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Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a three-day visit to the United States from July 17 to July 20, during which he held talks with President Bush and addressed a joint session of Congress. This visit is part of an effort to build a stronger partnership between the two countries, especially in the areas of defense, energy, and the economy.

Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch recently wrote a letter addressed to the Prime Minister urging him to confront the issues of: impunity; accountability for those responsible for mass killings in Gujarat, Punjab, and Bombay; ending the conflict in Kashmir; promoting the rights of Dalits, tribals, and the economically marginalized; protecting the rights of children; preventing discrimination against those with HIV/AIDS; and judicial and legal reform.

Impunity for those who commit human rights abuses is a continuing problem in India. To combat this problem, the Indian government needs to promptly address human rights abuses by security forces with public trials, educate the population about minority rights, and unequivocally condemn religious violence and extremism. The repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act would also help to prevent security forces from acting with impunity.

Ending impunity includes creating accountability for past crimes. Many perpetrators of violence in Punjab in the 1980s to 1990s and in Gujarat in 2002, as well as the police and officials who allowed the violence to continue, still have not been tried by the courts. Despite the recommendations of various commissions, those responsible have not been punished, and the safety of witnesses continues to be an issue.

The conflict in Kashmir has also resulted in serious human rights violations, such as torture, arbitrary detention, and summary executions by security forces. Gunmen who target civilians need to be brought to trial, and 3,000 are still missing in Kashmir after being detained by security forces.

To improve India’s human rights record, the Prime Minister should also address discrimination against the economically marginalized, children, and those with HIV/AIDS. Discrimination against Dalits and tribals remains a problem, but the government can begin to solve it with a more vigorous enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. In protecting the rights of children, ending bonded child labor and encouraging universal education for children are important steps. Advancing anti-discrimination legislation for those with HIV/AIDS is also important, as India is soon expected to have the largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the world.

Finally, ensuring that the judiciary plays its proper role is key in changing a culture of impunity. Ratifying the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and implementing the recommendations by the National Police Commission could reduce the widespread torture by the police and other security forces. Better training of police, judges and prosecutors to end corruption and incompetence are also important. These reforms should be made while protecting the basic guarantees of due process and a fair trial, and in accordance with Indian and international human rights standards.

Jaskaran Kaur, executive director of ENSAAF, wrote an op-ed for the Boston Globe which also addresses the lack of attention given to India’s human rights record.

Prime Minister Singh will address a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, and terrorism is high on the agenda. An item not likely on the agenda is India’s systematic abuse of human rights in the name of counter-terrorism. Despite receiving praise as the world’s largest democracy, India’s human rights record falls dismally behind countries that have only recently shed their legacy of dictatorships.

From 1984-95, during the period of counter-insurgency, Indian security forces “disappeared,” killed, and illegally cremated more that 10,000 Punjabi Sikhs. Many perpetrators of these abuses now serve as counter-terrorism experts, most prominent of which is former Punjab Director General of Police KPS Gill. He now heads an Indian counter-terrorism institute.

Despite this history systematic human rights abuses, the landmark lawsuit concerning illegal mass cremations in Punjab provides a chance for justice.

A flickering hope of justice remains for survivors of the counter-insurgency abuses. Since December 1996, the Committee for Information and Initiative in Punjab has struggled before the Indian National Human Rights Commission in a landmark lawsuit addressing police abductions that led to mass cremations, including those of Jaswinder’s family. The commission, acting as a body of the Indian Supreme Court, has the authority to remedy violations of fundamental rights in this historic case of mass crimes. Its decisions will serve as precedent for victims of state-sponsored abuses throughout India. The commission has received over 3,500 claims from Amritsar alone, one of 17 districts in Punjab.

However, the commission has not heard testimony from a single survivor in the past eight years, a striking fact when compared with Guatemala’s Historical Clarification Commission registering 42,275 victims in eighteen months and El Salvador’s Commission on the Truth collecting information on 22,000 victims in eight months.

Even more discouraging is the commission’s recent announcement to narrow its mandate. Instead of determining whether the police had wrongfully killed those cremated, the commission plans to only determine whether the police had properly cremated victims.

With this move, the commission rejected the victims’ right to life and endorsed the Indian government’s position that life is expendable during times of insurgency.

India’s counter-terrorist policies during the insurgency have resulted in the widespread police abuse and judicial ineffectiveness today. The absence of fundamental rights during the insurgency is being perpetuated as India continues its policies in places such as Kashmir.

In 1997, Ajaib Singh committed suicide after the Punjab police tortured and disappeared his son and justice failed him. His suicide note read: ”Self-annihilation is the only way out of a tyranny that leaves no chance for justice.” If India fails to address its own mass atrocities, this should raise serious questions about its role as a partner in the ”war on terror.”


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