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Encounter killings: Truth commissions needed
by Upneet Lalli

WHAT is done without any punishment, can be repeated without fear.” Impunity without doubt is a grave problem affecting the state and leads to more and more human rights violations. The encounter specialists who have been in news recently, amplify this. Once hailed as heroes, they become the fall guys, with the blood of the innocent on their hands. Is society really safe with extrajudicial methods, especially while dealing with terrorism?

The spectre of terrorism has raised many questions and dilemmas and one of it is how to counter it. Is counter violence an appropriate, effective and most realistic way of dealing with force while setting aside the legal safeguards in a democratic state? The anti-terrorism debate hinges on finding the right balance between human rights protection and effective security measures. Ensuring respect for human rights while countering terrorism remains a formidable challenge. On the other hand, the epidemic of fake encounters has continued to plague the states like Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and now Gujarat, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. When law enforcers become lawbreakers, it does not augur well for the state. When the law responds with violence, it will be a blood-thirsty folly. The spiral of violence spawned a parallel economy and has been exploited by the state and non-state actors — be it in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Gujarat or even Mumbai. The lid gets blown at times. Kauser Bi in Gujarat or Padroo in Jammu and Kashmir mirror our insensitive system.
Recently the Punjab government has ordered inquiry into some fake encounter killings carried out earlier. We don’t know who they were. Many a time innocents have been killed and branded as terrorists by the state. Their cases, however, rest quietly buried in the grave.

The trend of encounter killings to curb terrorism started in Punjab in the 1980s and early 1990s. Counter terrorism was thought to be the most effective strategy of dealing with the situation. Punjab is quoted as an example of the success of this strategy in ending terrorism in the state. The means-end ethical issues were not thought to be of any relevance and value. The operational efficiency does, however, have its own cost about which there has been little debate. If questions were raised, it was said that it would sap the police morale. Without inquiry,  human rights violations during that phase have been brushed under the carpet. This has affected the professional ethos of the police department. Superficial changes like community policing schemes have been ineffective in restoring people’s confidence in the system.

A well established system of incentives and rewards that was brought in the police organisation while fighting militancy reinforced some malpractices. For every terrorist killed, cash awards and promotions were given to officers. Such incentives give legitimacy to the culture of killings. Many officers got the benefit and though terrorism was curbed in Punjab, the system failed to punish the perpetrators of custodial violence.

The active pursuit by Jaswant Singh Khalra, human rights activist of mass killings in Amritsar, Majitha, and Tarn Taran districts from 1984 to 1994, where there were 2097 illegal cremations,  exposed the blatant human rights violations. The NHRC awarded compensation of Rs 2.5 lakh each to the next of kin of 194 people who had been found in custody or deemed custody of police before their death and cremation and also a compensation of Rs 1.75 lakh each to the next kin of 1051 to the other victims in the mass cremation case. Is it a safeguard of the victims’ rights?

The compensation was awarded as police had failed to safeguard those in its custody. But here though the victims are to be given compensation, the victims’ rights have been ignored. Sadly, the professional ethos of the police has been compromised because human rights violations and illegal detentions have been brushed aside. There is little remorse on the part of the police officials and former militants and there has been no public apology either by the powers that be or the police. The courts or the Human Rights Commission have taken care of the victims’ right to know and the collective right to know. However, the families of the deceased victims do not know who killed them and in what circumstances. To prevent violations, the archives related to the violations need to be preserved. The state may prefer a collective amnesia to serve a better purpose as any truth finding may open up a Pandora’s box of horrors.There can be no just and lasting reconciliation without an effective response to the need for justice.There is need to set up Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab (like the one in South Africa) to heal the wounds of the people. The state should investigate the violations and prosecute the perpetrators who are found guilty. Those who felt that they had been victims of violations — whether the government or others — could come forward and be heard by this commission. The perpetrators of violations could also give testimony and request amnesty from prosecution. Three panels accomplished the work — the Human Rights Violations Committee, the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee and the Amnesty Committee. Truth commissions, also set up in East Timor and Sierra Leone, acted like symbolic instruments towards restorative justice. This commission will bring lasting peace by acknowledging the hurt of people and allowing the perpetrators an opportunity to seek forgiveness.

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