Thousands of political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, were detained without charge or trial. Torture and ill-treatment continued to be widespread, and hundreds of people were reported to have died in custody. Conditions in many prisons amounted to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. "Disappearances" continued and hundreds of extrajudicial executions were reported. At least 35 people were sentenced to death; no executions were reported. Armed groups committed grave human rights abuses, including torture, hostage-taking and killings of civilians.

Following the fall of the United Front government in December 1997, general elections were held in March 1998. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by A.B. Vajpayee and backed by several regional parties, won a majority. The coalition remained in power at the end of the year.

In May a Prevention of Terrorist Activities Bill (1998) was passed in the Tamil Nadu state legislature. The legislation allows for detention without charge for up to a year, widens the scope of the death penalty and suspends other safeguards normally available under India's criminal law. In November the President of India returned the legislation to the state government, requesting it to reconsider several provisions. Other legislation that facilitates human rights violations continued to be used in parts of the country, including the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act which gives the security forces powers to shoot to kill and grants them virtual immunity from prosecution.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) continued to monitor human rights abuses and make recommendations for the promotion and protection of human rights. During the year state human rights commissions were established in Kerala and Manipur. In June a high level Advisory Committee was appointed by the NHRC to look into provisions of the 1993 Protection of Human Rights Act under which the NHRC was established. Areas of consideration included Section 19 of the Act which restricts NHRC investigations of alleged human rights violations by members of the armed and paramilitary forces.

In September the Supreme Court dismissed a challenge by the central government to the NHRC's powers to investigate past human rights violations in Punjab. The Court ruled that the NHRC would be acting "sui generis" in such investigations and that provisions of the Protection of Human Rights Act which prevent the NHRC from investigating allegations of human rights violations which are more than a year old, therefore, did not apply. The Supreme Court had ordered the NHRC to investigate violations in Punjab in December 1996 after hearing allegations by human rights organizations that hundreds of bodies had been illegally cremated by Punjab police (see Amnesty International Reports 1997 and 1998). By the end of the year the NHRC had not begun investigations.

Armed conflict between government forces and armed groups continued in parts of the country, including Jammu and Kashmir, northeastern states and Andhra Pradesh. Civilians, including women and children, were often the victims of abuses by both sides.

Thousands of political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, were detained without charge or trial. They included human rights defenders and people peacefully protesting against violations of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.

Thousands of people, most of them women, were arrested during the year in connection with peaceful protests against the Maheshwar Dam project in Madhya Pradesh. They were arrested under section 151 of the Code of Criminal Procedure which allows police to preventively detain people they suspect may commit a crime. Many of those arrested were reportedly beaten and some needed hospital treatment. Several women alleged that they were told they would be stripped naked if they protested again. Most of those arrested were released unconditionally within a few days following widespread protests at their arrest.

Many people were detained under the 1980 National Security Act (NSA), which permits administrative detention for up to one year on loosely defined grounds of national security. There were regular reports of arrests under the NSA in Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh during the year. In Jammu and Kashmir, political leaders peacefully protesting against human rights violations were frequently detained without charge or trial under the 1978 Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act and the preventive detention provisions of the ordinary criminal law.

People defending their rights were also subjected to other forms of harassment or intimidation. In Orissa, those protesting against mining and other industrial projects in Rayagada district were attacked and had their property destroyed, reportedly by gangs acting in collusion with local authorities and police. In June several activists of Agragamee, a non-governmental organization working with tribal people in Rayagada district, were arrested on what appeared to be false charges.

In February residents of two colonies, one of bonded labourers and the other of a Scheduled Caste community, in the Kookal Panchayat area of Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, were attacked by police after they announced they would boycott local elections. More than 100 police officers, aided by supporters of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a political party standing in the elections, entered the colonies and beat men, women and children, and destroyed property. Sixteen women and nine men from the colonies were then arrested on charges of attempted murder and dacoity (criminal theft). A human rights activist, Henry Tiphagne, who supported the victims, was subsequently harassed by the authorities and in March charged with dacoity.

Several human rights defenders were arrested in Punjab. There were concerns that the arrests were connected with their involvement in the Punjab Committee for Coordination on Disappearances, a network of lawyers established in recent years to pursue the issue of redress for "disappearances". Among those arrested were Jaspal Singh Dhillon, Rajinder Singh Neeta and Daljit Singh Rajput, who were detained in July and accused of conspiring to secure the escape of prisoners. Jaspal Singh Dhillon, Chair of the Human Rights and Democracy Forum and closely involved with the Punjab Committee for Coordination on Disappearances, previously "disappeared" for a month in 1993 and was only released after an international campaign. All three men remained in judicial custody at the end of 1998.

Torture, including rape, and ill-treatment continued to be endemic throughout the country. Three employees of a society dealing with disadvantaged women and children in Rajasthan, which had been involved in state-wide protests about the treatment of rape victims, were reportedly tortured after their arrest in August. Abdul Sattar was taken to Bassi police station in August and reportedly stripped naked and beaten. For the next five days he said he was tortured, including with electric shocks to his hands, feet and genitals. Sita Ram and Satya Narain were repeatedly beaten by police. All three were threatened and reportedly forced to confess to serious crimes and to implicate other employees of the society. They were subsequently charged and were awaiting trial at the end of the year.

There were continuing reports of rape by members of the security forces in various parts of the country. In June Naorem Ongbi Thoinu Devi was reportedly raped by a soldier in her house in Kakching village in Manipur. An investigation was carried out by members of the armed forces under the Army Act which allows members of the armed forces to be tried by court martial rather than by a civil court. The outcome of the investigation was not known at the end of the year.

Hundreds of people were reported to have died in custody. The NHRC continued to monitor deaths in police and judicial custody and to call for reports from the authorities about steps taken to investigate such deaths and bring those responsible to justice.

Prison conditions amounted to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in many facilities, including juvenile homes. Severe overcrowding, lack of medical facilities, poor sanitation and ill-treatment by prison staff continued to be reported. NHRC recommendations issued in 1996 calling for reform of prison legislation had not been implemented by the end of the year (see Amnesty International Report 1997).

"Disappearances" continued to be reported during the year – predominantly in Jammu and Kashmir, Assam and Manipur. Legislation protecting members of the security forces from investigation and prosecution continued to prevent the determination of the fate of the "disappeared".

In Manipur, five separate inquiries were carried out into the "disappearance" of 15-year-old Yumlembam Sanamacha following his arrest by members of the 17th Rajputana Rifles in February from his home in Angtha village, Thoubal district, Manipur. Two brothers – 15-year-old Bimol Singh and Inao Singh – who were arrested with him, said that they had last seen him shortly after arrest being tortured by army personnel at the side of the road. The authorities initially denied that Yumlembam Sanamacha had been arrested, then said that he had escaped from custody. Moves by the central government to prevent the state government from investigating the case meant that no members of the armed forces had been prosecuted for his "disappearance" by the end of the year.

In August Haleema Begum and her 14-year-old son, Shakeel Ahmed, were shot dead by unidentified gunmen in their home in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir. Since the "disappearance" of her son, Bilal Ahmad Bhat, following his arrest by the security forces in December 1992, Haleema Begum had campaigned to highlight the issue of "disappearances" in Jammu and Kashmir and the plight of relatives of the "disappeared", many of whom suffer severe economic disadvantage because of the loss of male members of their families. No investigation had been carried out into the deaths of Haleema Begum and her youngest son by the end of the year.

Hundreds of extrajudicial executions were reported in many states. In September, a judicial inquiry ordered by the Maharashtra High Court into three incidents among scores of so-called "encounter" killings of armed criminal suspects by the Mumbai (Bombay) police (see Amnesty International Report 1998) found that the police version of events was false and that there was evidence to suggest that the three men concerned were extrajudicially executed.

In September a 10-year-old boy was killed and several others were injured during a cordon-and-search operation in Nowpora village in Jammu and Kashmir. Parents were delivering their children to school when members of the Border Security Forces opened fire, reportedly indiscriminately. An investigation was reported to have been ordered, but had not been completed by the end of the year.

At least 35 people were sentenced to death. Among them were 26 men and women sentenced to death by a special court in Tamil Nadu in January after what appeared to be an unfair trial. Most had been arrested in 1991 in connection with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and were tried under the lapsed Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, which included provisions that contravened international fair trial standards. One of the women sentenced, A. Athirai, was reported to have been only 17 years old at the time of her arrest. Appeals against the sentences were still before the Supreme Court at the end of the year.

No executions were reported during the year but the Home Minister referred on several occasions to government plans to extend the use of the death penalty for crimes including rape, child rape and the carrying of explosives.

Two men under sentence of death in Andhra Pradesh (see Amnesty International Report 1998) had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment by the President in May.

There were increasing reports of attacks on religious minorities including Christians and Muslims, most notably in Gujarat state. Many of the attacks were reportedly carried out by members of militant Hindu groups. The National Commission for Minorities investigated reported incidents in Gujarat in August and expressed serious concern about the situation, pointing to violations of fundamental rights. Its recommendations included increased training of police in order to ensure respect for the rights of minorities.

In August, in response to public pressure, the state government of Maharashtra published the report of the Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry set up in 1993 to investigate the circumstances surrounding riots between members of the Hindu and Muslim communities in Mumbai in December 1992 and January 1993 following the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya (see Amnesty International Reports 1993 and 1994). The report pointed to communalism within the police force which led to discrimination against members of the Muslim community during the riots and incitement to riot by members of the Shiv Sena political party. The government of Maharashtra, a Shiv Sena-BJP alliance, dismissed the majority of the recommendations which had been made in the report.

Armed groups continued to commit grave human rights abuses, including torture, hostage-taking and deliberate and arbitrary killings of civilians. In the north of Assam, violence between armed Bodo groups and non-Bodo tribal people escalated during September and October. More than 140 people were reported to have been killed between 1 September and 10 October. In December, 23 Muslims were shot dead by suspected members of an armed Bodo group in Kokrajhar district. In January unidentified gunmen shot dead 23 civilians, including four children, in the village of Vandhama, near the town of Ganderbal in Jammu and Kashmir, before setting fire to a Hindu temple. Similar incidents continued to occur throughout the year in Jammu and Kashmir.

Hostages abducted by armed groups in previous years remained held. The fate of Sanjay Ghosh, a social and environmental activist detained by the United Liberation Front of Assam in July 1997, remained unknown (see Amnesty International Report 1998). Hostage-taking by armed groups continued at an alarming rate in the state of Tripura.

Amnesty International published a number of reports, including India: Manipur – the silencing of youth in May and India: A mockery of justice in April. Amnesty International also raised concerns about the human rights of children in South Asia in a report, Children in South Asia: Securing their rights, in April.

In October Amnesty International submitted its comments on deficiencies in the 1993 Protection of Human Rights Act – under which the NHRC was established – to the Advisory Committee established by the NHRC in June to review the Act.

Amnesty International members took part in campaigns against sexual abuse of women and children by members of the security forces in Assam and Manipur and on a range of legal issues, including provisions of the ordinary criminal law which facilitate impunity for the police and security forces.

Throughout the year Amnesty International called on armed groups in Jammu and Kashmir and northeastern states to abide by the principles of international humanitarian law.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.