Courtesy Globe and Mail

Beset by violent separatists and racked by poverty, disease and unrest, India need not exaggerate its claims to being an embattled nation. What may be exaggerated, according to an Amnesty International report released last week, is New Delhi’s response to the crisis, for this country, long respectful of the rule of law, the report’s findings are a damning catalogue of power abuses and arbitrariness in police action.

London-based Amnesty International is not given to shrill or ill-considered judgments, nor are its investigations invidious. Due respect is given to “official sources” and numbers are estimated at the low end. Despite all this, New Delhi has come in for harsh criticism.

Of particular concern is an amendment made to India’s constitution in March. Rajiv Gandhi’s ruling Congress (I) Party amended four articles, permitting the government to proclaim a state of emergency in the beleaguered state of Punjab on the vaguely defined ground of “internal disturbance” where “the integrity of India” is threatened. The new law also permits direct rule of Punjab by New Delhi for up to three years without parliamentary approval.

The report notes that, under the new law, “the government or the security forces would not be bound by the law when making arrests or detaining people or even when arbitrarily shooting people in Punjab. In theory they would be entitled to shoot anyone at will such a law is inconsistent with the principles espoused elsewhere in India’s constitution, and indefensible under international human rights protocols to which India is a signatory.

The reason Mr. Gandhi drafted the law is clear. Punjab is only the worst of many separatist hot spots which must worry him; West Bengal, Bahir and parts of northeast India are others, well-armed Sikh extremists in Punjab continue to advocate an independent state, Khalistan, with violence and terror. They have not restricted their targets to security personnel or federalist Hindus, but have killed Sikh moderates and religious leaders as well.

But there is no percentage in letting violence beget violence. Mr. Gandhi has responded to Sikh extremists with violations of his country’s laws, denying due process and detaining suspects indefinitely without trial. Presumption of innocence is no longer valid, as detainees are forced to prove they are not guilty of “waging war” against the state. The Amnesty report makes a particular case for 326 Sikhs held in Jodhpur jail since June, 1984. Many of them are classed as “prisoners of conscience” non-violent dissidents who have been arrested without having broken the law.

Instances of torture and death of suspects in custody are detailed, as are “disappearances” and allegedly staged encounters in which demonstrators are killed “while trying to escape.” In most cases, police officers have escaped prosecution for these practices, some compensation has been paid to victims, but in no case has a police officer been convicted, New Delhi’s responses to charges of police violence are, the report says, silence and delaying tactics.

New Delhi’s use of the “state of emergency” legislation including the National Security Act and Terrorist Affected Areas Actruns to the indiscriminate. Indian courts remain powerless as long as police forces are granted extraordinary powers on a continuing basis. It is not yet the case that a ‘Sikh cannot live peacefully in Punjab, but these measures bring the day closer.

The danger is that, in guarding a federal India through the measures detailed in Amnesty’s report, Mr. Gandhi will destroy the very protections that make it worth preserving.

Article extracted from this publication >> August 26, 1988