The world got a vivid glimpse of the nasty side of State power last week through the release of reports on practices of torture in the United States and Brazil. The US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s account of the use of torture on terror suspects by the CIA between late 2001 and early 2009 has sparked outrage the world over.
It details unspeakable horrors: Detainees were shackled to walls, forced to stand for hours, kept in complete darkness, sleep deprived for more than a week, exposed to cold conditions and subjected to waterboarding, “rectal feeding”, mock executions and threats to family among other things.
The report reveals that torture was by no means an effective instrument for obtaining credible intelligence to thwart future terror attacks, and yet it was pursued with relentless intensity. Brazil too is reckoning with its past candidly.
These exercises in transparency are of great relevance to democracies worldwide, including India, which cannot afford to suggest that these practices are either necessary or somebody else’s moral trauma. India must seriously reflect on what such investigations into past human rights abuses do.
As a starting point in the pursuit of truth and justice they are essential for healing social divisions, which Indian governments tend to perennially put off. An honest appraisal of the past is also inescapable for fixing the rot in State institutions.
Thus the recent conviction of Army officers in the 2010 Machil encounter in Kashmir or the indictment of personnel for last month’s killing of two youth at Chattergam are useful measures for improving State practices. The Centre must realise that Kashmir, the North-East and the Adivasi heartland in central India for instance will not move into the future without a measure of accountability for the past.
The Narendra Modi government must take a cue from the US and Brazil’s example and lead a campaign against the use of torture during interrogation and pre-trial detention, which is arguably as ubiquitous in reality as it is portrayed in Indian cinema. A morally corroded police force that thrives on immunity will never be a credible instrument of the kind of humane law enforcement that India desperately needs currently.