The Calcutta High Court last Wednesday took a short time to announce a decision on a matter that had stood before India’s courts for a decade: it granted leave to prosecute police officers allegedly responsible for the forced disappearance of Bhikari Paswan in 1993. The following day, Bhikari’s father, who had struggled for ten years to obtain justice, died. He had been in a coma since shortly before the court gave its decision.
The father, Lakhichand Paswan, will never know what officially happened to his son after he saw Additional Superintendent of Police (ASP) Harman Preet Singh and three of his men take Bhikari away in the early hours of October 31, 1993–reportedly to Telinipara police outpost, where they tortured him to death. He will never know where the body of his son–a worker at a local jute mill–was discarded. He was robbed of that knowledge, and the right to see the perpetrators punished, not by weaknesses in the case, but by an utterly callous and corrupted system.
As far back as 1995 senior police investigators concluded that ASP Singh and his subordinates took Bhikari from his house that night in October: there was no question about the complicity of state agents; the questions that remained related only to what happened afterwards. However, the Indian judicial system responded to the urgent needs of the case by entangling it in technicalities, one hearing upon the next, before delivering it to the doorstep of the state’s high court. It lay there for years, through disinterest and the machinations of the perpetrators, who have since been promoted to positions of authority, rather than being suspended and properly investigated as should have been the case.
Only the efforts of human rights advocates and Bhikari’s family allowed the case to finally see the light of day in October 2003, when a special bench was called to consider it “immediately”. Nine months later, the bench has held that government permission is not required to prosecute Harman Preet Singh, now a Deputy Inspector General, as kidnapping was not among his official duties as a police officer. Thus it has taken the Indian judiciary ten years to decide a matter that any informed person with an iota of common sense would have resolved in a few minutes.
It is too late. A chief witness in the case, Bhikari’s father, is now dead. With his passing, the congratulatory note struck by reports of the court’s decision is made nonsense. What meaning can ten years of such deliberations have, in view of this old man’s death? The perpetrators of the case knew well that Lakhichand was ailing. They knew well that without income and other means for prompt and effective medical treatment, he could not survive long enough to outlast their legal manoeuvres. They knew well that no state agency would come to his assistance. What meaning can the proceedings against these men now have in the absence of Lakhichand Paswan? After ten years, the court’s decision is a victory only for the accused.
Although Bhikari is now dead, the real victims have lived on. Lakhichand himself died after a momentous struggle that left him without even having the satisfaction of knowing that the case would proceed to court. Meanwhile, he and his wife had taken care of their three grandchildren after Bhikari’s mother remarried. Among the three, the oldest is Ajay. He is a first class student who, if he had been born to a family of means, would have many opportunities for further study ahead. Unfortunately, being in the care of his destitute grandmother, and ignored by a state whose agents were responsible for the destruction of his family, he can ill-afford to nurse dreams of a bright future. Other members of the family are daily hungry and sick; Bhikari’s sister is suffering from acute tuberculosis.
So what has the National Human Rights Commission of India and its state-level counterparts done in cases like this? What has the West Bengal Human Rights Commission done, for example, to recommend that where state officers are the alleged culprits the hearings be expedited, rather than obstructed? What obligations does Justice Shyamal Kumar Sen, its chairperson, owe to Bhikari’s family? Shouldn’t a primary duty of these human rights commissions be to intervene on behalf of the children of such persons, to ensure that the state will at least provide for their health and schooling? Justice Sen and his colleagues need not wait decades until a court passes judgment: that Bhikari was last seen in the hands of the police is an admitted fact. The West Bengal Human Rights Commission should today take steps to ensure that a small amount of government money is directed towards the needs of Ajay, his brother and sister, and other immediate family members deprived of his income.
The West Bengal Human Rights Commission has still other obligations. It should direct strong attention towards this case, to ensure that the hearings now proceed without any further delays. And the court case is no impediment to the Commission itself conducting an enquiry into why the courts have been unable to reach a satisfactory conclusion within a reasonable period of time. It is also its duty, and that of its sister organisations around the country, to expose and loudly criticise such delays that make a mockery of all claims to a great tradition of judicial independence in India. The Asian Human Rights Commission has on numerous occasions pointed out that across India, and indeed all of South Asia, thousands of court cases are wilfully neglected or obstructed while witnesses and material evidence are lost. The practices contributing to this state of affairs amount to a gross violation of human rights, yet they are treated as if a matter of mere administrative or bureaucratic inefficiency, rather than one of ineptitude and corruption.
India is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, however, it has not ratified its First Optional Protocol, and neither, the UN Convention against Torture. It is in Bhikari’s case and others like it that the significance of these international standards becomes apparent. If India were a party to the protocol, Lakhichand could have approached the UN Human Rights Committee on the ground that the delay in domestic procedure amounts to exhaustion of local remedies; likewise, the UN Committee against Torture. This would at least have brought some international pressure to bear on the lethargic and negligent authorities in West Bengal, and may have resulted in an instruction to render much-needed support to the victim’s family. It is absolutely the obligation of India’s human rights commissions to do everything within their powers to ensure that the government ratify these documents and adhere to their standards without delay. While too late for Lakhichand Paswan, this step would at least extend the possibility of some justice within the lifetimes of other victims and their families, if not from the Indian judiciary, then despite it.