India Under Fire Over Rights Abuses

Government denies torture, points to terrorism problem. HUMAN RIGHTS

THE human rights organization Amnesty International last week released a 195-page report accusing India's police and security forces of torturing, raping, and killing people during custody. Interior Minister S. B. Chavan immediately labelled Amnesty's work "mere hearsay" and an Indian diplomat in London said the report was part of an international campaign against his country.

The reaction to the Amnesty report seems to exemplify what three human rights observers here say is an unreasonable refusal, on the part of officials in India, to even acknowledge human rights problems. But a government spokesman says the official skepticism of human rights criticism is justified because groups active in India are too partisan in their approach and have served as fronts for terrorist organizations.

The Amnesty report highlights Indian officials' repeated denials that human rights abuses occur here. The document opens with a statement that late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made to a British television interviewer in January 1988:

"We don't torture anybody. I can be very categorical about that. Wherever we have had complaints of torture we've had it checked and we've not found it to be true."

But Amnesty says "torture is pervasive and a daily routine in every one of India's 25 states, irrespective of whether arrests are made by the police, the paramilitary forces, or the Army." The report details 415 cases of custodial death since 1985, and says that in only 52 cases were criminal charges brought following the death. Three cases resulted in the conviction of a police officer, the report says.

"A major cause of the persistence of widespread torture in India," Amnesty adds, "is the failure or unwillingness of leading government officials and representatives to acknowledge that torture even exists, let alone that it needs to be vigorously tackled. The government maintains this position despite the fact that judges, journalists, expert commentators, police officers themselves, and official commissions have attested to its widespread occurrence."

Ravi Nair, a former member of Amnesty's board who has started his own human rights group here, says "any dissent is seen as treasonous" in India's current political climate. The central government in New Delhi has been struggling for years to control separatist movements in the northwestern states of Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, as well as in the country's northeastern region.

"There's a mood of 'anything goes,' in the name of national security," Mr. Nair says, a mood that breeds little tolerance for the claims of human rights workers.

"The Indian government has always adopted a very cynical attitude toward any discussion or mention of human rights," says George Fernandes, a vocal opposition member of Parliament and a longtime associate of Nair's.

Mr. Fernandes suggests that India's reluctance to heed human rights criticism is culturally and religiously based.

"Indian society is by definition an unequal society," he says, because of the caste system and the country's dramatic economic inequities. The concept of human rights - insofar as it is based on the equality of all men and women - "is not acceptable to the Hindu mind."

One Western diplomat in New Delhi says Fernandes's views are extreme. He notes that several human rights groups have long operated in India and been able to voice their criticisms.

"But there is ... a sort of reluctance to take [human rights groups] seriously," he adds. "They're all viewed with tremendous suspicion."

"The government feels bad about the totally partisan way of looking at" human rights, says Interior Ministry spokesman D. Mukhopadhyay. He says that groups overlook abuses by terrorist and militant organizations in India, and that "everyone forgets about the security forces risking life and limb in service to their country."

The government is now forming an official human rights commission, a step that would fulfill a campaign promise of Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao's Congress (I) Party, Mr. Mukhopadhyay says.

Indian officials have also argued that terrorists sometimes operate as human rights workers. A year ago, police arrested Shahbuddin Gori, a New Delhi graduate student and a volunteer with Nair's South Asian Human Rights Documentation Center, on charges of engaging in a criminal conspiracy to funnel more than $50,000 to Kashmiri militants. Nair says he feels Mr. Gori "has been framed in that case."

According to spokesman Mukhopadhyay and Y. P. Chhibbar, a Delhi University economist and the general secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties, the government has yet to convict a human rights worker for terrorist activities.

"I think it might be natural that the government defends its own workers" when they are criticized, Mr. Chhibbar says. He also reports that some senior government officials have taken steps to correct human rights problems identified by his organization.

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