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The Limits of Justice: An Indian Human Rights Story

Through an examination of the Sadashiva panel report, court papers submitted to the panel, media exposes, and interviews with NGO activists and the victims themselves, this article aims to shed light on a tale of suffering and struggle largely ignored by the Indian media during the decade-long hunt for Veerappan.


The Limits of Justice: An Indian Human Rights Story

Jordan Fletcher, Subhradipta Sarkar

article therefore focuses on the littleknown saga of the villagers whose lives were shattered when they were caught between the dacoit and the JSTF charged with his capture. Through an examination of the Sadashiva panel report, court papers submitted to the panel, media expos-

Through an examination of the Sadashiva panel report, court papers submitted to the panel, media exposes, and interviews with NGO activists and the victims themselves, this article aims to shed light on a tale of suffering and struggle largely ignored by the Indian media during the decade-long hunt for Veerappan.

The authors are indebted to Henri Tiphagne and the entire staff of People’s Watch, Madurai, without whose support and willingness to make materials available, this research could not have been completed. They wish to thank Michele Host and Anya Kamenetz for their invaluable assistance editing this article.

Jordan Fletcher ( was an American India Foundation Service Corps fellow during September 2006-June 2007. Subhradipta Sarkar ( is a law researcher at People’s Watch, Madurai.

Economic & Political Weekly november 17, 2007

n 1993, the governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu established a Joint Special Task Force (JSTF) to capture the notorious forest brigand Veerappan. By the time Veerappan went down in a hail of bullets, 11 years and Rs 150 crore later, hundreds of innocent civilians had been caught in the crossfire. In January 2007, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) ordered Rs 2.8 crore interim relief to 89 men and women affected by acts of torture, rape, encounter death and illegal detention perpetrated by the JSTF. Without a doubt, the relief and the legal process which produced it are landmark events in the struggle for universal human rights in India.

Yet, while some of the victims were compensated financially for their suffering, many – if not all of them – were abused, mocked, and discredited for their trouble by the legal process set up to investigate their claims. To date, protecting the rights of victims and witnesses has been largely ignored in India. As a result, NGOs have been left with the task of pursuing justice for victims of atrocities. It was no different for the JSTF victims. Over the course of a decade, a core group of NGOs investigated and documented the abuses, and forced a reluctant government to take action. Yet ultimately, the participation in the legal process of these same organisations was used by the NHRC-commissioned Sadashiva panel of inquiry to discredit the testimony of scores of victims. And as is so often the case in India, the autho rities responsible for abuses have demonstrated complete impunity.

With few exceptions, this story remains untold even today. While news outlets kept their spotlight on Veerappan, they largely ignored a campaign of state-sponsored terror that continued for over a decade. Even the NHRC’s compensation award has received scant national coverage. This es, and interviews with NGO activists and the victims themselves, this article aims to shed light on a tale of suffering and struggle largely ignored by the Indian media during the decade-long hunt for Veerappan. The article questions the ultimate value of monetary compensation in light of the flawed process of justice itself, with its repeated intimidation of victims, painfully biased logic, and steadfast refusal to punish the wrongdoers.

1 To Catch a Bandit

In 1993, reeling from a spate of bombings and an attack by Veerappan’s gang that left 22 dead – five Tamil Nadu policemen among them – the governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu constituted the JSTF and charged it with capturing the bandit. Having operated separate special task forces since 1990 and 1992, respectively, the states believed a joint framework would foster mutual cooper ation and information sharing.1 Walter Dawaram, the director general of police, Tamil Nadu, was chosen to lead the joint actions. Described variously in news profiles as a “supercop” and a “daredevil”, Dawaram’s biography read that he had battled Naxalites, militants, farmer agitators and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Even for a man like Dawaram, however, negotiating Veerappan’s territory would be a challenge. The forests in which the bandit operated stretch over 6,000 sq km of mountainous terrain straddling the borders of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. This dense and difficult landscape proves a harsh host to those not accustomed to life in such jungle areas. The border towns between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are separated by 120 km of switchback roads that climb slowly up hilltops before descending back down into ravines.

In organising the Tamil Nadu team the previous year, Dawaram had sought only the fittest officers who could sustain


themselves in the forest, separated from their families and enduring long marches without food or water. “We have an 82,000 strong police force”, Dawaram told a journalist in 1997, “but when I asked for volunteers only 500 men came forward. Most policemen are not fit and they wouldn’t be interested. It was not ordinary police work. You have to be inside the forest.”2 Of the 500 who applied, only about 250 were ultimately chosen. The only incentive he could offer was “blood, tears and sweat”. Still, the governments poured money and manpower into the operation. By 2001, the size of the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu JSTF forces stood at 2,000.3 By the time Veerappan was killed in 2004, the states had spent upwards of Rs 150 crore.4

JSTF Enters the Forest

According to one JSTF inspector who investigated criminal offences in the area, when JSTF forces entered the forests, they found a situation of “total lawlessness” in the borderlands.5 The poor and largely illiterate people who inhabited region’s villages – places like Hanur, Nallur, Santhanapalayam, M M Hills, Mettur and Chinnappallam – worked as agricultural labourers. Many were either tribal people or members of the same caste as Veerappan, and JSTF officers suspected them of sheltering the bandit’s gang. While this may have been the case, one can only speculate as to whether they held an actual affinity for the bandit’s supposed Robin Hood-like ways, or were merely coerced into service. Veerappan and his gang allegedly executed those they suspected of collaborating with police, and it is hardly surprising that JSTF found few villagers willing to assist them in their efforts. Under these difficult circumstances, the JSTF took liberties. While the force had been given a general mandate of capturing Veerappan, under their legal constitution, JSTF units could serve only in a supplementary capacity to the established area police stations.6 In reality, JSTF officers canvassed large swathes of the hills, questioning numerous people, keeping some in custody for prolonged interrogations, searching homes, and seizing weapons. In his testimony to the Sadashiva Panel, Dawaram admitted that the while Tamil Nadu STF lacked jurisdiction to investigate offences – the force was only authorised to make arrests and then promptly produce the arrested suspect at the nearest police station – the extent of STF activities far exceeded its limited powers.7

While some might argue that police excess is a necessary and even justifiable corollary to the task of apprehending notorious criminals, the Sadashiva panel would later find the lack of accountability in the JSTF’s operations ripe for abuse. “When the commanding officers of the STFs and their personnel down the line get the feeling that they always have the power to act without regard to legal provisions”, it cautioned, “it is likely to induce a certain measure of high-handedness in their field work. This has to be guarded against carefully”.8

After several years on the job, Dawaram’s unorthodox methods reportedly brought results. The JSTF chief claimed to have whittled Veerappan’s gang down to five members.9 However, word trickled out of the hills that JSTF officers were regularly committing gross human rights abuses. In fact, according to the NGOs who would eventually shed light on the issue, JSTF strategy was orchestrated at the highest levels to systematically intimidate and brutalise communities suspected of aiding Veerappan.Some people died in fake police encounters. Others – locals claimed more than 50 men – simply vanished without a trace. One Lombardy tribal of Peridyathandam, Papa, would recall receiving a photograph of her husband’s bulletridden body six months after the JSTF accused him of supplying bootleg liquor to Veerappan’s gang and took him away. “It was a police superintendent from Karnataka who sent me the photograph”, she said.10

Many of those arrested by JSTF officers wasted away in extrajudicial custody. During interrogations in a police facility known locally as “the workshop”, their captors disrobed and humiliated them, passed electric current through different points of their bodies, applied chilly powder or paste to their urinal passages, beat them mercilessly with lathis and the butt end of rifles, bound their limbs with rope and suspended them from the roof of a building, and kicked them with boots and trampled on them.11 “I was taken to an STF camp where they tortured me brutally”, a woman named Ellama told The Week magazine in 2000, “I can barely walk and am dependent on the villagers for my sustenance”.12 Many claimed that Mettur general hospital refused to treat those branded as Veerappan sympathisers for injuries sustained in custody.13 Eleven women reported that they were raped, repeatedly, often in front of their husbands, brothers and in-laws. At the Sadashiva panel hearing in February 2000, Walter Dawaram was himself accused. Thangammal, a 40 year old resident of Periyathandal village claimed that uniformed personnel of Tamil Nadu STF picked her up in Kolathur and took her to the Mettur JSTF camp, where she was jeered at, kicked and sexually harassed and that later she was taken to the Mettur inspection bungalow, and Dawaram raped her for three days. She said that the police held her in illegal custody for over four months, accusing her of having been the mistress of Arjunan, Veerappan’s brother.14

As a result of the JSTF operations, entire communities were left traumatised, and many victims were unable to work or lead a normal life. Mettupanayur, a tribal village near Mettur, is now known as the village of mad men. “Our village was singled out because Veerappan belongs to our community. Constant fear and torture have affected many persons psychologically,” Marappan, a local counselor, told The Week magazine in 2000.15

2 Shedding Light on the Violations

Although several media outlets publicised the allegations of atrocities by the JSTF forces, the fledgling NHRC – created in 1993 and empowered to take suo motu action to address just such matters – failed to take notice.

In early 1999, six NGOs from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu– People’s Watch, the Society for Community Organisation Trust (SOCO Trust), the Tribal Association of Tamil Nadu, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, South Indian Cell for Human Rights Education and Monitoring (SICHREM), and the Human Rights Cell of the Indian Social Institute formed the Campaign for Relief and Rehabilitation of TADA detenues from M M Hills in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu (“the campaign”).

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Between March and May of that year, lawyers and activists conducted fact-finding investigations in almost 50 villages in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. People’s Watch attorneys prepared written affidavits for over 250 detainees and witnesses, translated them into English and classified them according to the types of torture or abuse they recounted. Armed with this evidence, the campaign again approached the NHRC.

With their efforts to document atrocities underway, the campaign set about building a citizens’ movement to pressure the NHRC into action. It organised conferences and demonstrations, and presented public testimony by the victims themselves about their traumatic experiences. Victims assumed ownership over the movement and came to play a vital role in organising local events. “I was happy to be working in this struggle”, explained a TADA detenue Anil Dass, who had by that time been released from prison. “Only if you are a torture victim can you understand other victims. You know the pain that they feel.” Political parties lent their support to the campaign, and the local media promoted the cause widely.

But the JSTF noticed the budding movement too, and their response was heavyhanded. Intelligence officers stood outside the halls while victims testified, recording the names of participants and taping public statements. In April 1999, three days before a conference in Salem district, a local police inspector arrested four of the organisers from their homes in the middle of the night. The inspector claimed to be acting under pressure from the deputy general of police. In spite of the threats, thousands of participants, including victims and their families, political leaders, statewide movement leaders, lawyers, activists, and journalists attended the Salem conference. Rathinasamy of the Tamil Nadu state human rights commission inaugurated the sessions.

JSTF Responds to the Allegations

Despite the seriousness of the claims being made by the villagers and the NGO campaign, JSTF officials categorically denied any wrongdoing. Moreover, many on the government side accused the NGOs of coaching villagers and inducing them to

Economic & Political Weekly november 17, 2007

fabricate their stories in order to obtain compensation. “It is absolutely preposterous”, Walter Dawaram told The Week magazine in 2000, “vested interests have set the poor tribals against us by telling them they will get hefty compensations”.16 Where were the human rights NGOs when the supposed atrocities were alleged to have occurred, he asked, wondering why the organisations had waited seven years to trumpet their claims. By that time, a new officer was in charge of the JSTF. Dawaram professed that during his tenure in 1993 and 1994 he had given strict orders not to disturb the local population.17

In the meantime, other JSTF officials attacked the NGO campaign for turning villagers against them, and argued that criticism of security forces had a chilling effect on their efforts to capture Veerappan. Officers claimed to have become wary of questioning tribals for fear that “false complaints” would be lodged against them.18

Sadashiva Panel Hearings

At last, two years of pressure by human rights groups, and letters of concern sent by legal luminaries including former Supreme Court judge V R Krishna Iyer and retired Karnataka High Court chief justice D M Chandrasekaran, paid off. On June 28, 1999, the NHRC convened a two-member panel of inquiry to examine “all relevant aspects of the allegations made” and submit recommendations to the commission as to what actions should be taken to redress grievances found justified. Former High Court judge A J Sadashiva was named chairman, with C V Narasimhan, former director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, assisting as the second member. It would still take another six months for the panel to begin its hearings.

The campaign’s efforts were gaining momentum, but the groups still faced challenges in making their case. Presenting evidence before the panel meant identifying witnesses and convincing them to testify in the face of threats from JSTF personnel. Many had never been inside a courtroom, and attorneys had to ensure they were prepared and could hold up during crossexamination. Victims, witnesses and hundreds of supporters needed transportation to and accommodation at the hearing sites in difficult-to-access areas in the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka hills. Funding was always in doubt. The government offered no assistance. Despite these obstacles, the panel heard testimony from 118 campaign witnesses during its first two sittings.

The legal process moved in fits and starts. Delays were common and disruptions frequent. When the panel refused NGO requests to keep JSTF personnel away during victims’ testimony – a direct violation of the Supreme Court’s ruling that section 327(2) of the code of criminal procedure requires trials for rape and such other heinous abuses be conducted in camera19 – victims were forced to relive their traumatic experiences confronted by the same, uniformed officers who had abused them. Advocate A John Vincent recalls, “The first witnesses at the panel’s second sitting were women who had been illegally detained and sexually harassed by senior police officers of Tamil Nadu. The women named names, including Walter Dawaram. The JSTF officers present as well as the panel members became noticeably uneasy.”

At its second sitting in Kolathur, Tamil Nadu from February 28 to March 1, 2000, the panel declared that, based on a technical point of procedure, it would not even entertain evidence regarding a number of the most heinous allegations of torture and encounter death. Many called the technicality-based reasoning for this selfimposed jurisdictional restriction disingenuous. In fact, the NHRC quickly clarified that the panel was a fact-finding body whose procedures should be akin to those which operate in a civil court: panelists would entertain all evidence subject to any objections raised as to admissibility, and then make their own decisions as to the weight.

Unfortunately, for the moment the Karnataka High Court would have the final word. Just before the panel was to hold its third sitting in March 2000, the court stayed proceedings in response to a new jurisdictional challenge from the assistant commissioner of police, Mysore. As the NHRC took no action to have the order vacated, for the next two years, the Sadashiva panel lay dormant.

TADA Court Judgment

Meanwhile, spurred on by a revelatory visit to central jail, Mysore in March 1999 by NHRC special rapporteur Chaman Lal,


criminal cases before the special designated TADA court at Mysore were finally underway. Of the 124 individuals detained by the Karnataka police from 1993-99, 70 had been released on bail, and three had died in prison. By this time, many of the 51 defendants still in jail – impri soned for up to six years without trial – had served more time than their potential sentences. When Veerappan kidnapped Kannada actor Rajkumar in the summer of 2000, the state governments yielded to the bandit’s ransom demands. Tamil Nadu and Karnataka each issued government orders allotting compensation of Rs 5 crore (for a total of Rs 10 crore) to the JSTF victims.20 The TADA court passed an order accepting the withdrawal of charges against the 121 defendants still accused under TADA and granting bail to the 51 still imprisoned. The decision was a brief reprieve, however, as the Supreme Court quickly stayed the TADA court’s order. The cases continued.

Then, on September 29, 2001, the TADA court delivered its judgment. It acquitted 107 out of 121 defendants (the Supreme Court ultimately handed down death sentences to four among the convicted). In its written decision, the TADA court observed that the prosecution had roped in many accused on the basis of confessions only, absent of any other tangible evidence. In one particularly egregious instance, an eyewitness had named three persons and 10 of their associates. Yet the investigating officer had chargesheeted 100 persons as primary accused taking part in the incident. “The details of the ultimate disposal of these long pending TADA cases”, the Sadashiva panel report would later observe, “clearly lead to an impression that the basis for their prosecution under TADA was not really justifiable”.21 For the panel, the TADA ruling destroyed the JSTF’s credibility, and bolstered victims’ allegations that they had been “taken into custody on a much earlier date than mentioned in their record, kept in illegal custody for a long period when they were subjected to humiliating treatment and torture, and later produced in the court on a false charge under TADA merely to legitimate their arrest.”22

The Sadashiva panel resumed its proceedings in February 2002 after the Karnataka High Court dismissed the jurisdictional challenge. Several more sittings were held, the last of which took place on November 13, 2002. Over a year passed before the panel submitted its report and recommendations to the NHRC on December 2, 2003. Still, the NHRC held on to the report, its contents kept secret for almost another two years. The commission claimed it was waiting for the state governments to submit their responses, yet despite issuing three reminder notices, the commission placidly accepted Karnataka’s excuse in December 2004 that the state had lost its copy of the original report.

Now the campaign resumed its advocacy, pushing to get the panel’s report publicly released and implemented. In October 2005, after repeated enquiries, campaign delegates, joined by the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW), travelled to New Delhi to demand the release of the report. The report came out a few weeks later – one day, incidentally, after the entry into force of the Right to Information Act, 2005, which would have compelled the report’s release. Again the NHRC took no further action.

3 Sadashiva Report

The panel report’s analysis of witness testimony makes for astounding reading. In total, 243 persons gave evidence before the panel at several sittings in 2000, 2001 and 2002, including victims, JSTF officers, jail authorities, doctors and human rights activists. One hundred and forty people recounted a litany of abuses – illegal detention, torture, rape, extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and humiliation – perpetrated on them and their family members by the JSTF. Victims identified 38 JSTF offenders by name, including Walter Dawaram and Shankar Bidri, former commander of Karnataka STF. According to its own mandate, the panel was a factfinding inquiry. There should have been little reason to dis believe testimony unopposed by an alternative set of facts. At the outset of its discussion, the report acknowledged that “the standard of proof required in such inquiries should only be reasonable and convincing to an ordinary prudent mind”.23 However, having established itself as a reasonable arbiter of the testimony before it, the panel laid out its prejudices: neither side would be deemed trustworthy.

Aggressive police action in the course of anti-Veerappan operation…even bona fide action, would have generated a climate of ill-will, distrust, frustration and anger enveloping the tribals as well as policemen in their mutual interaction. It would only be natural in such situations that each side comes with exaggerated and even false allegations against the other side, merely to settle scores and keep the heat on.24

On the one hand, the panel would not accept “bland denials” by JSTF officials. Given Veerappan’s elusiveness, the local peoples’ non-cooperation, and pressure from higher-ups, the panelists found it readily believable that JSTF officers “committed some excesses”, resorting to aggressive behaviour and third-degree interrogation methods. The police had submitted elaborate confessions said to have given by those the TADA accused, yet could not explain circumstances under which the statements were obtained. The panel was convinced that “all these witnesses who were arrested in TADA cases had, infact, suffered informal detention by the STF prior to arrest”,25 and it chastised the governments for relying on only invectives and slander for their defence.

In attacking the veracity of the statements of some victims of rape and molestation…(the governments) have not produced any material evidence to discredit the witnes ses but have only used derogatory language bordering on obscenity merely to state that the witnesses are not believable. 26

On the other hand, given that the villagers had been subjected to violence and interrogation, that their family members had been killed and disappeared, that many of them were personally accused and imprisoned on spurious charges, and that they stood to gain financially from the monetary relief, the panel report announced that it was “quite possible that local people might come up with false, incorrect or exaggerated allegations against STF officers”.27 In other words, the complaining villagers were untrustworthy, not because the JSTF had not victimised them, but because in fact it had. The villagers were victims, they were aggrieved and they were poor and that naturally they would lie to get money.

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Both sides thus discredited, the panel declared that proof of allegations could only be based on “reliable and acceptable material”,28 and left itself to be the judge of what evidence would meet this subjective standard. With this conveniently subjective benchmark, the panel report probed witnesses’stories and the limited written records meticulously. It looked for facts it deemed to be contradictory or any suggestion that a witness’ testimony was inaccurate or exaggerated. It dismissed testimony most often not on the basis of counter-evidence, but rather on the basis of its own view of what was likely to have happened. It was a “common sense” view that demonstrated an astounding level of ignorance regarding the psycho logy of torture victims. The tendency to dis believe witness, testimony prevailed most often where accepting the truth of the testimony would have almost certainly required prosecution of individuals at the most powerful levels. While constraints of space preclude an exhaustive exami nation of the panel’s treatment of each victim, several examples will suffice to demonstrate the general nature of its logic and analysis.

Questioning Women

The panel repeatedly questioned the reliability of the women who said that they were raped. Instead of looking into the allegations from the victim’s perspective, the panel set about identifying circumstances that it claimed undermined the women’s credibility. Its justifications were often problematic at best, For example, it disbelieved testimony where victims could not produce witnesses to an alleged rape, had failed to report the rape when presented before a court on remand, or were unable to provide the name of the officer(s) who raped them. After 18-year old Rathini testified that she had been gang raped by 10 men at the M M Hills camp, the panel deemed her evidence “not sufficient” because her husband had not also testified to the fact of the rape.29 Similarly, the panel found Lakshmi, who claimed to have suffered an abortion due to rape by a JSTF officer, “unbelievable” because she had not told anyone in her village about the incident, and could not specify the name of a doctor who treated her for the abortion.30

Economic & Political Weekly november 17, 2007

Yet victims who could identify their attackers created untenable problems for the panel. When Thangammal testified that Walter Dawaram put a gun to her forehead, stripped her nude to humiliate her, and then raped her continuously for three days, interrogating her all the while,31 the panel seized on the fact that she identified the JSTF chief not by his given name, but by the name his subordinates in the Mettur camp had used for him, “peria ayyah” (Tamil for “big boss”). Since there was another high-ranking offi cer in the Tamil Nadu STF named “Periah”, the panel concluded that “this kind of evidence is not at all adequate at this distance of time to fix the identity of the rapist as Dawaram”.32 Similarly, when a witness claimed he had been arrested and threatened at gunpoint by Karnataka STF chief Shankar Bidri, the panel declared the allegation patently unreliable, reasoning that the official easily could have sent a junior officer to accomplish the task.33

Despite uniform claims that they had been threatened to keep silent by same JSTF captors who had spent months torturing and interrogating them, many victims’ failure to complain to about the ill-treatment they suffered when they were remanded to custody suggested to the panel that their allegations were recent fabrications. Thangammal’s unusual poise on the witness stand in 2000 was deemed further evidence that she could not possibly have been victimised in the way she claimed. The panel found her to be so confident during her testimony that it deemed her “not a person who could be silenced by threats or other pressure.” Indifferent to the eight years that had passed since her torture, years filled with struggle and rehabilitation in the NGO campaign, the panel ruled “her omission to have made some crucial complaints to the court at the time of remand should be deemed significant to render her subsequent statements embellished and unreliable.”34 In this manner, it disposed of evidence that would have otherwise damned the former chief of the JSTF.

Discrediting the Majority

In a similar fashion, the panel report moved case by case through witnesses’ allegations, discrediting the vast majority based on ephemeral contradictions and imagined probabilities. While some of the witnesses’ stories may have strained belief, the panel also identified a host of dubious reasons for declaring testimony unreliable.

For example, several witnesses testified that during their interrogation at the “workshop” in M M Hills their hands were tied behind their backs and they were kept hung from the roof by a rope tied to their wrists. Yet when the panel members visited the defunct facility years after the torture occurred, they did not “notice any hook or other fixture on the ceiling of the inter rogation hall for such ‘hanging’ to have been done”. Therefore, the panel concluded, “presumably the ‘hanging’ story has been introduced by the witnesses to dramatise their situation and draw sympathy for them during the inquiry”. Because of this presumed “dramatisation”, the panel disregarded the testimony of scores of witnesses.35

The lack of medical documentation proved particularly vexing, as few of the victims had been treated by independent physicians at the time of abuse, and the NGOs did not begin to collect evidence until years after the violations had occurred. The panel readily used this as an excuse to discredit witnesses. For example, Govindammal told the panel that she had been tortured for five days in “the workshop”. Electric current passed between her ear lobes caused serious head trauma, and her wrist was fractured when interrogators hung her from the roof by her wrist. When, suffering from severe depression, she later tried several times to commit suicide, she did not tell doctors assigned to treat her about the torture. Her hospital records contained no mention of her physical injuries. These “contradictions” led the panel to disbelieve her testimony.36

Similarly, a man’s claim that JSTF interrogators fractured his ribs and collarbone was unreliable because there had been no x-ray.37 By far the most common objection, however, was that witness testimony had been doctored or coached by the NGOs who were advocating for the victims. The panel repeatedly attacked what it called the repetitive nature of the testimony in respect of their arrests, detention and the way in which they were tortured. “In view of the stereotyped evidence given by the witnesses,


apparently assisted by the representatives of People’s Watch,” the panel concluded, it is difficult for us to accept their allegations of torture in total. While attempting to uncover the facts as they had actually occurred at that time, we should also not forget that these allegations in the present form have been made, according to records, from 1997 onwards in which year the People’s Watch entered the scene. While making these observations, we also make it clear that we do not attribute any mala fide motives to the voluntary work undertaken by the NGOs, in this matter. We have only taken note of the possibility of exaggerated versions getting circulated among people who get greatly agitated by some sordid happenings.38

For these reasons and others, the panel refused to compensate many of those victims who alleged the most heinous abuses. In the end, while the panel granted compensation to 89 persons, 73 of the 89 were either TADA detainees or relatives of those who had died in suspicious “encounter” deaths. These were people about whom there could be no denying a violation had occurred, as the internment records and facts of death were incontrovertible. Yet the panel declared only one out of 11 rape victims to be credible (though it did accept that three others were undressed and tortured while in custody). And it chose to believe that only 10 of the men who were not arrested under TADA had been illegally detained and tortured (concluding that only three of these could have been permanently injured from the abuse).

Of course, while conceding that, by its own imagination of what happened in the JSTF camps, some quantum of violation had occurred, the panel could not identify any particular JSTF official who had committed an offence.

We are of the considered opinion that it is well nigh impossible, at this stage and distance of time, to fix the identity of the police personnel involved in the allegations which have been held as true as far as the injuries suffered by the victims are concerned, more particularly where it was admitted by some witnesses that they were kept blindfolded in the workshop.39

In short, no one would be held responsible. JSTF officers would get away with torture, rape and murder.

4 Compensation

The panel submitted its report on December 2, 2003, but the NHRC took no further action. A year and a half later, the NGO campaign sent another delegation to New Delhi. This time they were joined by 16 JSTF victims. There they met with the prime minister, the union home minister, and the victims testified before the NHRC. It was the first time in 12 years that the members of the commission heard the victims’ stories with their own ears.

At long last, on January 15, 2007, having received assurances from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka that the states would respect its recommendation, the NHRC ordered immediate interim compensation be disbursed. Eighty-nine victims of JSTF atrocities would receive between one and five lakh rupees each according to the nature of abuses they had suffered. Among the awards, Rs 5 lakh went to next of kin of 36 persons killed in “suspicious” encounters, to a man whose wife was killed and he himself tortured, and to the lone woman the panel had decided was raped. The commission awarded Rs 3.5 lakh to the next of kin of a man who disappeared in JSTF custody, and Rs 2 lakh to each of three women the panel had found to have been detained and sexually abused, but not raped. Finally, the commission awarded between Rs 1 and 2.5 lakh to persons detained and tortured, based on the length of their illegal detention.

Even then, the state governments exhibited a remarkable lack of consideration for the rights and sensitivities of the victims. On March 28, the Karnataka police organised a “NHRC prize distri bution” function at Kollegal, under the Ramapura police station. They handed over compensation in presence of some of the same officers who had been accused of torturing the villagers. As a result, a scuffle broke out at the venue and the victims refused to accept the compensation. “The state, in all fairness, should have kept the perpetrators of terror away from such a function,” Sadashiva told a news reporter.40

Reward for Veerappan’s Death

Veerappan died in a hail of bullets under suspicious circumstances on October 19, 2004. By the time of his death, he was reputed to have killed 124 persons, poached 200 elephants for their ivory (worth $ 2.6 million), and smuggled 10,000 tonnes of sandalwood (worth $ 22 million). Rather than investigate the questionable encounter, Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa announced a generous package of rewards for JSTF personnel for eliminating the wanted criminal. All 752 officers of the Tamil Nadu special task force received immediate accelerated promotions, a housing plot, and Rs 3 lakh cash. The NGO’s protested. It was not that they opposed official recognition of the law enforcement officials who had taken great risks and endured considerable hardship to capture Veerappan, Henri Tiphagne, the director of People’s Watch wrote in letters to the chief minister and the NHRC. Rather, he argued, according to the NHRC’s own guidelines regarding encounter death in the course of police action,41 investigations into all encounter deaths must occur before the involved officers could be rewarded. “No out of term promotion or gallantry rewards shall be bestowed on the concerned officers so soon after the occurrence”, the commission had declared. Nonetheless, the NHRC failed to intervene.

Fresh off of this “victory”, the government of Karnataka announced that its STF officers, all of whom had escaped official censure from the Sadashiva panel, would be trained in jungle warfare and redeployed. “We don’t want another Veerappan to raise his head again”, announced the state’s chief minister, adding that the government was thinking of using helicopters for combing operations.42 By May of the following year, many of the former JSTF men would be combing for naxalites in the border districts of Karnataka.43

A Success for Human Rights?

In one sense, the mere existence of the Sadashiva panel, let alone its finding that atrocities had been committed and decision to award compensation to so many victims, is a monumental victory for the cause of human rights in India. At the same time, a close examination of the panel report reveals an advisory judicial body caught between countervailing political pressures and engaged in the meticulous process of producing a version of reality that would be politically acceptable. Public outcry and the overwhelming evidence that atrocities had

november 17, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly


been committed demanded some judg-hostile. The civil infrastructure didn’t Notes

ment in favour of the aggrieved villagers. Yet the Indian political and law enforcement establishments were unwilling to admit error; they believed themselves entitled to an unrestrained hand in their pursuit of Veerappan.

By discrediting the reliability of all parties involved the panel could arrive at its own view of what had happened. Essentially, it split the baby in two. Victims got money, and JSTF officers received commendations. Public opinion and political exigencies could both be placated. The panel offered the state governments a few token suggestions for improvement in the future. Perhaps it was the only politically viable decision for such a frail institution. The spectacle of justice was complete. Real justice remained elusive. This may in fact be progress. The system may be learning slowly. But when it comes to redressing harms perpetrated on the weak by overzealous and government officials, there is still a long way to go. In addition to flouting Supreme Court orders on several occasions, the panel’s standards of “reliability” demonstrated it to be astoundingly ignorant of the psycho logy of torture and rape victims. It also evinced deep mistrust and even contempt for the organisations on which the victims’ presence depended.

The irony of this view is that without the NGOs, the victims never could have presented their claims before an NHRCcommissioned panel. In the hills, the activists had found victims who were uneducated, and living in remote areas. Years of abuse had left the victims severely traumatised. Tiphagne mentions that. Free legal service groups would not help these people. It was only the NGOs who formed the campaign that came to their aid. And as for the question, why did not the villagers come forward sooner? “Well, they couldn’t. Who were they going to complain to? Even under the best situation Indian police often refuse to register FIRs or investigate cases against influential people. For these villagers, the system where they lived had broken down entirely. There were no schools, hospitals, courts, or even post offices in that area. The state governments and law enforcement agencies were completely

Economic & Political Weekly november 17, 2007


Perhaps one of the lessons to be drawn from this experience is that, particularly where victims are the poorest and most marginalised sectors of society, state actors need to recognise NGOs as viable partners and intermediaries rather than adversaries. In such situations, NGOs are the nation’s social safety net, and the only chance for the excluded to win justice of any sort, as imperfect as it may be. While the Supreme Court has on occasion recognised this reality – in 1997, it awarded costs of Rs 10,000 to the People’s Union of Civil Liberties for pursuing a writ petition on behalf of the families of victims of encounter deaths in the state of Manipur45 – a great deal of work remains.

Protecting victims of crime and ensuring that they find redress for the abuses they suffered must become the core of our concern. It is crucial that the judiciary becomes sensitive towards victims’ rights and upholds the principles set forth in the United Nations’ declaration of basic principles of justice for victims of crime and abuse of power.46 The NHRC, in its special leave petition submitted to the Supreme Court regarding the Best bakery case, requested the apex court to lay down guidelines and directions for prosecution, law enforcement agencies and courts in protecting of witnesses and victims in criminal trials.47 Many actors have a role to play, and in doing so, they will also uphold the dignity of the judiciary in this country. In addition to prosecutors and defence attorneys, it is necessary that special advocates who represent the interests of victims – particularly those victims who are poor, illiterate and/or outcaste – be made available. The Indian justice system must welcome doctors, psychologists, social workers, physiotherapists, and civil society activists within its gilded halls. Arrangements for travel, accommodation and, most importantly, protection of victims and witnes ses are needed lest the judicial niceties of the higher courts offer relief to the privileged few alone. Only then can the nation’s courts and human rights institutions claim legitimately to provide justice through the judgments they deliver.

1 Panel Constituted by the National Human Rights Commission, New Delhi, at Bangalore, ‘Report of Inquiry into Allegations of Rape, Torture and Other Excesses by the Joint Special Task Forces of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu against Tribals and Others, in the course of Anti-Veerappan Operations’ by A J Sadashiva, former judge, High Court, Karnataka, Bangalore, chairman and C V Narasimhan, IPS (retd), former director, Central Bureau of Investigation [hereinafter referred to as Sadashiva Panel Report], ch II, para 55.

2 Rediff News, ‘The Rediff Interview: Walter Dawaram’ (October 1997), available at oct/10veer.htm.

3 Rediff News, ‘The Rediff Interview: Walter Dawaram’ (June 21, 2001), supra note 4.

4 The Hindu Online, S Rajendran, ‘Special Task Force Will Be Redeployed, says Dharam Singh’ (October 21, 2004), available at http://www.hindu. com/2004/10/21/stories/2004102107540400.htm.

5 Sadashiva panel report, supra note 1, at ch II, para 62. 6 Id at ch VII, para 3. 7 Id. 8 Id at ch VII, para 9. 9 BBC News Online, ‘Indian Bandit Manhunt Is On Again’ (June 12, 2001), supra note 2.

10 The Week, ‘Tales of Torture’, Vol 18, No 14, p 25 (March 19, 2000). 11 Sadashiva panel report, supra note 1, at ch II, para 13. 12 The Week, ‘Tales of Torture’, supra note 14, at p 25. 13 Frontline, Ravi Sharma, ‘Charges against the STFs’,

Vol 17, No 6, p 49 (March 18-31, 2000). 14 Statement of MW-82 Thangammal before the Panel Constituted by the National Human Rights Commission, New Delhi at Bangalore, duly sworn on Febru

ary 28, 2000 at Kolathur. 15 The Week, ‘Tales of Torture’, supra note 14, at p 25. 16 The Week, ‘Tales of Torture’, supra note 14, at p 25. 17 Rediff News, ‘The Rediff Interview: Walter Dawaram’

(June 21, 2001), supra note 3. 18 Frontline, Ravi Sharma, ‘Charges against the STFs’, supra note 17. 19 See State of Punjab vs Grumit Singh and Others, AIR 1996, SC 1393. 20 Tamil Nadu GO No 928 dated August 26, 2000 and Karnataka GO No HD 389 SST 2000 dated August 26,

2000. 21 Sadashiva panel report, supra note 1, at ch VII, para 21. 22 Id at ch VII, para 17. 23 Id at ch IV, para 1. 24 Id at ch VI, para 8. 25 Id at ch IV, para 85. 26 Id at ch III, para 6. 27 Id at ch IV, para 2. 28 Id at ch IV, para 5. 29 Sadashiva panel report, supra note 1, at ch IV, para 29. 30 Id at ch IV, para 30. 31 Id at ch IV, para 33. 32 Id at ch IV, para 33. 33 Id at ch IV, para 153. 34 Id at ch IV, para 35. 35 Id at ch IV, para 83. 36 Id at ch IV, para 63 37 Id at ch IV, para 209. 38 Id at ch IV, para 91. 39 Id at ch VI, para 9. 40 Tehelka, M Radhika, ‘Veerappan Gone, Horror Lives On’

(May12, 2007), available at 41 Dated December 2, 2003, available at http://nhrc.nic. in.

42 The Hindu Online, S Rajendran, ‘Special Task Force Will Be Redeployed, says Dharam Singh’ (October 21, 2004), supra note 8.

43 Economic Times, ‘After Veerappan, Special Task Force to Gun for Naxals’ (May 19, 2005), available at

44 Interview with Henri Tiphagne (May 24, 2007). 45 People’s Union of Civil Liberties vs Union of India, AIR 1997, SC 1203. 46 GA 40/34, annex, 40 UN GAOR Supp (No 53) at 214, UN Doc A/40/53 (1985). 47 Special Leave Petition (Criminal) of 2003 in the matter of National Human Rights Commission vs State of Gujarat and Others, available at

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