in Nalgonda, Telangana, on April 7, and the extra judicial >massacre of 20 woodcutters in Andhra Pradesh brings grief to those of us who have engaged long and hard with questions of civil liberties and the non-negotiability of total transparency and accountability where the police and armed forces in the country are concerned. The undivided State of Andhra Pradesh stood out in the huge gains made by the movements for civil liberties at an enormous cost and loss of life of human rights defenders. The two fledgling States have, in trigger-happy manner, wiped that history out without a trace. We are back to where we began in the early 1970s.
Impunity from prosecution It may be too much to expect any trace of remorse or a sense of wrongdoing by the two governments. Our own sense of hopelessness is evident in our minimalist demands: all we want is an impartial enquiry. There is dissent from Tamil Nadu, the State that the woodcutters belonged to. But what did Tamil Nadu do with those accused of providing shelter and support to forest brigand Veerappan?
In the Veerappan chase, as in the Seshachalam forest massacre, there was evidence that officers at the highest level were involved. This evidence was painstakingly put out by human rights defenders.
“ Some officers do not understand that the right to life is ‘non-derogable’ and non-negotiable, and that the authority to wield arms does not come with the authority to kill ”
While we mourn the custodial killing of the five Muslim undertrials, can we afford to ignore the startling ways in which the incident reminds us of the Hashimpura massacre in 1987? The shock of those acquittals, and the pain of hearing the extremely forthright accounts of former police officer Vibhuti Narain Rai, is still palpable, but its lessons lie elsewhere — mass custodial killings carry the guarantee of impunity and immunity from prosecution, the bloodshed of those killed and those who defended them unto death notwithstanding. Besides, while targets keep shifting, the continuing communalisation of the police force is a matter of very grave concern in an increasingly intolerant social and political environment.
In his characteristically unequivocal manner, the late civil liberties activist, K.G. Kannabiran, says in the opening page of his book Wages of Impunity , “[t]here is an overwhelming play of violence as power and power as violence, sometimes in breach of the law and sometimes as a tool for its enforcement. If violence in society is perceived as a breach of the law, the law itself is equally violent and in fact has an even more debilitating effect because of its systematic and thorough ruthlessness backed by official sanction.” Today, I miss him more than ever before, even while I heave a sigh of relief that he does not have to witness this blatant and cruel undoing of his arduous labour in States that were both his home as well as his battlefield.
Anonymity of police personnel
We have court rulings; the battles have been in courts, in the media, on the streets, over the bodies of victims — and yet there is a sense of déjà vu. These are not the same officers or the same policemen; they are a generation far removed, one that has come into consciousness and gained an education that included, importantly, the meaning of human rights. Yet they do not understand the basic constitutional tenet that the right to life is ‘non-derogable’ and non-negotiable, and that the authority to wield arms does not come with the authority to kill. We know the identities of the victims. Why do we not know the identities of the police personnel involved in these massacres? While we know from reports that the jail personnel and other officers celebrated the deaths of the “dreaded” undertrials or narrowly escaped being scratched by the stones pelted by the woodcutters, we only know who the dead are. There is an inversion of the threat with the generic “police force” being endangered by chained undertrials and stone pelting woodcutters — and now by angry families and defenders. Their disappearance into anonymity is not a sharing of guilt or responsibility within the force, but a sharing of impunity from the very bottom to the very top.
The forests have stood witness to combing and encounters. In the declared fight against mafias, it is the adivasis and wage labourers, the unarmed and vulnerable, who die or are dispossessed. Our cities bear witness to the fact that increasingly it is Muslim youths who are incarcerated or killed, irrespective of which party is in power. “Terror” is the new communal label. And we have no count because the poor are just an aggregate, lives that do not matter either to a state born out of struggle or to a state which boasts of a forward looking government.
Our immediate task is to push for prosecutions in both these incidents, but we also have a larger task on hand, a bigger challenge. How should we start all over again to build momentum for a movement that forces discipline and accountability on the state? How do we force governments to take responsibility for safeguarding the constitutional right to life and liberty of all citizens? Most importantly, how do we re-school ourselves and the coming generations to drop our thresholds of tolerance for state impunity and state violence?
(Kalpana Kannabiran is a sociologist and human rights defender based in Hyderabad.)