Some justice, at last

Following a path-breaking directive of the National Human Rights Commission, the Maharashtra government pays Rs. 5 lakh as compensation to victims of police torture

On April 4, 2000 an officer of the Shreevardhan police station visited the home of the Haspatels, a Muslim family from Walwat village on the Konkan coast in Maharashtra’s Raigad district, to hand over to them a cheque of Rs 5 lakh on behalf of the state government. The Maharashtra government was merely acting on the interim order of the chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission, Justice J.S. Verma, ruling that the Haspatels be compensated for the brutal violation of their human rights in 1993 by officers of the law.

Seven years ago, police officers from the same police station had claimed to recover ‘projectiles’ (rocket launchers) from the Haspatel house. They were alleged to be part of the conspiracy which led to Mumbai’s serial bomb blasts in March 1993. Ten days after Iqbal Haspatel and his son Mubeen had been arrested, it was established that the "mini-rocket launchers" the police claimed to have discovered from the house of the Haspatels were nothing more dangerous than spindles used in a local yarn factory! It was also evident by then that the family members had nothing whatsoever to do with the bomb blasts and were released.

But meanwhile the Haspatels had been badly battered and brutalised. The two male members of the family, Iqbal (65) and Mobeen (17) had been detained under the Indian Arms Act and tortured daily. Also illegally detained, verbally abused and humiliated for five days were two women from the family — Zubeida (55) and her daughter-in-law along with her 18-month-old baby.

Senior police officials, including officers Bal, DSP Daithankar and Kalamkar, assisted by a woman constable, beat the family, stripped the men naked and paraded them before the Haspatel women everyday. Mobeen had suffered epileptic attacks in the past but had been cured for over ten years. He started getting renewed attacks after being subjected to "parrot torture" for four hours every day. "You have to stop saying Allah. Or you will have to go back to Pakistan," was the most common refrain they heard form policemen in the lock-up.

As part of the investigation into the bomb blasts, scores of Muslims from Mumbai and from the coastal part of Raigad district were illegally detained, brutally tortured and humiliated – because they were Muslims. The mistreatment of the Haspatels was among the most brazen and shocking examples of such police misconduct. Coming as this did so soon after the experience of the December 1992-January 1993 riots, for the Muslims of Mumbai and Maharashtra, the torture and the humiliation were fresh proof of the anti-Muslim bias of the police force.

Aided by social activist-cum-businessman Ghulam Mohammed Peshimam, former chief minister of Maharashtra, A.R. Antulay, and others – one of the editors of Combat had video-taped the accounts of the Haspatels and other victims of police brutality in Mumbai and in Raigad on – the Haspatel family was determined to seek redressal of their grievance. They wanted the police officers guilty of criminal misconduct to be tried and punished and they wanted compensation from the state.

Justice Vermeer’s path-breaking interim order of January 21, 2000 directing the Maharashtra government to compensate innocent victims of police brutality bypassing pending criminal plaints before the High Court and lower courts introduces an important precedent in crimino-judicial study. His interim order is also noteworthy for the fact that while two previous chairpersons of the NHRC failed to respond to repeated pleas for justice, Justice Verma promptly ordered the reopening of the case on being informed of the findings of a CBI-inquiry into the case.

"If I don’t get justice, I will turn into a rebel," one victim of torture by the Sreevardhan police had raged during a video-taped interview in 1993 to one of the editors of Combat. For the Haspatel family and for other victims of torture and humiliation in 1993, Justice Verma’s order should go a long way in re-establishing their faith in the system.

"All echelons of the Indian State must be sensitive to the sufferings and human rights violations of all sections of society. But when the rights of our minorities are abused, as was clearly the case here, we need to be particularly sensitive. Because our creed is secularism and this must be manifest and re-inforced through our actions. We must genuinely assure our minorities that they will be protected and compensated adequately when such violations take place," Justice Verma told Communalism Combat in a telephonic interview.

"It is a very encouraging order for the victims of human rights violations," says senior counsel for the Haspatels, Majeed Memon, "It will serve as a powerful deterrent for power-wielding police officers". "This case is definitely a trend-setter and an important precedent from the NHRC," adds Manohar Shetty, junior counsel for the Haspatels, "It may or may not have any effect on the pending case before the courts because the judiciary takes its own course. But in terms of acting as a restraint on the law and order machinery against further such actions, it is sure to send out the right signals."

But the trial and punishment of the police personnel if found guilty for torturing is still pending.

Soon after his release Iqbal Haspatel had filed a private complaint against the police in 1993 at Shreevardhan. The chief judicial magistrate dismissed it on technical grounds citing section 195 of the CrPC, according to which prior permission of the government is necessary for the prosecution of any public servant, including a police officer.

Haspatel’s plaint was dismissed despite the existence of a Supreme Court judgement that government sanction for prosecution of a public servant is necessary only where the charge is that of dereliction of duty. Since the conduct for which police officers in this case were accused amount to clearly criminal acts that include beating, abuse, dacoity etc, no government sanction is in fact necessary.

Iqbal Haspatel’s complaint was dismissed on technical grounds. However, the provisions of both the CrPC and the Bombay High Court Criminal Manual, compel the chief judicial magistrate (in this case, one Sakhalkar) in all cases where there is any complaint of assault in police custody (in this case it was brutal torture) to send all the requisite papers accompanied by certified medical findings by doctors to the Sessions Judge.

In the case of the Haspatels, in April 1993 itself, severe injuries on the person of both detainees had been certified in detail soon after release: 17 on one person and 9 on the other. Hence, when Sakhalkar’s report was sent to the Sessions Judge at Alibag, he was bound to order a prima facie investigation on the basis of the findings of the medical report. As sufficient evidence of torture and abuse in police custody were established beyond doubt on the basis of these prima facie investigations, the Sessions Judge, again, compelled by the law, directed the chief judicial magistrate Sakhalkar to himself file a private prosecution on behalf of the government.

Statements of all accused police officers were recorded and treated as final version for the purposes of the prosecution on behalf of the government. This is a routine procedure. Police officers Bal and Daithankar, and Kalamkar are the chief policemen accused of gross misdemeanours. The criminal plaint is still pending in the district court. Meanwhile, the accused police officers have approached the Mumbai High Court, once again, seeking the shelter of no government sanction against their prosecution. This writ is still pending before the HC and is expected to come up soon.

Meanwhile, in 1993 itself, a parallel CID inquiry that had been ordered independently recorded and established positive evidence against the erring policemen. Former chief minister, A.R. Antulay had approached the NHRC on the basis of the CID investigation report submitted in April 1994.

Archived from Communalism Combat, April 2000, Year 7  No. 58, Special Report 2



Related Articles