India's cabinet has quietly approved a bill that would make torture illegal, in a bid for respect on the international stage, even as a new study finds that the country must go further to stop abuses by security forces.
The treatment of detainees might be controversial in Canada, but it's also difficult for politicians in India. Some members of cabinet reportedly argued against introducing an anti-torture law, fearing a backlash as the public mood favours getting tough with the rising Maoist insurgency.
Nor did the government earn much praise for the bill from human-rights groups, which criticized the secretive drafting process and called for deeper reforms to halt what they describe as a growing prevalence of torture in the country.
"Torture is quite rampant here," said Suhas Chakma, director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights. His group released a report Tuesday that shows deaths in police custody climbed 20 per cent from 2000 to 2008. In prisons the increase was 55 per cent during the same period.
Still, the human-rights advocate said he appreciated that the government faces hard realities in India, where criticism of security forces is sometimes viewed as unpatriotic and roughing up suspects is part of police culture. Mr. Chakma said it took political courage for the cabinet to announce its decision on the anti-torture law last week just days after Maoist rebels killed 76 troops in an ambush that has captivated Indian news media.
"This is a historic decision," Mr. Chakma said, referring to the bill. "It may not be perfect, but it's against an atmosphere of prevailing pressure for harsh law-enforcement measures."
Media commentaries suggested this isn't the right time for India to be cleaning up its security agencies, when the country faces growing internal threats.
"The legislation could send wrong signals to security forces who work under extreme hostile conditions and fight a battle where the adversary refuses to adhere to any terms of engagement," wrote the Economic Times, an Indian business paper.
Still, the government seems intent on bringing legislation that will move India closer to ratifying the United Nations convention against torture, which it signed in 1997. Details of the proposed law have not been released, so it remains unclear whether the legislation would bring India into compliance with UN standards. But the government has been paying greater attention to such international norms in recent years, as it lobbies for a seat on the UN Security Council and a stronger voice at other forums.
Human-rights advocates applauded the move, but expressed concern that it could be a hollow gesture.
"It's less about legislation than about attitude," said Meenakshi Ganguly, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. Public perceptions of what's acceptable for police appear to be shifting, she said, and cases of torture by police are getting more scrutiny. But when it comes to the military and paramilitary forces, she added, national security often trumps concerns about human rights.
"Torture in police custody is viewed without sympathy by the public, but in national security cases there is more forgiveness," Ms. Ganguly said.
Perhaps the biggest source of complaints about mistreatment by Indian forces in recent years has been the disputed border region of Jammu and Kashmir. Those areas have also become a source of pride for Indian security agencies, because the number of violent incidents has dropped significantly; some view this as proof that harsh measures are necessary for success against insurgents.
"Yes, superficial normalcy has been restored in Kashmir, because they beat those people black and blue, but it will not last," said Gautam Navlakha of the People's Union for Democratic Rights, a human-rights group. He expressed concern that similar tactics would be used against the Maoists, whose attacks have grown bolder.
India would be wise to resist popular pressure to engage in such dirty warfare, Mr. Chakma said, not only for the sake of its international reputation but also for the practical reason that it doesn't work.
"You have to win hearts and minds," he said, "and you cannot do it by violating human rights."