01 October 2020

Over a month after the National Human Rights Commission granted the Delhi Police four weeks to file an action-taken report about an attack on three journalists working with The Caravan’s, the police is yet to comply. On 14 August, three days after The Caravan’s staffers were assaulted, a network of people called the Human Rights Defenders Alert – India had filed a complaint before the NHRC seeking a criminal investigation into the attack and compensation for the journalists. Six days later, the NHRC issued notice to the Delhi Police in the complaint, calling upon them to file a report on the attack. But on 29 September, Henri Tiphagne, a national working secretary with HRDA-India, wrote to the NHRC to inform them the police had not yet complied with the order. At the time this report was published, the NHRC’s website reflected that the Delhi Police had still not filed the action-taken report.

The three journalists—Shahid Tantray, Prabhjit Singh and a woman whose identity is being protected—were surrounded by a mob, beaten, subjected to communal slurs, threatened with murder, and sexually harassed. They were in Subhash Mohalla, in northeast Delhi, to conduct follow-up reporting on allegations raised by two Muslim women and a teenager that police officials had sexually assaulted them inside the Bhajanpura station premises. The three survivors had visited the station to seek the registration of a first-information report against Hindu residents from their locality whom they accused of raising communal slogans in the area on 5 August, while celebrating the stone-laying ceremony for the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

“It is our firm belief that this police failure to act, prima facie deliberate, amounts to a serious incident of human rights violation against HRDs”—human-rights defenders—“and journalists in the national capital of India,” the complaint stated. “Not only were the journalists subjected to a violent mob attack in plain sight, the Delhi Police did not act to adequately shield or protect the journalists or register the FIRs as they are legally mandated. This is serious breach of the law by the police.”

The HRDA-India’s complaint, filed through Tiphagne, sought multiple directions from the NHRC. These included directions to the deputy commissioner of police of Delhi’s northeast district to register an FIR into complaints filed by the journalists about the assault; directions to Delhi’s commissioner of police to transfer the investigation to a different police station; and for the NHRC to conduct its own independent investigation. The complaint also sought the initiation of criminal proceedings against Ashok Sharma, the station house officer of Bhajanpura police station, for not registering an FIR against the complaint of sexual harassment filed by the woman journalist. Section 166A of the Indian Penal Code criminalises a police official’s failure to record an FIR against a cognisable offence relating to sexual harassment or sexual violence.

The NHRC’s order from 20 August stated that if the Delhi Police failed to file the report in the stipulated time, “the Commission shall be constrained” to invoke its powers under the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 and summon police officials to appear in person. Surajit Ray, an NHRC law registrar, said that the commission would wait for a few days after the final date to determine whether the report is in transit, failing which it would either provide the police another opportunity to respond, or summon the police in person.

According to Devika Prasad, a human-rights activist who assisted with drafting the HRDA-India’s complaint, the NHRC should not have given the Delhi Police four weeks to file an action-taken report. “Why did they have to give four weeks?” Prasad asked. “It wasn’t a massive, violent situation. It was an attack on three people on one day. Giving so much time is an indication of the long rope given to the state actors.” Prasad added that in her experience, in cases where the complaint was against the police, the NHRC has not been “proactive.” She explained, “In cases where it’s very obvious that state actors are violating human rights, the NHRC has not suo moto intervened even though it has the powers to do so.” Instead, she said, they waited for complaints.

Yet, Prasad also believed that the NHRC would take action on HRDA-India’s complaint. “If the petitioner is active and has the support and the infrastructure to follow up on the complaint, then the NHRC is compelled to move,” she said.

Tiphagne, on the other hand, believed that he had a duty to file such complaints before the NHRC even though his experience, like Prasad’s, had shown that that it was unlikely that it would lead to any action from the commission. He cited the example of the NHRC’s failure to act on a complaint he filed after police firing killed 13 protesters at the Sterilite Copper smelting plant owned by the natural-resources company, Vedanta, in May 2018. He further noted that the HRDA-India had also called upon the NHRC to exercise its power to review legislation and sent an appeal against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019. But according to Tiphagne, he received a response that his “complaint had been dismissed.” Tiphagne pointed out that he had sent an appeal to review a law, not a complaint. “Since then, I joke with my friends that even if I send a letter to Justice HL Dattu”—the chairperson of the NHRC—“saying you have done something good, I will get a response saying that my complaint has been dismissed.”

But Tiphagne insisted on the importance of him filing complaints, such as the one about the attack on The Caravan’s journalists. “We are all people in the field of human rights,” he said, referring to the HRDA-India network. “So it is our duty to simultaneously strengthen human-rights institutions. Its downward trend of functioning is no reason for me to lose hope.”

Tiphagne emphasised the global relevance of the NHRC, stating that it is a member of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions, which constitutes a network of over a hundred similar organisations. He noted that it is also a founder member of the Asia Pacific Forum, a regional alliance of human-rights institutions. “National human-rights institutions have a mandate globally that they should work for the protection of human-rights defenders. One way of doing this is to go on preaching about it. The other way, and what we do, is to raise and fight complaints before the commission.”

He continued, “Journalists are also human-right defenders, especially when they are reporting on the nature of stories that Prabhjit Singh and Shahid Tantray and the women were working on.” Tiphagne added that he was prepared to take the matter to court if the NHRC did not act. “The next alternative would be to move to the high court and ask the court to intervene in the NHRC to ensure the principles of natural justice are followed,” he said. “The principles of natural justice include a right to a remedy. If there is a specific reason for the delay, I am ready to accept it. But if it’s an intentional delay, there is something particularly wrong, and that’s what we’ve been seeing with the northeast Delhi violence