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The Legacy of India's Counter-terrorism

Jaskaran Kaur is co-founder and executive director of ENSAAF, a nonprofit organization fighting impunity in India.

The Boston Globe, Jul. 17, 2005

Photo: Jaskaran Kaur

When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meets with President Bush in Washington this week on his first official visit, and the first of an Indian head of state since 9/11, he will be reaffirming a strategic partnership. Prime Minister Singh will address a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, and terrorism is high on the agenda. An item not likely on the agenda is India's systematic abuse of human rights in the name of counter-terrorism. Despite receiving praise as the world's largest democracy, India's human rights record falls dismally behind countries that have only recently shed their legacy of dictatorships.

From 1984-95, Indian security forces tortured, 'disappeared,' killed, and illegally cremated more than 10,000 Punjabi Sikhs in counter-insurgency operations. Many perpetrators of these abuses are now championed as counter-terrorism experts. Most prominent among them is former Punjab director general of police and campaign architect K.P.S. Gill, whose policies, according to Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights, 'appeared to justify any and all means, including torture and murder.' Hailed as a super cop, Gill now heads an Indian counter-terrorism institute.

Four years ago, I criss-crossed Punjab and documented the impact of impunity for abuses committed by security forces. I sat on jute cots in poor farming houses talking with survivors struggling to rebuild their lives and sipped tea in the guarded mansions of judges. A senior high court judge, who addressed me as a naïve daughter, pointedly told me that fundamental rights did not exist during an insurgency.

One afternoon, I spoke with Jaswinder Singh. He was in his 20s. In 1992, Punjab police officers repeatedly subjected Jaswinder to electric shocks, stretched his legs apart at the waist until his thigh muscles ruptured, and suspended him upside down from the ceiling, while beating him with rods. Subsequently, the police 'disappeared' his brother, father, and grandfather. Jaswinder unsuccessfully pursued his family's disappearance to the Supreme Court. But he had no time for grief; the loss of his family's breadwinners meant he had to support the survivors, despite continued police harassment.

A flickering hope of justice remains for survivors of the counter-insurgency abuses. Since December 1996, the Committee for Information and Initiative in Punjab has struggled before the Indian National Human Rights Commission in a landmark lawsuit addressing police abductions that led to mass cremations, including those of Jaswinder's family. The commission, acting as a body of the Indian Supreme Court, has the authority to remedy violations of fundamental rights in this historic case of mass crimes. Its decisions will serve as precedent for victims of state-sponsored abuses throughout India. The commission has received over 3,500 claims from Amritsar alone, one of 17 districts in Punjab.

During the past eight years, however, the commission has not heard testimony from a single survivor. Guatemala's Historical Clarification Commission registered 42,275 victims in 18 months. El Salvador's Commission on the Truth collected information on 22,000 victims in eight months. The Indian Commission, however, has kept survivors running in circles, limiting its inquiry to one of 17 districts in Punjab.

A few weeks ago, the commission drastically narrowed its mandate, stating its plan to resolve the case by determining only whether police had properly cremated victims - not whether the police had wrongfully killed them in the first place. With this move, the commission rejected the victims' right to life and endorsed the Indian government's position that life is expendable during times of insurgency.

India's counter-terrorism practices have left a legacy of broken families, rampant police abuse, and a judicial system unwilling to enforce fundamental rights. As India ignores its past, it continues to employ the same Draconian measures in places such as Kashmir. While Prime Minister Singh extols India as a leading democracy, the international community must weigh the devastation and insecurity wrought by a national security policy based on systematic human rights abuses and impunity.

In 1997, Ajaib Singh committed suicide after the Punjab police tortured and disappeared his son and justice failed him. His suicide note read: 'Self-annihilation is the only way out of a tyranny that leaves no chance for justice.' If India fails to address its own mass atrocities, this should raise serious questions about its role as a partner in the 'war on terror.'