It looks like India's policing is in pretty good shape. The annual report of the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) 2006 is just out. It lists just 29 human rights violations for the year. Looks like it is time to shut down the human rights commission. Its work is done.
So all the rumors we hear about interrogation through beatings and torture, rapes in custody, illegal detentions, extra-judicial killings - 1,400 in one year in Andhra Pradesh alone - must be just lies. Thank heavens there is nothing to worry about. If there were even a little bit of truth in these awful and persistent allegations one might feel a wee bit unsafe around the police or even suggest that the police need reform.
Within days of the NCRB report, the Asian Centre for Human Rights released its report on torture in India. The figures for custodial deaths were abysmal. Almost 7,500 deaths in custody in the last five years that translates to an average of 1,500 deaths every year.
Twenty nine says one; 1,500, says the other. One of these reports has to be lying.
Night after night pictures of police beating retreating crowds to pulp, pounding a man tied to a post with a strap, dragging some poor petty thief through the town tied to his motor cycle, assisting the crowd in shaving a woman's head for being a witch, kidnapping small children across state lines because they could not find the kids' father - all these can't be human rights violations and must all be propaganda. Nothing wrong here at all.
But there is. Even given its dicey data collection methods, the national crime report lists over 62,000 complaints against the police in one year alone. And this in a country famous for non-registration. That's a two percent increase from 2005.
Like the iceberg 9/10th of what is beneath the surface is never going to be seen. Inquiries were instituted in a minuscule 25 percent cases. Less than five percent went to trial and 0.03 percent - 24 policemen to be exact - were convicted.
Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh lead the pack with three complaints for every 10 policemen. This could mean many things: that the police in these states are more accountable; or it's easier to register cases against them; they are genuinely worse than in other states; or simply that these states collect their statistics better.
On the other hand, Uttar Pradesh where the chief minister has publicly accepted that her police is corrupt comes in with 23 complaints against 100 policemen. However, the figures at the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) have a different story to tell.
In 2006, there was a total of 28,377 complaints of police atrocities received by the NHRC. Of these almost 70 percent of complaints were there against the Uttar Pradesh police. In Delhi, one in every 10 policemen has a complaint registered against him. Sure that means that nine are good guys. But is this trend in policing in the capital of 'one of the fastest growing economies in the world' something one can be overjoyed about?
The deaths in custody are not considered human rights violations. This must be so because of the 103 reported custodial deaths, 24 were due to suicide, seven because the people tried to flee custody, 18 during hospitalization and 29 died natural deaths. Fortunately, custodial rapes have almost disappeared from the crime reports. Just two rapes reported in the entire country in a whole year. The third one reported was declared false due to a mistake of fact or law. Maybe the mistake was on the part of the victim who tried to report it.
Statistics normally speak volumes. But when statistics are so contrary to what we see on television and what we read in the newspapers and what we hear of and come across almost every day indicates that there is something terribly wrong and reform is badly needed.
Over the years, numerous recommendations have been suggested to reform the police. Recommendations by top cops, by consecutive police commissions, by eminent jurist Soli Sorabjee, by none other than our prime minister and finally even by the Supreme Court.
However, all states have uniformly disregarded these recommendations time and time again. With so much unwillingness to take steps to improve policing, the next year's crime bureau statistics are unlikely to be much better.
Its cold figure laden columns will probably not be able to take account of the likes of Sarita. Married with two children. Twenty-five years old. Sarita went to the police station to get her husband freed for some petty crime. The police there teased and taunted and asked for a bribe. Of course, she couldn't pay. But she was handy, poor and helpless, so they raped her. Terrified and traumatized but with nothing to lose, she got up the courage to complain. Of course, it took a month to get that done. Of course, nothing was done to further the case after that. Of course, she ran from pillar to post. Finally, hopeless and humiliated she made her final statement before the ADG - she killed herself in his office.
What a relief! For her. For the police. For the system. What's to investigate? What's to document? The prosecutrix is dead. The evidence has gone cold. Someone is absconding. Someone may get caught. It is all off the front page. Next woman please.
No, the crime records for next year will not acknowledge Sarita even though her heartbreak represents all that is wrong with the police. She isn't a human rights violation, is she? She's hardly a registered case. She may not even get into the inquires completed column or into the conviction rates. Her absence from official memory even as a lowly statistic will obliterate even the small acknowledgement of tragedy which poor and cruel policing brought upon her head and brought to those thousands of others and that the police already hide so well.
(Maja Daruwala is director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Nawaz Kotwal a coordinator in the same organisation. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)