By Sarim Naved,
It was during my first year in practice that I first met a victim of torture. The concept of ‘torture’, before that day, existed for me only as a concept. In the scheme of things, it was a bad thing, but I must confess that I never actually spared a thought for what it actually meant. Much like most people, I had vague notions of good torture and bad torture. There were certain situations where torture didn’t offend as much as it did in other situations. I have since come to realise that the essence of torture is humiliation. Violence offends most when it is perpetrated against the defenceless. For every gain made through questionable means, there is a corresponding loss through the dehumanisation of a human being, the effects of which are not only felt by the victim but also manifest through the repulsion and anger birthed through the excesses of the perpetrators.
I was in Tihar Jail to advise a client, a man, accused of being in league with terrorists. A crucial stage of the trial was coming up, that of the statement of the accused, and he had wanted to meet me to understand what would be expected of him. I explained the process to him and then I told him that the last question the judge would ask him would be, “Do you have anything else to say?” He pondered on this for a moment. Then he said, “I wanted to show you something, there is something that I have written down, I want to tell the judge that. Could you please read it?” He reached down into the polythene bag he was carrying. All undertrials, at least the educated ones, carry a polythene bag or a plastic folder with their case documents. These are pulled out in their meetings with lawyers with a degree of desperation, hoping against hope that something will be found in those papers, something which has been missed till then, which will guarantee their freedom.. He looked into his bag and fumbled around with trembling hands and located two sheets of folded paper. He mumbled some incomplete sentences about not knowing whether he should say this. His demeanour had changed, his eyes danced around the room furtively trying to avoid my gaze. With some puzzlement, I took the papers. It was an account of his interrogation, the first few days of custody when the suspect is under police remand. The things that had been done to him, that he had experienced, did not make sense. I do not want to infringe on his privacy or to bring in an element of morbidity by reproducing it here. Suffice it to say that I still wish I had not read those two pages.
One had read about human beings doing such things to others but this was different. This was a living, breathing, somewhat avuncular human being who had been made into something less. Both of us sat there, trying not to look each other in the eye. He asked me again what I thought, whether he should tell the judge all this. I gave him the truthful answer, which was that it wouldn’t make a difference. The judge was a good judge but he would assume that these things were lies told by a man desperate to save himself. The policemen who were capable of such things would get away scot-free. As a friend was to later observe when she met a torture victim for an academic study that some kinds of torture are so demeaning that it becomes hard to even look at the victim. I don’t know whether this happens because of sympathy or disgust but either explanation is not a happy one. Infliction of violence, repeatedly and with an intent to demean and to break, creates ripples much beyond the intentions of the perpetrator.
By itself, the fact that torture existed was not news, but this meeting introduced me to another aspect of power and the way it dehumanises. I could not sleep for the next two nights and as bothered as I was by having this knowledge thrust upon me I found my anger welling up against this man, the victim. It is always most comforting when faced with senseless barbarism to blame the victim. It’s a way of assuring one’s own safety from that particular type of violence. If the dehumanisation of that man could have such an insidious effect on me and I was nothing more than a bystander, what effect would it have on this man? His family knew something of what happened to him. They were in the next room for part of his torture. The threat was that if you don’t tell us what we want, we will do the same to your wife and children. Needless to say, the man complied and signed on whatever documents they brought to him. This is what he told me, but none of these documents were even used in the trial. A person’s dignity was peeled away and that too, for nothing. Would his family, his friends, not talk about it? What anger they would feel that a person could be treated like this by the Indian state? Whatever was done by these police officers, even if they felt this man was a criminal, could not but inspire much mistrust and hatred against the State.
The more one thinks about it, the less sense this tolerance of custodial violence makes. Investigations by the police in India are not always of the highest order or done very competently. The emphasis, judging by the chargesheets filed in court, is not always on investigation but on proving the Investigating Officer’s theory. There are laughable inconsistencies in the record of the case and witnesses trip over themselves in testifying to details that are not true. What is most unfortunate is that the Courts often try to step in to make up for what seems the carelessness of the police. Reasonable doubt then becomes a benefit that is allowed to the police and not to the accused. Criminal law is turned on its head. The prevalence of this kind of policing is tragic for the police, for victims of crime and for all of us who simply want our lives to be safe. Every false prosecution means that the true perpetrator of a crime walks free and every instance of violence by the police, the most visible face of the State, inspires more violence.
Another client, a very poor man, recently told me very happily that the police did not torture him but only slapped him a few times. There is a larger narrative of violence that is impossible to ignore. While congratulating ourselves on a society which, on the surface is largely law-abiding, is comfortable with violence, whether it be against women, Dalits, minorities or anybody who is disempowered. All that is required is an excuse. Dalits are attacked because they dare challenge the status quo, Muslims and Christians because they are anti-national and as for women, the excuses are too many to list here. Tolerance of violence in one situation necessarily leads to tolerance of violence in other situations. Neat segmentation of state excesses being deemed acceptable in certain situations is a fantasy. Apart from the moral arguments against torture, this is the pragmatic argument.
At the risk of sounding naïve, let me end on a hopeful note. The legal system in India works, albeit slowly and in very mysterious ways. There are policemen who show kindness to people in custody and there are judges who try and ensure fairness in proceedings before them. As another person, accused of being associated with terrorists, told me. “These policemen”, meaning the staff at Tihar, “are good people”. He hated the policemen who framed him and tortured him but not the jail staff who had been kind to him on various occasions. Hope, if any, comes from these police officers who can change the dominant narrative of marginalisation and uncontrolled police excess. The adulation of police officers who bring in immediate results without regard for pesky things like the truth needs to give way to a more nuanced understanding of policing, which is based on investigation and deduction. Crimes will soemtimes go unsolved but an unsolved crime is better than the false comfort of knowing that somebody, anybody, is being punished for the crime. In our desperation to not be victimised, let us not condone the victimisation of others.
Sarim Naved is a human rights lawyer based in Delhi.