Our society needs to be much more intolerant to torture and our judiciary needs to be much more firm in countering it and implementing the law of the land.
When we heard that Arun Ferreira’s former co-accused, AB Bhelke – who had been arrested by Pune’s Anti Terrorist Squad (ATS) on September 1, 2014 – had told the court that he had been severely tortured and even been given electric shocks on the private parts, we knew what to expect next.
During our time in jail we had seen how a court complaint of torture is always followed by the magistrate sending the victim for medical examination; the medical examiner almost invariably gives a “clear” report that there are “no signs of torture”; and the magistrate orders further police custody remand, as if nothing had happened.
So, when the doctor reported no signs of electric shock treatment and Bhelke was returned to police custody, we could not avoid a sense of déjà vu.
We had seen it all happen at the time of our own arrests in 2007. Ashok Reddy, a co-accused along with Arun, had petrol syringed up his anus; but the civil surgeon had, without internal examination, logged a report that the victim had a pre-existing condition of bleeding piles.
Since electric shocks rarely leave visibly signs, Bhelke’s fate was bound to be the same.
Untraceable torture methods used by security forces are however only one part of the problem. Even where there are clear signs of torture or there are easy tests to find out about it, the doctors and, at times, the magistrates too, often cooperate to cover-up the crime.
Doctors and magistrates are, after all, only a part of Indian society at large, where the feeling is quite widely prevalent that torture is a necessary and legitimate tool in the hands of the police.
Results of a recent twenty one nation Amnesty International survey on attitudes to torture showed that India had the highest support for torture, with 74% agreeing that it was acceptable to torture in order to gain information. The same survey showed that 73% of those surveyed in India considered torture immoral.
That means that a large proportion, while knowing that torture was immoral and a crime, were nevertheless willing to rationalize their acceptance of it on the basis of certain “reasons”.
“Purposes” or reasons for the infliction of torture by states have been listed in the definition of torture given in Article 1.1 of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
India has, since 1997, been a signatory to this convention which prohibits all forms of physical and mental torture by state agencies.
Reason number one in the definition, which is also the most widespread justification for torture, is “for obtaining information or a confession”. The most sophisticated argument in favour of the information reason for torture is the “ticking time bomb” argument which has been the subject of much debate in the US and other Western countries.
This argument justifies torture in emergencies similar to a hypothetical situation where a suspect knows the location of a bomb that may go off and kill many people, and the only way to make him divulge the information is by torturing him or his wife and children.
The logic of this argument is however extremely dubious and there is no proof that the torture method is better at arriving at the truth than other methods of interrogation.
Having ourselves been at the receiving end of the torturer’s tools and having had numerous discussions in jail with those who had to face torture on themselves or their loved ones, we know that the way to satisfy the torturer is not by telling the truth, but by just giving the interrogator what he wants to believe is the truth.
If the truth is in the East but the torturer wants to hear West you better say West to avoid the pain. Torture thus is highly incapable of obtaining correct information or of solving a crime. It only helps to forcibly obtain a confession according to the whims and fancies of the police investigator or his boss.
It therefore can be, and is, very often used to protect the real criminals and to frame some innocent person.
Reason number two is as punishment. As Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director, Human Rights Watch says, “In many parts of India, the police is the only visible state presence.
Police say that there is pressure from the public to punish crimes. This leads to the police acting as judge and jury, beating up suspects who are presumed guilty without trial”.
This reasoning arises from a totally incorrect and dangerous perception that everyone who has been arrested by the police is guilty and deserves to be quickly punished, without waiting for the courts.
One of us, Vernon, remembers the time when he was first arrested in Mumbai and was, after a day of torture, taken for the statutory medical examination. When Vernon complained about torture, the immediate reaction of the young Medical Officer at the Mumbai’s K.E.M. Hospital was, “tumne bhi kuch kiya rahenga” (you too must have done something).
For him, arrest by the police was sufficient proof of some guilt in some crime, though he did not even have an idea what the alleged crime was. Further, that assumed “guilt” amounted to a valid reason for inflicting torture.
Those implicated in crimes with a high media profile, like rapes or bomb blasts, are the worst off. Media and political pressure often sees the police showing results by picking up innocents, who are then tortured into confessions and implicated.
When such accused reach the prisons they face another round of beating up and humiliation by gangsters and criminals who want to showcase their brand of “justice and patriotism” and be reported about in the media.
The third type of torture that the UN definition mentions is “for intimidating or coercing” the victim or others. Such torture is indiscriminately used on oppressed and rebellious sections of the population.
Many tribals from naxal-affected areas, who were in jail with us, would tell us how any violent incident in the neighbourhood of a village would often result in beatings for the whole village.
Sometimes individuals who have come to symbolize local dissent are singled out and given exemplary torture to silence and subjugate all others who may think of following in their footsteps.
The torture of Soni Sori is one such example which managed to reach the courts and was taken up by the media.
Discrimination is a fourth reason mentioned for torture by the UN. Here communal, racist, ethnic or other profiling by the agency or by individual officers, result in the torture-targeting of members of a community or section who is looked on as the “enemy” or even merely as the “other”.
Vernon, when he was picked up by Mumbai’s ATS, had already heard of its communal bias; but even that did not prepare him for the ATS inspector who leaned back in his chair and unashamedly boasted of the amount of Muslim blood spilt in his office.
Apparently, since he had already identified the “terrorist” community, their blood-spill rather than his investigative skill was the thing that made him proud.
There are other such officers we have encountered. They are among the reasons why we feel our society needs to be much more intolerant to torture and our judiciary needs to be much more firm in countering it and implementing the law of the land.