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The things we do for a confession

Turning a blind eye to the use of torture says something about us and about who we are. Namita Bhandare writes.

india Updated: Mar 07, 2011 09:41 IST

It seemed apt that as the Torture Bill was being debated in Parliament, the Supreme Court was learning how three policemen in Barmer, Rajasthan had taken a man into custody in 1994 and, for no greater fault than admitting to a relationship with another man's wife, had cut off his penis. The cops had been let off by the high court for lack of evidence. Now, the angry Supreme Court judges wanted to know why they shouldn't be given life sentences.

In Parliament, the Prevention of Torture Bill was leading to raised tempers in both Left and Right camps. The BJP believes the Bill is loaded in favour of criminals and against the police. The Left says it isn't enough. The Bill has now gone to a Standing Committee.

The Bill seeks to punish officials guilty of torture. On paper that seems like a good thing. But human rights organisations are unhappy. They are unhappy with the definition of torture as 'grievous hurt' or 'danger to life, limb or health', which includes neither mental pain nor acts that inflict pain but no permanent damage. They say the six months limit for making complaints is absurd. They want an independent authority, not government sanction to try those accused of torture. And they want compensation for victims.

Unfortunately, we, by and large, accept that those accused of crimes will be tortured in custody. A 2008 survey in 19 nations by World Public Opinion found widespread acceptance of torture. Asked if the torture of terrorists was justified in order to save innocent lives, 59 per cent Indians (the largest percentage in the world) said it was.

We have come to believe that people will not confess to crimes without some extraneous 'persuasion'. Worse, we believe that the judicial system is so tardy that we are quite happy to let vigilante style justice take over: in Bihar a little over a year ago a man accused of snatching a chain was tied to a cop's motorcycle and dragged on the ground. And this was just one excess we actually saw on television.

The National Human Rights Commission says 16,836 people died in custody between 1994 and 2008, the numbers escalating upwards with each year. In 1994 there were 162 custodial deaths. In 2007 there were 1,977. There are no records of torture cases that do not result in death.

The arguments in favour of torture are ridiculous — and dangerous. First, according to the Asian Centre for Human Rights, a majority of those who die in custody are not dreaded terrorists but people detained for petty offences. A 'high proportion' are poor or belong to the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes.

Second, a man being tortured will confess to anything. Therefore the value of his 'information' is suspect. Third, police investigations must be admissible in a court of law, this does not include information extracted through torture. Fourth, police are paid to conduct investigations through forensics and other professional means. "Interrogation is an art; applied correctly it will make the most hardened criminal confess," says C.P. Sahay, a retired intelligence officer.

Fifth, each time a man in uniform uses torture to extract information or settle scores on behalf of his political masters, he diminishes our faith in him. He reiterates a colonial message: he is there to control citizens, not serve them. Our fear of the uniform is instinctive; no one wants to walk into their local thana, even if they have information relevant to a crime.

Sixth, abuse by the system in hotspots like Kashmir or the North-east creates a ripple effect of victimisation. How many more innocent Kashmiris shout azaadi when yet another boy is brutalised by armed forces?

But the real problem with condoning torture is that it undermines our democracy. Turning a blind eye to the use of torture says something about us and about who we are. The claim to be civilised cannot be complete unless our civility embraces each one of us. It is a burden that applies equally to all, even those accused of the most horrible crimes.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.