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Custodial deaths: Human Rights on the backburner in Maharashtra

Recall the movie, The Omen, starring Gregory Peck? In it, so much revolves around 666, the number of the beast, the anti-Christ, of evil. Personified as a young boy, evil had to be killed. There was much drama to it.

Triple 6 is also the number of cases of another earthly evil — custodial deaths in Maharashtra — according to the Maharashtra State Human Rights Commission (MSHRC) website — and pending at the end of March 2011. More importantly, as many as 506 cases of custodial deaths, a gross human rights violation, are pending since 2001.

The statistics of course are stale, since they are computed on an 1 April to 31 March cycle. The updated numbers won't be up soon after 31 March, just two days away. Don't expect them to be updated a few days thence either, for these things take time.

A dysfunctional, or in this case, non-functional Commission, is a disrespect to the very purpose of upholding human rights. Representational image. AFP Photo

As if the issue itself is not bad enough, the MSHRC finds itself in a limbo: two of its members have retired and replacements have yet to be found. The chairperson quit a few weeks ago and there is no indication of a quick replacement. That is why there is no action in the MSHRC right now, leave alone any dramatics. Neither is there a sense of urgency in filling up the vacancies.

So what do the few officers who remain, do? They carry out research, not an insignificant activity, but not incredibly important to a functional Commission. They operate in the Commission’s office, a single-storeyed, asbestos-roofed building near the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. You may pass by without even noticing it. It has a comforting anonymity.

Since 2001, numerous complaints of custodial deaths have been brought before the MSHRC each year, the lowest being 87 in the first year, going up to 250 in later years. That is a poor index of police attitude towards the citizens.

We don’t know the trend in the year that is concluding, yet, but according to unnamed officials quoted by the Indian Express on Thursday, nearly 70 percent of the cases brought to the MSHRC are of this nature.

The first crisis came when Kshitij Vyas, a former High Court Chief Justice, quit suddenly and moved back to Gujarat. Then came two quick retirements, one of TS Singarvel, and another of retired justice VG Munshi.

There are two ways in which vacancies arise: one by sudden resignations, which adversely impact the Commission; and the other by retirements, which are foretold. But the Maharashtra Government did not foresee the retirements. It waited till the officers retired and then sent the names of candidates to the Governor, who is yet to give a nod.

The choice of chairperson is yet to be made. According to the Indian Express, the panel — that picks the chairperson —  comprising the chief minister, home minister, speaker of the Legislative Assembly and the Leader of the Opposition, hasn't been able to find a successor.  The wait could be long as the selection process is laborious, unless a miracle happens.

A dysfunctional, or in this case, non-functional Commission, is a disrespect to the very purpose of upholding human rights. You cannot have about 30 people streaming in, complaint in hand, seeking redress against the highhandedness of the state or its instruments, only to be turned away. It is their only grievance redress mechanism. That itself could be a violation? Perhaps it is.

If things worked according to law and humans got the basic minimum respect because of them, then the Commission would not have been required at all. But given the number of complaints against the Maharashtra police, a case is made for its quick revival.

The Commission's raison d’etre is in the number of cases brought before it:  45,769 since its inception till end-March 2011. Of course, 28,220 cases, that is more than half, were dismissed at the threshold itself. But that does not mean all complaints are frivolous.