Events of 1991

Human Rights Developments

The human rights situation in India continued to deteriorate in 1991 amid unprecedented political turmoil. In November 1990, the minority government of V.P. Singh collapsed and was replaced by that of Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, which then fell in March 1991. Parliamentary elections held in May and June saw the worst violence of any election since the country's independence. Among those killed was former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who died in a bomb explosion on May 20 while campaigning in the state of Tamil Nadu. In the wake of his assassination, local politicians threatened to expel Sri Lankan refugees, and police in Tamil Nadu arrested several thousand suspected members of the militant Sri Lankan separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which was believed responsible for the killing. One suspect later died in custody under suspicious circumstances.

Human rights issues remained at the forefront of the political upheavals, as secessionist movements in the border states of Punjab, Assam, and Jammu and Kashmir continued to claim thousands of lives and led to widespread abuses by security forces and armed militant groups. The Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA), among other security laws, was used widely in these states and throughout India to detain alleged militants and suspected supporters without charge or trial. Peaceful opponents of government policy were caught up in the TADA net. Government security forces and armed militants also committed grave violations of the laws of war, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

In other states, including Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar, armed groups operating with the connivance and, in some cases, assistance of local police attacked and killed low-caste villagers and peasant activists. In Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, peaceful demonstrators protesting against large-scale development projects were arrested and beaten as part of a government effort to censor information about human rights abuses and the environmental impact of such projects.

In Kashmir, India's central government continued to pursue its brutal campaign against militant separatists despite growing criticism by international and domestic human rights groups. Throughout the year, the army and security forces routinely engaged in extrajudicial executions, disappearances, widespread torture, arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention without trial.

In its May 1991 report, Kashmir Under Siege, Asia Watch itself documented some two hundred extrajudicial executions of civilians and suspected militants by army and paramilitary forces in Kashmir since the beginning of 1990 – a small portion of the estimated killings in this period. In many of the cases detailed in the report, troops opened fire on crowds of unarmed demonstrators, or in crowded markets and residential areas. Such violations continued through 1991: on May 8, at least fourteen mourners in a funeral procession were killed when government forces opened fire on a crowd of three thousand at a Srinagar cemetery. According to press reports, when mourners returned to the scene to collect the bodies, the troops again opened fire, killing a teenage boy.79

To date, Asia Watch is unaware of any conviction of a member of the Indian security forces for any human rights violation in Kashmir. Indeed, the rape of women in the village of Kunan Poshpora by army soldiers of the Fourth Rajputana Rifles became the focus of a campaign to acquit the army of charges of human rights violations and discredit those who brought the charges. The rapes allegedly occurred during a search operation on the night of February 23 in which the men were taken away from their homes and interrogated. Villagers complained first to local army officials and then to the local magistrate, who visited the village and filed a report that included the statements of twenty-three women who claimed to have been raped.

Publicity about the incident in the national press provoked strong denials by army officials. On March 17, a fact-finding delegation headed by Chief Justice Mufti Bahauddin Farooqi interviewed fifty-three women who had made allegations of rape and tried to determine why a police investigation into the incident had never taken place. Farooqi reportedly stated that he "had never seen a case in which normal investigative procedures were ignored as they were in this one." However, a confidential report filed by a local official, the divisional commissioner, concluded that "the allegations leveled against the army cannot be believed and have apparently been made by villagers as an afterthought under pressure from the militants."80 A police investigation ordered into the incident was never carried out because the assistant superintendent assigned to the case was transferred before he could start.

In response to criticism about the government's investigation, the army requested the Press Council of India to investigate the incident. The committee members visited in June, more than three months after the incident occurred. After interviewing a number of the alleged victims, the committee concluded that contradictions in the women's testimony rendered the charge of rape "baseless." Examinations conducted on thirty-two of the women on March 15 and 21 confirmed that the women had abrasions on the chest and abdomen, and that the hymens of three of the unmarried women had been torn. However, the committee concluded that "such a delayed medical examination proves nothing" and that such abrasions are "common among the village folk in Kashmir."81 The committee dismissed the torn hymens as evidence of rape, stating that they could be the result of "natural factors, injury or premarital sex."

While the results of the examinations by themselves could not prove the charges of rape, they raised serious questions about the army's actions in Kunan Poshpora. As Asia Watch noted in its report, the alacrity with which military and government authorities in Kashmir discredited the allegations of rape and their failure to follow through with procedures that would provide critical evidence for any prosecution – in particular prompt medical examinations of the alleged rape victims – raise serious concerns about the integrity of the investigation. The failure promptly to establish an impartial investigation into the incident suggests that the Indian authorities have been more interested in shielding the army from charges of abuse. Given evidence of a possible cover-up, both the official and the Press Council investigation fall far short of the measures necessary to establish the facts in the incident and determine culpability.

Since their campaign for secession escalated in late 1989, Kashmiri militants have engaged in grave violations of humanitarian law by executing suspected police informers, taking hostages, and threatening and murdering prominent Muslims and members of the minority Hindu community. Militants have also violated the laws of war prohibiting indiscriminate attack on civilian targets.

Kidnappings by Kashmiri militant groups escalated in 1991, and included among the victims a number of foreigners. In March, two Swedish engineers were kidnapped by the Muslim Janbaz Force, which demanded that the United Nations and Amnesty International be allowed to conduct fact-finding missions in Kashmir; the two men escaped from their captors in June. On June 27, a group of Israeli tourists on a houseboat were attacked by militants, who took seven men hostage. A tourist and a militant were killed and three tourists were injured when a gun battle erupted after one of the Israeli men grabbed a militant's rifle and opened fire. As the militants fled, they took one of the tourists hostage, releasing him a week later. Militants also kidnapped civil servants of the state government and demanded the release of detained colleagues in exchange.

By December 1991, Punjab had registered a record 5,300 killings by militant forces, criminal gangs and security forces, up from some 4,000 in 1990. Among those killed were many candidates to the state assembly and national Parliament,82 some of whom were assassinated by militant groups contesting the elections and others by gunmen apparently associated with political parties. Militants boycotting the elections also engaged in indiscriminate attacks on civilians. Days before the polls were scheduled to open in Punjab on June 22, unidentified gunmen opened fire on passenger trains near the city of Ludhiana, killing at least seventy-four people. Originally scheduled for June, the Punjab elections were postponed until September following the election of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. On September 18, the elections were again canceled, and tentatively rescheduled for February 1992.

Since 1984, government forces in Punjab, including the Punjab Police, Border Security Force, Central Reserve Police Force and the Indian Army,83 have resorted to widespread human rights violations to fight the militants, including arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention without trial, torture, disappearance and summary killing of civilians and suspected militants.

Many of the executions in 1991 involved persons who were first detained in police custody and then reported by the authorities to have been killed in an "encounter" with security forces. In many of these cases, Asia Watch believes the victims were murdered in the custody of the police. Detainees also frequently "disappeared" in police custody; police in Punjab defied court orders and thwarted efforts by family members to locate their relatives and produce them in court. Torture was practiced systematically in police stations, prisons and the detention camps used by paramilitary forces throughout Punjab. Family members were frequently detained and tortured to reveal the whereabouts of relatives sought by the police. The police also seized local newspapers and harassed journalists. Although the victims of torture and the relatives of victims of extrajudicial killings and disappearances identified police officers responsible for gross human rights violations in Punjab, none was prosecuted.

For their part, some Sikh militants pursued their campaign for a separate state by assassinating civil servants, political candidates and journalists. Militant groups also engaged in indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Punjab and other states. In one of the worst such attacks, on October 16, at least forty-one people died in two bomb explosions in Ruderpur, Uttar Pradesh – one at a Hindu festival and the second at a hospital where the wounded were being taken.

Certain militant organizations issued death threats and assassinated Sikhs who did not support the separatist cause or a fundamentalist Sikh ideology. The leaders of several major militant organizations issued press statements warning journalists to adhere to a strict code of conduct. Failure to abide by these dictates is punishable by death.

The escalating violence in Punjab also spread to neighboring states, particularly Uttar Pradesh, where some militants have become involved in smuggling across the Nepal border. State authorities, like their counterparts in Punjab, gave police officials blanket authority to act outside the law against suspected militants. On July 13, ten Sikh bus passengers traveling in Uttar Pradesh were taken into custody and shot dead in what authorities claimed was an armed "encounter" with the police. An eleventh detainee later disappeared. Eyewitnesses to the detention interviewed by Asia Watch reported that none of the detainees was armed, and Asia Watch believes that the detainees were summarily executed. A number of eyewitnesses who filed affidavits in the courts were later threatened by the police.

In Tamil Nadu, the police launched a massive search for the suspected assassins of Rajiv Gandhi, arresting thousands. On June 28, the authorities in Tamil Nadu ordered the 85,000 Sri Lankan refugees in the state living outside refugee camps to register with the police or face deportation. Since then, thousands who failed to register have been arrested, although to Asia Watch's knowledge they have not been deported. On July 27, three Sri Lankans were detained in Madras under the National Security Act for reportedly publishing a Tamil periodical without a license and reporting "the activities of LTTE militants."

A government crackdown against suspected members and sympathizers of the LTTE also resulted in widespread arrests. On July 17, the police arrested Mirasdar Shanmugam, who was believed to be a key link in the assassination conspiracy. On July 20, his body was found hanging from a tree, and the police claimed that he "escaped" from custody and "committed suicide" or "was killed by the LTTE." Shanumugam's relatives and lawyer have alleged that he was killed by the police, and government officials have also raised concerns that he may have been killed in police custody. A magisterial inquiry was ordered.

Throughout India, deaths in custody occurred at an alarming rate in 1991, frequently as a result of torture. Systematic abuse of detainees in police custody was largely tolerated if not condoned by government officials.84 The rigid class system in Indian prisons – which affords better treatment to prisoners of higher socioeconomic status – and corruption in the police force also served to perpetuate the widespread system of abuse.

An Asia Watch mission found that women were particularly at risk in prison, where custodial rape and other forms of sexual abuse are common. Women receive particularly harsh treatment in police lock-ups, where cells are overcrowded, smelly and insect-infested, and detainees are not given beds, soap or changes of clothes. The police are empowered to hold detainees for up to ninety days after obtaining an order for remand from a magistrate.

Since 1985, the World Bank has funded a development project to construct the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River in western India. One of a series of dams to be constructed over the next four decades, the Sardar Sarova Dam is to provide irrigation to Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Protests against the dam have resulted in arrests and beatings of peaceful demonstrators, and the governments concerned have attempted to censor information about the environmental impact of the project. In August 1991, some sixty protestors were arrested during a demonstration and charged under Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code for "unlawful assembly." They were later released. On November 17, Medha Patkar, an activist with Narmada Bachao Andolan – an organization which has peacefully opposed construction of the dam – was arrested and detained for two days on charges that included "unlawful assembly," "instigating people" and "committing outrage against government officials." She was released on November 19 but the charges are still pending.

The Right to Monitor

Although human rights organizations in India function relatively freely, a number of human rights groups that have published reports on Kashmir, particularly the Coordination Committee on Kashmir and the Committee for Initiative on Kashmir, have been accused by government officials of collaborating with the militant groups and serving as agents of foreign intelligence operations. The government has provided no evidence to support the allegation. Some members of these and other groups have come under police surveillance.

On September 28, Shankar Guha Niyogi, a trade unionist and a member of the national council of the People's Union for Civil Liberties, was assassinated by unidentified gunmen while he was asleep in his home in Bhilai, Madhya Pradesh. Although two men have been arrested in the case, powerful industrialists named by the hit men as having ordered the assassination have not been.

On December 7, Narra Prabhakara Reddy, a member of the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC), was shot at his home in Warangal district. Reddy, 35, who was also a member of the District Bar Association, had received death threats from police officers in connection with his efforts to defend victims of police torture and to investigate disappearances in Andhra Pradesh. Other members of the APCLC have received similar threats from the police. Reddy was the third member of the APCLC to be murdered since 1985.

U.S. Policy

U.S.-Indian relations historically have been strained over the close ties between the United States and Pakistan, a country with which India has fought three wars. Consequently, although the United States provides India with more than $100 million in development assistance and other grants and loans, its partisan role in regional South Asian politics has diminished its influence in India. The Bush Administration's decision, on October 1, 1990, to suspend $560 million in annual economic and military aid to Pakistan, due to Islamabad's nuclear weapons development program, may have helped U.S.-Indian relations, but only temporarily. Strong nationalist sentiment and suspicion about U.S. interests in the region have also contributed to India's tendency to dismiss criticism of its human rights record. Public expressions of concern from the United States are bitterly denounced by Indian officials and in the Indian press. Nonetheless, it is clear that U.S. influence over such institutions as the World Bank has considerable impact in India. India courts these loans and significant U.S. presence on such institutions could be used to considerable effect. However, to our knowledge, the State Department has not used this influence to press for human rights improvements.

In 1991, U.S. development assistance to India totaled $20.9 million, funds for P.L. 480 (Title II) food aid totaled $77.1 million, housing guarantees amounted to $19 million, and about $300,000 was spent for the International Military Education and Training program. World Bank loans planned for 1991 totaled $2.6 billion, of which $1.85 billion have been approved to date.

Throughout 1991, the Bush Administration raised concerns about human rights abuses by Indian security forces privately with Indian authorities and in occasional public statements.

Such public expressions, which have generally appeared in the form of testimony and answers to questions at congressional hearings, have largely reiterated the generally accurate description of Indian human rights abuses included in the State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.

When Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Richard Schifter was questioned about extrajudicial executions in Kashmir, at hearings on February 26 before the House Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations, he stated that the security forces had used "excessive force" in their efforts to "repress the movement in the area which favors independence for Kashmir." He also acknowledged that acts of violence by militant groups had resulted in extrajudicial killings.

However, when questioned about the Indian government's use of the TADA, Secretary Schifter missed an important opportunity to condemn the act's provisions that suspend safeguards against arbitrary arrest and torture. Instead, he inexplicably chose that moment to congratulate the Indian government as one which "respects individual rights and is not going to misuse a law deliberately." Precisely because public expressions about human rights issues are rare, the Administration should ensure that they are not seen to minimize human rights concerns.

When questioned about extrajudicial killings in Punjab, Secretary Schifter stated that investigations of human rights abuses have taken place "in private for [the] morale ... of the security forces" and that the Administration was told that those responsible for abuses had been punished. In fact, at the time no police officer or other security personnel had been prosecuted for such killings. Schifter also credited the V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar governments with taking steps to end encounter killings and contended that "allegations of such killings declined in 1990." To the contrary, Asia Watch knows of no serious measures taken by the Indian authorities to end the encounter killings or evidence that such killings declined in 1990.

In March 7 testimony before the House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Teresita Schaffer stated that over sixty-five people had died in "terrorist-related activities" in Punjab. The failure to acknowledge that many of those killed are the victims of extrajudicial executions by the security forces created a distorted picture of the human rights situation in Punjab. In Kashmir, she noted the "daily rituals of militant attacks and security forces counterattacks [which] have claimed almost 200 lives." Again, it would have been appropriate to distinguish between the killing of combatants and noncombatants to clarify the severity of the human rights problem.

At a briefing for the foreign press on July 2, Secretary Schaffer was more forthcoming in condemning abuses by both Kashmiri militants and Indian security forces, describing kidnappings by the militants as "abhorrent" and noting the Administration's distress at the "harsh measures" taken by the Indian authorities. Her admonition that "India's democratic tradition would be better served if the Indian government adhered to international norms in maintaining law and order" was particularly welcome.

The Administration appropriately urged the Indian government to permit international human rights organizations to carry out fact-finding missions in India, and Secretary Schifter used the occasion of the February 26 hearing to reiterate this concern. Unfortunately, the Administration did not use the opportunities available to it to address issues on which it could have considerable influence, such as the treatment of activists fighting the Narmada Dam project. The State Department could have called for a review of the project and the suspension of future installments of funds as long as human rights violations, such as the arrests of peaceful protestors, continue.

In Congress, human rights violations in Punjab and Kashmir were the focus of a debate in 1991, sparked by the introduction of a House measure calling for a cutoff of all U.S. development aid if the Indian government did not allow human rights groups access to India. The bill, sponsored by Representative Dan Burton, was aimed at gaining access for Amnesty International, which has been barred from conducting fact-finding missions in India. An amended version of the bill was adopted by the House on June 19, without the aid cutoff.

The Work of Asia Watch

The severity of abuses in Punjab and Kashmir prompted Asia Watch to send a delegation in late 1990 to investigate and document violations of human rights and humanitarian law by all parties to the conflicts. The findings were published in two reports, Kashmir Under Siege, in May 1991, and Punjab in Crisis, in August. Asia Watch discussed its concerns about human rights violations in both states with members of Congress during the debate on the House resolution over human rights abuses in India. In September, Asia Watch published a newsletter documenting its findings in the investigation of the killing of ten Sikhs in Pilibhit.

Human rights abuse in prisons throughout India, including widespread torture and deaths in custody, are documented in the March Asia Watch report, Prison Conditions in India. A newsletter on an Asia Watch investigation into a number of deaths in custody is scheduled for release in early 1992.

Asia Watch also raised concerns about a number of individual cases of disappearance and torture, including Shahabuddin Gori, a student activist tortured in police custody because of his alleged links to Kashmiri militants. Asia Watch also intervened on behalf of Narra Prabhakara Reddy, who was murdered.

"Indian Forces in Kashmir Fire on Rebel Mourners," The New York Times, May 9, 1991; "Indian Troops Shoot Kashmiris at Burial," The Washington Post, May 9, 1991.

The report's conclusions were based primarily on the women's failure to report their rape to law-enforcement officials immediately and, in some cases, at all. The report also claimed that there were too few soldiers in the unit to have committed the number of rapes alleged. Officials challenged the women's credibility because the number of alleged victims kept changing. Independent journalists suggested that a smaller number of women may have been raped and that others joined them so that they would not be ostracized.

The committee failed to inquire whether the men had similar injuries.

Punjab has been ruled directly from New Delhi since May 1987, when the state assembly was dismissed.

One army unit is permanently stationed in Punjab, and beginning in late 1990, additional army units were deployed in the border districts to supplement the police and paramilitary forces. In November 1991, the army was deployed throughout the state.

See Asia Watch, Prison Conditions in India, March 1991.

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