Towards Understanding Impunity in India

By Mahtab Alam,

Post-Independence India has witnessed a great deal of violence, both large scale as well as smaller conflagrations, that perpetrated by non-state actors as well as those belonging to the state – or at the least with the connivance of state. There exists a veritable plethora of literature, both academic and non-academic, to establish all this. Notably, while this violence straddles different periods, geographical locations and is of diverse nature, there is something which unites. And that is the impunity practiced in all these cases of violence and violations of fundamental human rights. One of the fallouts of continued impunity is recurrence of these violence and violations, in one form or other. So, the obvious question is, what is the reason behind it?  The book under review is a volume which primarily investigates this very question: “why does the world’s largest democracy turn a blind eye to systematic violations of human rights in its periphery?”


Contributors to the volume include well-known names in academia, longtime researchers and members of civil and human rights organisations, such as Prof. Uma Chakravarti, late Ram Narayan Kumar, Prof. Satish K. Jain, Harsh Mander, Sanjay Barbora and Bhagat Oinam apart from younger but highly committed lawyers and researchers like Shahana Basavapatna, Anjuman Ara Begum and Warisha Farasat. Similarly, both the editors have been longtime researchers and actively involved in the campaigns on the issues of mass violence, conflict resolution, human rights and transitional justice. However, the main strength of the book does not lie in the list of eminent and experienced contributors but the amount of field data it presents, in terms of cases studies and testimonies and contributors’ heavy reliance on empirical sources. It is not that there were no works on impunity earlier, but there are two remarkable features of this volume. First and the foremost, it largely relies on empirical data, and second, it covers large swathes of India. Earlier, most the works only and specifically covered or focused on one region or the other like Kashmir, North-East, Punjab or Gujarat. Hence, the editors are absolutely right in their claim that this is “perhaps the first study ever to attempt an empirical enquiry of impunity” compiling accounts from different parts of India. The volume ably establishes the pattern of impunity practiced in the name of fighting terror, maintaining peace, law and order across the country. While case based studies are core of the present work, it also demonstrates how draconian laws like Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and National Security Act (NSA) are affecting everyday life of ordinary citizens in the large parts of North-East and Jammu & Kashmir.

Divided into three broad thematic sections, the book is further classified into 16 chapters. While the first section traces regional patterns of impunity and the second is based on themes of impunity, the third one covers, which is almost half the book’s length, case studies and testimonies. These have been collected over seven years in the field, mostly from four states: Assam, Jammu & Kashmir, Manipur and Tripura. These are supplemented by material from the states of Punjab and Gujarat.  The range of violence that these cases studies and testimonies cover is wide. It includes Custodial Death, Summary Executions Encounter and Secret Killings, Enforced Disappearances, Torture, Arbitrary Detention and Sexual Violence. A long and comprehensive preface by the editors meticulously outlines the context, structure and gendered approach of the volume, apart from a glimpse into the work of Ram Narayan Kumar. Kumar, noted human rights activist, researcher and thinker, was the driving from force behind the project that culminated in this volume. Moreover, it also provides an understating of the theoretical debates around violence and impunity not only in India but also on south Asian as well as global level.

Drawing on the field data and findings, the editors in the preface note, “The examples show how a climate of impunity not only invites violence on several level—physical, psychological and sexual—but also prolongs and intensifies suppression on account caste, class and gender”. Perhaps, to this we could also add the religious identity of the victim as well as perpetrators. In fact, they can be/are double marginalized in most of the cases of violence. The editors also note that this violence and impunity follows a pattern, and the silencing of that scarring. They write:

“When the information began to trickle in, we were struck by the patterns of violence and the impunity it enjoyed; the terrible maleness of violence and the near total absence in records of how women and men in these regions experienced violence on their bodies and being; the sheer stillness as a result of years, sometimes decades, of silencing and isolation, and simultaneous eagerness to speak about “other things.”

Elaborating it further, the editors point out towards various forms of silence and silencing. “Silence speaks in different ways. There is a public forgetting of Partition violence, which caused dislocation and disruption but denied their effects. As a consequence, healing became an individual project. It was the individual who grappled both with political violence and traumatisation caused by violence….The state failed to recognise that while women were representatives of the religious community on account of which they were targeted, they were also citizens with rights and claims to justice. Civil society also failed to seek accountability from the state and from the perpetrators. As a consequence, the perpetrators became local leaders.” In this regard, the authors also caution and rightly so, as the case studies suggest how reparations too could become a tool of silencing. The acceptance of compensation comes with the price of abjuring the right to speak the truth, or even the embracing of absolute silence.

In her essay, Navsharan Singh turns to the question of reparations for large-scale violation and brazen abuse of power by state agencies, particularly the security forces, and some non-state actors in the overall context of impunity. Anjuman Ara Begum and Patrick Hoeing in their essay, present a case study of lesser known and the now almost forgotten mass violence of post-Independent India, Nellie (1983). According informal but reliable sources, up to 3,000 civilians were killed in this massacre within a span of just one day. Despite this high death toll, Begum and Hoeing rue the lack of interest among scholars and activists in this brutal massacre (Only now has a recent book On Their Watch turned to Nellie as one of the four case studies of mass violence and state apathy). Providing the survivors’ perspective, this chapter raises questions pertaining to truth, accountability, citizenship and reconciliation in the context of transitional justice. They conclude, “The concept of transnational justice, fraught as it is with pitfalls and misconceptions, has promise for the survivors of Nellie only if their accounts are being built into the recovery of the past and their call for accountably is being answered.” Ram Naranyan Kumar’s essay, “The matter of mass cremations in Punjab: A window into the state of impunity India” provides a firsthand experience of working on the issues of violence perpetrated in Punjab in the name of fighting terror and insurgency. This one is most lucid and passionately argued chapters of the volume. The volume also explains the role of judiciary, including the Supreme Court in reinforcing impunity. The judiciary has provided constitutional validity to draconian laws like AFSPA and TADA – laws that strike at the very roots of the guarantees provided to us in the Constitution. Further, it has failed to respond when these extraordinary legislations have, with astonishing regularity, ridden rough over for the rights of the citizens, including the right to life.

The present volume is indeed a big leap forward in the systematic study of impunity in India as it unveils issues and themes which are barely discussed in our television channels or public debates. What is also important about this work is that, while it points out where the state has been complicit with the perpetrators and turned blind eye towards it, it also holds up the mirror to civil society organisations and progressive politics in this country, which have also failed to address and counter the forms and practices of impunity. Most campaigns against state-sanctioned impunity, lament the editors, continue to be remain disconcertingly “limited, fragmented and localised”. My only grudge with this volume is that since it sets out to be encyclopedic, it ignores for the most, the rampant lawlessness being practiced by the state and security forces in central India in name of fighting naxal terror. But perhaps we shall see another volume focusing on the reign of impunity in the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and parts of Maharashtra.

Book Details: Landscapes of Fear: Understanding Impunity in India, Edited by Patrick Hoenig and Navsharan Singh, Zuban Books, Delhi, 2014, 716 pp., Rs 895 ISBN 978 93 83074 93 8

First published in Biblio: A Review of Books, January-February 2015.

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