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On Torture and Testimonies

September 13, 2010

I was going to write out a reply to the comments on Shuddha’s post, Kashmir’s Abu Gharaiab, but thought I would expand it into a larger post.

I’d like to make clear that I have been to Kashmir only once – and that too for a few hours in the aftermath of the earthquake, so if anyone writes back saying, “I should see the ground reality in Kashmir”; I concede that point straight off the bat.  I should see the ground reality in Kashmir; we all should.

However, over the last eight months, I have had the opportunity to interact very closely with central paramilitary forces like the BSF and CRPF in the course  of their deployment in Chhattisgarh, where I work. Many of the men conducting anti-Maoist operations in Chhattisgarh have served in Kashmir and the North-East theatres.

Over the last three days, I and a reporter from the Times of India have been working on a story in which a group of adivasis from two villages in Chhattisgarh’s Kanker district have accused the BSF of torturing a number of young men and women from their respective villages by beating them and also administering electric shocks.

While you can read Supriya’s stories here and here , I’ll use this post to try to address the issue of authenticity and verification. I would to point out that an inquiry is underway to assess the veracity of the allegations against the BSF, but I feel this might help put a few things in context for our readers – namely that the central paramilitaries have been accused of torture before. I am not saying commonplace, as I do not have any evidence to support that, but my recent reporting suggests it is not outside the realm of the possible.

To quickly give readers a sense of what happened, On Sept 11, we filed the following story:

On September 8, Kanker police arrested seven alleged Maoists, including six girls aged between 15 and 19 years, from the Pachangi and Aloor villages in connection with an August 29 ambush in Kanker in which three BSF soldiers and two policemen were killed.

Adivasis from these villages told The Hindu that the girls were picked up in a two-day search-and-comb operation on September 5 and 6 in which, residents allege, the BSF and the district police brutally assaulted over 40 men, molested two teenaged girls and picked up 17 villagers in all: 10 from Aloor and seven from Pachangi….

On nudity and sexual violence:

“They threw me on the ground, pushed my knees up and pushed a stick into my private parts,” Narsingh said.

Narsingh and four other men from Pachangi are currently admitted in Kanker Hospital, recuperating. His account was corroborated by fellow patients Sukram Netam, 45, Premsingh Potayi, 32, Rajju Ram, 30, and Bidde Ram Potayi, 31, who said that they too were sodomised with sticks.

While the men were gathered at the base of the hill, a 20-year-old woman of Panchangi (name withheld) said that a BSF soldier tore open her blouse and skirt and molested her.

When we went back to Alnoor a day later, we were offered the following testimonies by a Government School teacher, his wife who is a government anganvadi worker, and their daughter:

A resident of Aloor village, Sunita said she was illegally detained, blindfolded and electrocuted in the BSF camp at Durgkondal, Kanker, on September 5 and released four days later….

“Once we reached the camp, it was evening,” said Sunita, Punnim Tulavi’s elder daughter. “I was taken to a closed room where three or four uniformed men loosened my blindfold and started questioning me.” Sunita said the soldiers kept saying, “You are a terrorist, you attend Maoist meetings in the jungle and take part in the fighting.”

During the interrogation, Sunita alleged, soldiers wrapped wires around her throat, feet and stomach and administered electric shocks for about 15 minutes. “I started crying and perspiring and felt weak,” she said. After the interrogation ended, she was returned to the tent, but was not allowed to speak to anyone. On September 7, Sunita was moved to the police station next door as she was suffering from malaria….

…. those remaining in the BSF camp were subjected to electric shocks until they confessed to being Maoists, Punnim said. They were then taken to the police station next door. “The police made the villagers pose with guns they had seized in a prior raid,” Tulavi alleged. “A local reporter took photographs.”

Now how do we know that the villagers aren’t lying? Or that they weren’t beaten? Or that they were beaten by the Maoists and instructed to malign the forces?  As a matter of fact, we don’t; and the BSF certainly doesn’t. As I mentioned, they have asked for an inquiry, but to quote a BSF commander:

The officer said the villagers’ claims could be part of a Maoist propaganda effort, and that all the suspects had been arrested on the basis of specific information provided by Kanker police informants.

Medical examinations have shown that the five villagers in hospital were in fact beaten quite badly. At least one of them has bruises around his anus – suggesting that he had been sexually assaulted with a stick.

It is important to note that the force does not deny visiting the village, nor does it deny detaining alleged Maoists – the question is the degree of force used in the interrogation process and of course the charges of sexual molestation.

I think one of the points that Shuddha is driving at, and where I agree with him, that – apart from the deeply unsettling nature of the video – the knee-jerk reaction of the State has been to de-legitimize the footage, rather than act on the evidence and attempt to find the perpetrators.  I anticipate people writing back saying “all inquiries are rubbish” – and they may have a point, but an inquiry is an act of acknowledgement, that violence has been perpetrated.

In the comments thread, I have noticed a significant amount of flag-waving and the usual attempt to use the dead to hold the living to ransom. I would urge you all to read this post by Allissa Torres, who lost her husband on 9/11.

Torres is writing on an unrelated issue (that of the Park 51 Mosque), but she makes an important issue of how the grief of those who lose their loved ones is often used to push political argument by others. Torres is piece is important also because she points to the media’s obsessive hunt for testimonies that fit into pre-defined slots. So don’t use Saurabh Kalia as a shield for views that are entirely your own.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. somnath permalink
    September 13, 2010 6:07 PM

    “So don’t use Saurabh Kalia as a shield for views that are entirely your own.”

    Cap Kalia is not a shield for any views, but only a mirror to that (supposedly intellectual and left-liberal) mindset that bestows an amazing amount of nuanced septicism to all images and evidence of militancy, but unquetioningly accepts every insinuation against the Indian nation-state as gospel….Cap Kalia (and his ilk) had/have a very different notion of honour and honesty when they went about doing their duties…

    While there is, in this post, an attempt to “understand” the other point of view, Shuddha’s post (which this is a response to) does nothing of that sort…Remember those women killed in Sopore? In some way the genesis of the current disturbances….The police version and Omar’s was trashed (justifiably so)….Get a CBI enquiry goes the clamour – its agreed to…But when the enquiry brings out uncomfortable facts, that is also trashed…And a “citizen’s enquiry” – whatever that means – is asked for…

    So the liberalati is the judge and jury (it tends to leave the execution to the media) – any other conclusion is state conspiracy…

    There is a video – by all means ask the govt to invstigate, in fact demand for it…But no, it has to be taken as the final answer and condemned as India’s Abu Ghraib…

  2. Subasri Krishnan permalink
    September 14, 2010 9:48 AM

    Thanks Aman for sharing the Alissa Torres piece.

  3. September 15, 2010 2:08 AM

    Dear Aman,

    Thanks a lot for making this really thoughtful intervention.

    Subsequently, I have seen yet another cellphone video from Kashmir, which was also put on facebook pages before being pulled down, which shows a young man, naked from the waist down, clearly in pain, clearly bearing the marks of torture, being carried as if he were an animal after a hunt by another man in uniform. Other men, again in uniform (they seem to be SOG personnel) speak, laugh, joke, in Kashmiri, one of them goads the captive in his anus with a stick. They drop the man on the ground, he is in distress, they laugh at him, and so on.

    I totally agree with you. All that the home minister and the police officials needed to have done was to have stated that an ‘inquiry’ would be conducted. Then, we would have to await the results of the inquiry. But instead, they chose to act out of denial, calling it a fake, when the videos are clearly not faked (I can see a fake video when I see one) which makes them culpable as accessories to this outrage.

    As for those venting their patriotic sentiments on the comments section of Kafila while trying to cover up for the utterly disgusting conduct of men in uniform, I have very few words to describe their motivations, and I would rather not use such words in what I think is a forum for civilised public debate.

    best

    Shuddha

  4. Aman Sethi permalink
    September 15, 2010 4:47 PM

    I would like to clarify that an inquiry is not a “solution” to anything. An inquiry is a starting place. However, the reason I would ask for an inquiry – as I mention in the post – is that an inquiry is an acknowledgement that the Indian government is actually concerned about what happens in the streets, and bylanes of Kashmir.

    If the Delhi police constitute an expert committee on the existence of the Monkey man – see : http://www.rediff.com/news/2001/jun/20monk.htm

    I’m not sure what prevents Delhi from acknowledging the video as disturbing footage that must be investigated.

    I’d like to stress again, labels like “intelligensia” “liberals” “right winger” etc – never really tell us anything about each other – apart from our abilities to make caricatures of each other.

  5. Prashant permalink
    September 15, 2010 6:31 PM

    Dear Sengupta , you write such a long article, crying out to Indians to feel some shame for the uncivilized behaviour of their Armed Forces – based on what ? a fake video ? Where is the proof that the evil people in this video are Indian soldiers ? You come across as a liar.

    Look – I know how you feel. I know its all about the ideology that compels you and your fellow travelers / comrades to demean India, demonise Indian armed forces, work for India’s dismemberment and disintegration – but all this deliberate lying only makes your case weaker.

    You think people like you and your fellow travellers / comrades enjoy any support among Indians ? Sure some idiots in JNU / AMU will support you, and communal Kashmiri Sunni Separatists (many of who have made their way to this board) will support you – but as far as Indians are concerned – they will only hate you.

    If you dont believe me – stand for an election in any part of India , where communal Kashmiri sunni sepratists are not in a majority, and try to win with the slogan ” Evil Indian Army and Other Evil Indians Get Out Of Kashmir”.

    PS : Your hatred for people who express “patriotic sentiments” is very revealing.

    • Sarth permalink
      September 25, 2010 11:28 AM

      Such forceful assertion of limited understanding, Prashant!

  6. September 18, 2010 11:53 PM

    Dear Shudhha,

    Could not agree more. I think we walk this awkward fine line all the time knowing that our ‘men in uniform’ perpetrate some of the worst human rights violations and yet treating ‘the man in a uniform’ with unquestioning awe, and glossing it over with how one must never question how these ‘men’ do their ‘tough jobs’. Particularly us of the ‘liberal’, lily-livered intelligentsia. Personally, I find this tendency revolting, and when it comes to the matter of a truly genuine discussion on the matter, and not hiding behind stereotypes about what ‘men in uniform have to do to keep us safe’, it is utterly constraining.

    Thanks for your contribution, and continuing efforts to encourage a real discourse on this.

    Arpita

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