WikiLeaks XXIII: Torture Cables Undermine India’s Efforts to Inhabit Higher Ethical Ground Than China

Kashmir lake(Pictured: Kashmir in simpler times.)

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the twenty-third in the series.

As the balance of world power shifts east, and the battle for regional supremacy begins to take shape between India and China, New Delhi has positioned itself against the Eastphalian realpolitik of Beijing by promoting its commitment to liberal values as the world’s largest democracy.

But as a new cable released by WikiLeaks demonstrates, its liberal bona fides aren’t quite as impeccable as India may wish the world to believe. As an embassy dispatch dating from April 2005 makes clear, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) concluded that the Indian government condoned torture in its efforts to gain control of Kashmir.

According to ICRC officials briefing American diplomats, the organization had

made 177 visits to detention centers in J&K [Jammu and Kashmir] and elsewhere (primarily the Northeast) between 2002-2004, meeting with 1491 detainees, 1296 of which were private interviews. XXXXXXXXXXXX considered this group a representative sample of detainees in Kashmir, but stressed that they had not been allowed access to all detainees. In 852 cases, detainees reported what ICRC refers to as “IT” (ill-treatment): 171 persons were beaten, the remaining 681 subjected to one or more of six forms of torture: electricity (498 cases), suspension from ceiling (381), “roller” (a round metal object put on the thighs of sitting person, which prison personnel then sit on, crushing muscles — 294); stretching (legs split 180 degrees — 181), water (various forms — 234), or sexual (302). Numbers add up to more than 681, as many detainees were subjected to more than one form of IT. ICRC stressed that all the branches of the security forces used these forms of IT and torture.

Strangely, New Delhi did not respond to the allegations with denials of wrongdoing, but argued that this dismal state of affairs amounted to progress. The unidentified source told embassy staff that government representatives answered the charges by noting

that the human rights situation in Kashmir is “much better than it was in the 1990s,” a view he also agreed with. Security forces no longer roused entire villages in the middle of the night and detained inhabitants indiscriminately, as they had as recently as the late 1990s. There is “more openness from medical doctors and the police,” who have conceded that 95 percent of the information on particular cases is accurate. Ten years ago, there were some 300 detention centers; now there are “a lot fewer,” he stated.

Whether this particular rubric for measuring human rights progress in India should be accepted or not, the cable notes that persistent problems remain. Among other things,

There is a regular and widespread use of IT and torture by the security forces during interrogation; — This always takes place in the presence of officers; — ICRC has raised these issues with the GOI for more than 10 years; — Because practice continues, ICRC is forced to conclude that GOI condones torture; — Dialogue on prison conditions is OK, dialogue on treatment of detainees is not; — Security forces were rougher on detainees in the past; — Detainees were rarely militants (they are routinely killed), but persons connected to or believed to have information about the insurgency; — ICRC has never obtained access to the “Cargo Building,” the most notorious detention center in Srinagar; and — Current practices continue because “security forces need promotions,” while for militants, “the insurgency has become a business.”

At the same time, the cable reports that New Delhi had made important advancements in cleaning up their spotty record on torture in recent years. In particular, the ICRC had

conducted more than 300 sessions with SF on IHL in Kashmir and elsewhere, which have touched an estimated 20,000 junior grade officers in one way or another. Discussions are underway for further sessions with officers at the headquarters of the Southern Command in Pune (Maharashtra) and Northern Command in Udhampur (J&K).

And perhaps more importantly, the issue of military discipline had taken center stage in the minds of senior policy makers, prompting the convening of at least one conference on the subject

following reports that Defense Minister Mukherjee was disturbed by continued reports of human rights violations by the security forces. Addressing the conference, Mukherkee observed that “we must realize that while dealing with insurgents, we are operating within our own territory and allegations of human rights violations will not only sully the image of the army, but also reduce our effectiveness in tackling militancy.” As part of his “velvet glove, iron fist” approach, Singh has repeatedly stipulated that his officers should use “minimum force” and avoid “collateral damage” in their units in order to reverse declining standards in discipline.

Nevertheless, as another cable demonstrates two years later, the torture issue continued to surface as a key roadblock to closer, more effective bilateral relations between Washington and New Delhi. Lamenting the various issues hampering US-Indian cooperation and coordination on issues of counter-terrorism, the dispatch focuses on

India’s lack of capacity to manage these issues bureaucratically…[The country’s] police and security forces are overworked and hampered by bad police practices, including the wide-spread use of torture in interrogations, rampant corruption, poor training, and a general inability to conduct solid forensic investigations. India’s most elite security forces also regularly cut corners to avoid working through India’s lagging justice system, which has approximately 13 judges per million people. Thus Indian police officials often do not respond to our requests for information about attacks or our offers of support because they are covering up poor practices, rather than rejecting our help outright.

These cables appear at an inconvenient moment for the Indian government, which this week dispatched a high-profile group to Kashmir on the final leg of its fact-finding mission designed to help resolve the decades-old conflict in the region. While the latest WikiLeaks revelations will likely have no effect on the group’s ten-day trip to Kashmir, they certainly will complicate New Delhi’s hopes at being seen as a positive force for peace in the region. More so if even its strongest backer, the United States, is perceived to be uncomfortable with India’s approach to handling “terrorist” sympathizers.