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Page last updated at 11:12 GMT, Tuesday, 18 November 2008

On the wrong side of Indian law

By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Delhi

Chunchun Kumar
Chunchun Kumar's wound is still raw

For Chunchun Kumar of Bihar's Nawada district, it was just another evening as he lounged around at a tea stall in his village along with a friend.

But, then something happened that changed his life.

"It was 17 March of this year. There were six of them. When we first saw them, they were beating up the temple priest. He was lying on the ground, they were kicking and punching him," Kumar says.

"Then they started hitting two other men. Then they came into the tea shop and they beat us black and blue. Then they fired at us."

Kumar lifts up his shirt to show a bullet mark on his abdomen. The wound is still oozing.

The perpetrators were no ordinary criminals.

Says Kumar, "They were all policemen. I don't know why they were angry. They were all drunk, they were like drunk elephants, they went on a rampage."

The shocked villagers complained to the police authorities, and the offending policemen were suspended from duty and arrested.

'Very serious'

Additional director general of police in Bihar Anil Sinha confirmed the incident.

"Two of the policemen who were inebriated vandalised the tea shop and began firing despite protests from their other colleagues. They were arrested and, although they have been released on bail, they are facing criminal charges."

Kumar's fight for justice recently brought him to the Indian capital, Delhi, where he narrated his story at India's first National People's Tribunal on Torture.

Activists say torture by police is rampant in India.

"The problem of torture is very serious. Today we have around 1.8 million cases of police torture each year in India," says Henri Tiphagne of People's Watch, an NGO.

Policemen in India
The police are often a law unto themselves, say campaigners

Mr Tiphagne says the victims mostly are from the poorer sections of society.

"They are generally the (low-caste) Dalits, the tribals and the Muslims. And torture is used by those who are in power, those who possess, the landlords and the companies who put pressure on the police to carry out torture," Mr Tiphagne says.

Mr Anil Sinha says cases of human rights violations involving the police are "exaggerated" by activists.

"It's a kind of stereotype being dished out by the NGOs and activists. And because police have a bad reputation, so people take such allegations to be correct.

"We do not condone any human rights violations by police in any manner, and such cases are rare. We have a mechanism in place to deal with such cases and penalise the guilty," Mr Sinha says.

Shankar Sen, a retired police officer and former member of the human rights commission, says: "The policeman's work is very complex, there are pressure on him to deliver results, the police are exposed to extraneous influences and pressures."

But, he says, that does not condone torture. "It's illegal, and as a policeman I know it doesn't work."

Mr Sen admits that police torture is prevalent. "Torture does take place, it's very common, but it's unacceptable. Some allegations against the police are shocking."

Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch says nearly every police station in India can be held guilty of torture.

'Arbiter of justice'

In many parts of the country, she says, the situation is so bad that people will not got to a police station to file a case fearing prosecution and retribution.

"There is this pattern of impunity. The fact that police believe they can get away with it has added to the problem," Ms Ganguly says.

"The greater problem is that an average policeman believes himself to be the arbiter of justice. Instead of going to the court, he himself is delivering justice.

Arun Kumar with parents PP Raju and Lakshmi
Arun Kumar's mental age has been reduced to one year

"The policeman is not supposed to punish the criminal, he is supposed to catch the criminal," she says.

For the victims of torture and their families, it is a long haul.

Arun Kumar of the southern city of Bangalore was picked up by the police after his employer suspected him of having an affair with his wife.

Kumar's parents, PP Raju and Lakshmi, say their family home was ransacked, Kumar was taken to the police station where he was beaten up and tortured for days.

Unable to bear the pain and the trauma, Kumar drank pesticides in an attempt to kill himself.

He survived, but his parents say their son's mental age has been reduced to one year - he is on medication and requires constant care.

The guilty policeman was suspended for a week, but reinstated later. The family has a long fight ahead of them.

'Deterrence'

Says Mr Tiphagne, "A case I initiated in 1981 ended in 2007 with the dismissal of the officer. So I have hope in Arun Kumar's case too."

But, he says, this long wait can be a huge deterrence for even the most determined.

Henri Tiphagne of People's Watch.
Mr Tiphagne says nearly 2 million cases of torture take place in India every year

"The torture at the police station ends, but the torture of institutions continues. It's more of a psychological and mental nature, it is very challenging. Most people don't have the courage to withstand that, very few survive that," Mr Tiphagne says.

So while the victims continue to live with the trauma, most of the perpetrators get away.

They are also emboldened by the fact that India has no clear law on torture.

The country signed the UN Convention on Torture in 1997, but even 10 years later, it has not ratified it.

"We have to change our culture. We have to create awareness that torture is illegal. The civil society will have to get involved," says Meenakshi Ganguly.

"People will have to get past the fact that torture happens only to other people. And once that happens, it will change," she says.



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