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Counter terror with justice

Mukul Sharma

The fight against terrorism should not be used as an excuse for ending investigations into the role played by the police and the armed forces in committing human rights violations against thousands of people.

Terrorism is an assault on people’s fundamental human rights. The heinous attacks in recent years that have left thousands of civilians dead or maimed, are many. The deliberate targeting of civilians, whether by planting bombs in restaurants or other public places or by bringing down buildings, killing thousands, constitutes a serious abuse of fundamental human rights and runs counter the to basic principles of humanity. Those who commit such atrocities must be broug ht to justice. Deliberately attacking civilians should never be justified. Violence and terror will only breed more violence and terror.

However, in the aftermath of the Jaipur serial blasts and the human sufferings, this is also the time to urge our governments and political leaders not to respond to terror with terror. We will be repeatedly exposed with human rights violations committed in the name of security as well as measures that undermine fundamental rights such as encounters, disappearances, mass graves, torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. It will provide an effective smokescreen for governments to authorise arbitrary and long detention, unfair trial, suppression of political dissent, and minority persecution, knowing that any criticism and discontent will be weakened. A narrow focus on ‘terror’ emphasising a new anti-terror law or tough methods will certainly lead to neglect of the root causes of terror. At a time when we are witnessing a new lease of life for new security measures and a backlash against human rights issues, protecting our rights should be an essential component of protecting our security. The fight against terrorism should not be used as an excuse for ending investigations into the role played by the police and the armed forces in committing human rights violations against thousands of people, often in collusion with or acquiescence of authorities.

Terrorism has many forgotten faces in India today. Across the country, many violent conflicts are taking a bloody toll. In Chhattisgarh, more than 1,00,000 people have been displaced, more than 1,000 have died, thousands have been jailed under Salwa Judum, and terror and counter-terror continue unabated. In Assam and Nagaland, people’s distress, despair, fear and alienation have grown as the government looked the other way. Civil society and human rights groups also failed to challenge grave violations by both sides during the last four years. The photographs of defenceless Muslims, humiliated and terrorised, in Gujarat shocked all of us when they were published in 2002. But the abuses they exposed were not an aberration. The images followed numerous allegations of torture and ill-treatment reported in police custody in Hyderabad, Mumbai and Kolkata. Data collected by the Sachar Committee, but not included in the final report, showed Muslims in much higher numbers as prison inmates in several States.

We have plenty of anti-terror laws and measures. Prominent among them are the National Security Act, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act 1987, the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance 2001, the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2002, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Ordinance 2004, the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act 1999, the Chhatisgarh Public Security Act 2005. TADA had since lapsed and POTA has been repealed. The Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat governments are proposing new anti-terror laws. However, these have not worked to either stop terrorism or make us safe. Nothing in the past one decade shows that the state’s counter terror works.

Instead, authorities who have power over detainees and are allowed to inflict pain and suffering are becoming more brutalised and they begin to abuse their charges for their sadistic awards in J&K and Gujarat, or in retaliation for friends and colleagues lost in battle, or to conquer their own fears. We have also seen in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Chhatisgarh that once ‘coercive’ techniques are authorised in limited circumstances against a so-called relatively small number of people, in practice, the authorised techniques become more and more cruel, and the number of victims soars. TADA began with arrests of a few hundreds that swelled to thousands and finally around 72,000 out of 77,000 detained under it were released without having been charged or tried. Similarly, around 3,500 persons from 18 States were held under POTA in the three years of its existence. More than a decade after TADA lapsed and many years after the repeal of POTA, hundreds are still under detention for offences under these Acts. The abuses do not remain confined to detainees from terrorist organisations, but are also directed against a wider population associated with the ‘enemy’. People suspected of ordinary crimes start receiving the same treatment as terror suspects. And once this happens, no one is safe.

The only way people can be protected — from both governments and suicide bombers — is to treat every single human being as possessing fundamental rights that no government, group or individual may ever justifiably take away. Human rights are grounded in fundamental values that create ‘no go areas’ — acts that one human being must never do to another.

Our Central and State governments have a duty to take all reasonable steps to prevent acts of terror, and to bring to justice those responsible for committing or planning such acts. New beginnings should be explored and experimented with. The specific threat of international and cross-border terrorism requires law enforcement agencies to develop special skills and techniques in policing, investigation and intelligence, including international cooperation. Such techniques need to address the new characteristics of international terrorism, such as use of the Internet and other technology. That may require new forensic and other law enforcement techniques, but it cannot justify the use of old unlawful methods such as torture and ill-treatment. Human rights are not a luxury only for good times. They must be upheld always, including in times of terror and insecurity. Adherence to clear rules, laid down in international conventions and treaties, is also important during this time, because national jingoism and social conservatism are also on display abundantly.

Stigmatisation

The banned Students Islamic Movement of India might or might not be involved in the terror attacks in the recent past. However, because of the actions of certain groups and individuals, entire communities are being viewed with suspicion. The stigmatisation has been compounded by the communal profiling and detention of Muslims, previously in Hyderabad and now in Jaipur, and by some politicians and media outlets describing them as if they were all potential terrorists. Whipping up public fears for short-term political gains is a dangerous business. If governments abandon the rule of law and use methods of terror, then won’t groups fighting governments feel justified in using methods of terror themselves? If whole communities are antagonised and alienated by the security forces using terror, aren’t those communities more likely to respond with supporting the use of violence?

Counter terror with justice, not with revenge. Human rights activists are sometimes accused of not caring about the needs of victims of terrorist acts. “How would you feel if your child’s life was at stake,” they are asked. What we would do in a moment of such panic and desperation is difficult to predict, but it is a measure of our despair rather than a guide to moral behaviour. Maybe we would ourselves commit an atrocity if we believed it would save our loved ones – but it would remain an atrocity.

The argument that terror, violence, discrimination and exclusion are wrong was won many years ago at the time of the making of the Indian Constitution. This was not a minority view or ‘liberal’ position — political opinions around the country agreed, and wrote into the Constitution and law, emphasising fundamental rights and freedoms of all citizens. We should build a national consensus even in the time of terror.

(Mukul Sharma is the Director of Amnesty International in India.)

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