The poor record of NHRC

The poor record of NHRC

The human rights body doesn’t have any special mechanism in place to bring perpetrators of custodial crimes to justice

Representative image. Credit: Getty images

Paris Principles — adopted in 1993 by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) — guided the establishment of National Human Rights Institutions; Law Commission’s 152nd Report further empowered the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and State Human Rights Commissions (SHRCs) to intervene to stop custodial crimes.

Now, after two and a half decades of their existence, it will not be a premature assessment of their position on custodial crimes, or for that matter, any other human rights violations. For this purpose, we shall use the data sets on custodial crimes listed from 1999 to 2019, accessed from the office of NHRC through Right to Information (RTI).

For this period, the NHRC received a total of 29,845 cases of deaths in judicial custody, out of which 3,116 were yet to be disposed of. The figure for dismissal of complaints is 39 over a period of two decades, the maximum of which (15) were dismissed in 2016. A trend is observed for the cases involving SHRCs from 1999 to 2019 (0, 7, 12, 47, 227, 357, 307, 245, 85, 211, 240, 974, 109, 10, 7, 4, 7, 6, 2, 2, 17).

It is unclear why a steep fall of 99 data points for such cases is observed between 2011 and 2012 while the trend continues to get narrower in consecutive years, though it is obvious that the number of pending cases would steadily increase with time; a familiar data trend is noticed from 1999 to 2019 (0, 0, 0, 1, 1, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 2, 1, 8, 19, 84, 112, 174, 284, 528, 931, 971).

Little deviations notwithstanding, the state-wise trend for cases related to judicial custodial deaths is largely conforming to human development indicators. Uttar Pradesh (5,917), Bihar (2,821), Maharashtra (2,496) and Punjab (2,178) recorded the majority of deaths in judicial custody.

The figure of disposed cases also includes those in which the families of victims are either silenced or pushed to hostility. This, without any doubt, only would result in case closure. So, the reasons behind Delhi scoring the most contrasting fraction of pending cases against disposed cases, i.e., 112 v 502, are, evidently, its location and availability of legal resources and presence of statutory body in Delhi-NCR. This figure drastically falls for the relatively remote regions of Andhra Pradesh (92 v 1,076) and Odisha (93 v 910).

Statistical trend is no different for police custodial deaths, albeit with a marginal data pool. Perhaps more important, an indicator to appraise police ethics, for the policing authorities have physical custody of the arrested individuals. The NHRC received 3,019 cases related to police custodial deaths out of which 2,651 had been disposed of so far; that is, 87.81% compared to 89.55% disposition of judicial custodial deaths. As witnessed in cases of judicial custody, this category also experiences the same trend on handling of cases by SHRCs (1, 1, 0, 13, 45, 37, 34, 22, 4, 7, 0, 5, 1, 1, 0, 0, 1, 0, 3, 0, 1) during the aforesaid period.

The picture is no different for state-wise data on police custodial deaths. Maharashtra (469), Uttar Pradesh (306) and Gujarat (261) topped the chart. A total of 13 death cases were disposed of with directions (DWD), for judicial as well as police custody. Surprisingly, the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir has zero pending cases for both kinds of custodial deaths — fulfilling ‘zero pendency project’. Does this mean that the NHRC takes such cases seriously? The probe into the custodial death of Rizwan Asad Pandit, still fresh in memory, offered a completely different picture, sadly.

Data on deaths in defence custody and paramilitary custody is similarly uninformative. A total of 23 cases of defence custodial deaths were registered with the NHRC in the past two decades. Three cases pertaining to 2013, 2015 and 2016 were still pending. Eighteen cases of paramilitary custodial deaths were reported to the NHRC. The NHRC doesn’t comment on their data sets, let alone explain how they are located on socio-economic metrics, the fact that the victims of custodial crimes are invariably poor, which LC pointed out.

That theoretical oasis of social justice, it is true, doesn’t comport with the reality when a so-called autonomous human rights body presents some data bereft of clarity. The NHRC’s Deputy Registrar, responding to this author’s RTI application, said that “NHRC (Procedure) Regulations, 1997 [Amendment] does not provide the categorisation of the cases under the category of conviction of cases of custodial deaths in the court of law. As such information sought is not available on the record of the Commission.”

The NHRC also never responded despite generating an official diary number on a case, of custodial torture of one Zubair Khan Pathan in Gujarat, this author had filed, in May 2019. This is no mere coincidence. The NHRC still doesn’t have any special mechanism in place to bring the perpetrators of custodial crimes to justice. And if we go by NCRB’s data, ‘Crime in India’ 2019, we find, though not surprisingly, that the conviction rate for a total of 26 custodial death cases in Gujarat, between 2001 and 2016, was zero. The national picture is equally worrying. Out of 1,557 custodial deaths (2001-2016), 704 cases were registered. Of 294 charge-sheeted policemen, only 26 could be convicted.

The way ahead

If executives desire anything, no matter how much of a waste of time their squeamishness is, democracy, in the absence of checks and balances that institutions like the NHRC could facilitate, empowers even the most unsuitable persons to run the country, to make laws of selective interest, and to abnegate the fundamental tenets of humanity. Elevation of an accused of custodial crimes and fake encounters to the post in the government that has the de facto veto vote in the appointment of office-bearers of the NHRC is a case in point.

Despotism cannot survive without violating human rights. Human rights institutions should come forward to protect human rights. Perhaps this is a way to end despotism, and in any case, a semblance of democracy is better than a fully-fledged despotism.

(The writer reports on human rights issues)

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