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Reconciliation: New Politics for Victims of Torture

Anti Torture Initiative, Anti Violence Initiative, Campaign, Report

Almost seven decades ago  while fighting for India’s freedom Gandhiji was seeking political reconciliation between Indians and Britishers, religious reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims and social reconciliation between upper caste and dalits.  Post Independence we lost the plot and Indian state failed to decentralize political discourse and reconciliation. For reconciliation to happen in the family or the nation, responsibility may need to replace blame; a readiness to understand may need to become more important than the longing to be understood. We may fail, even as Gandhi failed with his son; but perhaps we should try, even as Gandhi tried.

                                                                                                                       By Dr Mohanlal Panda, Secretary/Advisor, PVCHR

In 2003, after the release of the Abu Ghraib photos, a reporter asked a young Iraqi man about the reasons for the rise in violence against U.S. soldiers. His response emphasized the imperative for revenge:

It is a shame for foreigners to put a bag over their heads, to make a man lie on the ground with your shoe on his neck . . . This is a great shame for the whole tribe. It is the duty of that man, and of our tribe, to get revenge on that soldier—to kill that man. Their duty is to attack them, to wash the shame. The shame is a stain, a dirty thing—they have to wash it. We cannot sleep until we have revenge.[1]   

This is not merely the isolated response of one man. Summarizing decades of research on torture survivors, a leading scholar concluded that torture “. . . generates intense hatred and desire for vengeance against the perpetrators, radicalizing even ordinary people with no strong political views”.[2] Several other researches indicate that torture generates a sense of revenge and retaliation in the mind of person who has been subjected to severe physical and prolongpsychological torture. It breaks the victim’s capacity to think rationally.

For centuries torture has been used as an extreme form of violence, as an instrument of power and subjugation across the world. Justification for its use ranges from securing critical and lead information from an alleged perpetrator in detention by breaking his spirit to the community punishment. Women are especially, tortured to guarantee gender subservience. State and non state agencies follow new techniques in using physical and psychological torture that leaves no verifiable evidence during investigation.  The ‘culture of impunity’ challenges the fundamental belief that the state is the guarantor of protection of rights of every citizen, thus making rule of law and constitutional provisions the first causality in a democracy. The social and institutional approval of torture is generating immense desire among the perpetrator to commit crime which they find very hard to resist. Article 2 (2) of the UNCAT states that: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture”. As one scholar put it, “Even though torture is not, on balance, effective or rational, it persists through its deep psychological appeal, to the powerful and the powerless alike, in times of crisis”.[3]   What we all see now that there is a collective effort by the state, the policy makers, the prosecutors and the torture approving citizens  to provide a legal cover to the acts of torture and sideline discussion whether torture is legitimate or not.

Torture and its multiple effects

Hundreds of testimonies compiled by People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR)*  of the victims of police torture and torture by the non state actors in connivance with the state apparatus indicate towards physical harm and prevalence of extensive psychological trauma among the victims. In some of these cases, children of the victim’s family became secondary victims by virtue of being witness of the torture and its “tail end” effect. The findings of the organization are indicative and not representative of the available data. The victims often have to live through their humiliation without being able to answer to the questions of their children, family and community. Everyone around the victim grows up with a sense of destined victimhood rooted in complete disempowerment of the self caused by the state and the society. Majority of the victims in their testimonies, at the time of torture were thinking about death rather than the cause and the person who inflicted it.  Muslims live with constant fear of prosecution in a post riot scenario, poor dalits always remain anxious about a knock at their door to be picked up by the police to clean the toilets at the stations or in the jail or accept the guilt for a crime which has not been committed by them, tribals believe that they could be rounded up and beaten by the joint forces of the state and non state actors for not vacating their lands. The testimonies point towards extreme form of custodial torture. Although torture does not produce reliable information, it may persist because it satisfies psychological needs in times of stress. Specifically, it counters a sense of desperation, reassures interrogators that they are in control, and bestows a feeling of empowerment, at least in the enclosed world of the interrogation room.[4] According to an empirical study by Leo civilian interrogations last, on average, about 2 hours.[5] However, for proven false confessions, the average length of interrogation was 16.3 hours.[6] 

There are also specific information in the testimonies where the children were bitten up by the police and the local mafias for the alleged crime committed by other male members of the family.  Deliberate intimidation and physical harm to the children to extract information about the family members are often done on the basis of caste and economic capability of the family.

Some of the other findings on violence against children are as follows:

·       The first visit by the police or the non state actors marks the beginning of the trauma.

·       Fear leading to displacement, sometimes multiple displacement of the family.

·       Breaking of the family for individual security leads to dependence of relatives, often results in strained relation.

·       Children have to leave the school affecting their childhood development. Leaving behind the normal social environment like playing with friends, interactions with teachers, elders, community care are affected. Not many of the displaced families succeed in providing their children with a welcoming social environment.

·       In the absence of parental guidance children get into drugs, petty crime. This puts additional stress on the parents.

·       Some of the children run away with a feeling of numbness when they see any policeman or man in uniform.

·       Psychological distress affects the victim’s narrative in the form of regular breakdown. However, as a departure, among the extreme poor community the tendency to show solidarity with the victims is noticed including sharing the responsibility of child care.  

·       Grown up children from the marginalized community very quickly realize that they and their family members have to live with the sufferings and it is a part of their existence. They grow up accepting that their troubles are not over but in fact, ongoing.

·       In any case, children remember the sufferings of their parents and factors or persons that altered their life.

Research that focuses directly on the psychological consequences of participating in torture as a perpetrator is rare. Robert Jay Lifton interviewed Nazi doctors who participated in human experimentation and killings, and found them to be “normal professionals” who offered medical justifications for the killings. He argued that while inside an “atrocity-producing” environment, a perpetrator of torture can believe that his or her behavior is normal, even desirable, behavior required or valued by peers and supervisors. It may be only later, outside of that specific environment that the torturer may question his or her behavior, and begin to experience psychological damage resulting from involvement in torture and trauma. In these cases, the resulting psychological symptoms are very similar to those of victims, including anxiety, intrusive traumatic memories, and impaired cognitive and social functioning. [7] Interviews with former torturers illustrate the heavy psychological toll that participation in torture can have on perpetrators. [8] 

Will there be an end to torture India?

Resentment against the state’s relentless assaults on the rights and freedom of the impoverished people has been manifested by the victims and civil society groups mostly through non violent actions. On several occasions the courts and human rights institutions have also documented culpability of the state. Declining responsiveness of the justice delivery institutions and decreasing faith by the majority of the population belonging to the marginalized groups heightens the fear of state being perceived to be sliding into a dysfunctional state.

The discussions on protection of human rights in India are rarely encouraged or generated in the society, primarily, (a) because as per the illustration of Mahmood Mamdani  - In a world in which cats are few and rats are many, one way cats have stabilized their rule, according to Mamdani, is by “tagging” rats with a discourse on issues of caste and religious identity or capability.  It is then quite possible that in a world where rats have managed to triumph over cats in terms of numbers, rats may continue living in a world defined by cats, that is, by identities generated in the era when cats ruled; [9] (b) lack of knowledge of human rights within Indian society in general and among bureaucracy and political decision-makers in particular.

The failure of Indian parliament to legislate a domestic law to prevent torture till today not only confirms the above suspicion but also substantiates that ending torture against citizens of the country is not part of serious political discourse. All of us see this happening every day, feel the pain and agony but do not make it to say “Never again”.

We in PVCHR believe there are two ways to address the issue of torture. One, by introducing a movement for Human Rights Education (HRE), emphasizing on process of psycho-education based on hope, honor and human dignityand the other, by addressing at caste based discrimination through political reconciliation across the country.  

There are evidences of social transformation HRE has brought across the world including nations those have witnessed ethnic conflict. It has brought in changes among the students,  their parents and teachers in believing that discrimination based on caste, religion and gender are forms of torture. Thus, HRE can be an effective tool for generational change, enforcement of law and political articulation. It helps in deconstruction of power relation in every exploitative society.  Therefore human rights education has to give human rights back their moral, legal, political and social meaning. De-politicising human rights makes them empty and vulnerable for politics of interests and new apologetic ethics à la Ignatieff's "ethics of lesser evil".[10] 

In the last two decades India has witnessed judicial activism, institutional interventions, civil society campaigns, victim’s resolve to demand for justice and an untiring media taking up cases on behalf of victims are the hopes on which democracy and constitution has survived. Working with institutions and victims takes us to believe what LucHuyse states, that there has been “a shift from the cult of the hero to the cult of the victim. Suffering instead of heroism now attracts public and political consideration”. He added that “victim empowerment is not a blessing in all circumstances. It can become an obstacle to peaceful coexistence and mutual trust.”[11] Identification of the victims needs protection of law and community hand holding for a longtime, which Indian state does not provide due to absence of a favorable political context to do this.  Elimination of differences and politics of recognition should be of great priority if a different political platform has to be created for nation building. The prevailing animosity based on caste, religion, local or immigrants need to be addressed through political reconciliation, social accommodation and sharing of resources in an equitable manner. Or else we all need to be ready for a scenario when Mahmood Mamdani asks, what happens when yesterday’s victims act out of a determination that they must never again be victimized, never again? [12] 

Almost seven decades ago  while fighting for India’s freedom Gandhiji was seeking political reconciliation between Indians and Britishers, religious reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims and social reconciliation between upper caste and dalits.  Post Independence we lost the plot and Indian state failed to decentralize political discourse and reconciliation. For reconciliation to happen in the family or the nation, responsibility may need to replace blame; a readiness to understand may need to become more important than the longing to be understood. We may fail, even as Gandhi failed with his son; but perhaps we should try, even as Gandhi tried. [13]

*PVCHR works with survivors of torture in several parts of India directly as well as through local partners.

End Notes:

[1] Danner, M., Torture and truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the war on terror. New York, March 4, 2005, Page 12.

[2] Basoglu, M., A multivariate contextual analysis of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatments: Implications for an evidence-based definition of torture. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 79, 2009, Page 142. 

[3] McCoy, A, “ A question of torture: CIA interrogation, from the cold war to the war on terror.” New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2006, Page 207.

[4] Carlsmith, K. M., & Sood, A. M. , “ The fine line between interrogation and retribution. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology”, 45,  2009, 191–196.

[5] Leo, R. A. , Inside the interrogation room. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 86, 1996, 266–303.

[6] Drizin, S. A., & Leo, R. A., The problem of false confessions in the post-DNA world. North Carolina Law Review, 82, 2004, 891–1007.

[7] Lifton, R. J., The Nazi doctors. Medical killing and the psychology of genocide. New York: Basic Books. 1986.   

[8] Blumenfeld, L., The tortured lives of interrogators: Veterans of Iraq, N. Ireland and Mideast share stark memories. The Washington Post, June 4, 2007, A1.

[9]Mahmood Mamdani, “Making Sense of Political Violence in Postcolonial Africa,” in Experiments with Truth: Transitional Justice and the Processes of Truth and Reconciliation. Documenta 11, Platform 2, ed. Okwui Enwezor et. al. (Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2002;

[10] Rancière, Jacques.,  Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?. In: South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 103 (2-3), 2004, Page 305.

[11]Luc Huyse, “Victims,” Reconciliation After Violent Conflict: A Handbook, eds. David Bloomfield, Teresa Barnes and Luc Huyse, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2003, pp. 54-66, p. 63. 

[12] Mahmood Mamdani, “Making Sense of Political Violence in Postcolonial Africa,” in Experiments with Truth: Transitional Justice and the Processes of Truth and Reconciliation. Documenta 11, Platform 2, ed. Okwui Enwezor et. al. (Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2002.

[13] Rajmohan Gandhi, Reconciliation and the American Dream: Pointers from Gandhi & King, Keynote talk at the “Reconciliation in America” Symposium, John Hope Franklin Center, Hyatt Hotel, Tulsa, May 31, 2012.


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Child Hood

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Key Achievement

The work of PVCHR was awarded with the Gwangju Human Rights Award 2007, ACHA Star Peace Award 2008 and 2010 Human rights prize of the city of Weimar in 2010 and Usmania Award from Madarsa Usmania, Bazardiha for the development and welfare of education.

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Basic Rights

Basic rights for marginalized groups in the Indian society, e.g. children, women, Dalits and tribes and to create a human rights culture based on democratic values. PVCHR ideology is inspired by the father of the Dalit movement, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.

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Indians society, especially in the rural areas, is still influenced by feudalism and the caste system which continues to determine the political, social, and economic life of the country. Caste based discrimination is practiced in the educational system...

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PVCHR founded in 1996 by Mr. Lenin Raghuvanshi and Ms. Shruti Nagvanshi in close association with Sarod Mastro Pandit Vikash Maharaj, Poet - Gyanendra Pati and Historian Mahendra Pratap. PATRON: Justice Z.M Yacoob Sitting Judge Constitution Court of South Africa & Chancellor of University of Durban, South Africa.