Use of ICT for Empowering the Survivors of Torture: The PVCHR Experience
By Dr Mohanlal Panda, Ph.D*
It was Diwali, festival of lights for the Hindus. Millions of Indians were preparing to celebrate the festival. Two activists Sandhya and Mithiles of, Shikher Prashikshan Sansthan called Dr. Lenin, Director, People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) and informed that people of Musahar community were dying of starvation in Damahi village of Jangal Mahal, under Rajgarh Block in, Mirzapur District, Uttar Pradesh, India. Based on this information, PVCHR, a member of the Uttar Pradesh State level Right to Food Campaign, formed a five members fact finding team that visited the village on 1st November 2005. The village is 24 km. away from close urban centre, Chunar. The team had to leave their car on the way to walk for 1.5 km to reach the village.
First, the team met Ramchander who narrated his case in front of the camera:
I am Ramchander (18 Years) S/o. Sri Rajnarayan- I have 4 brothers, one of them is handicapped. I have no land. My mother was ill. She had been suffering from chronic hunger and related ailments. Taking debt, I managed medical treatment for my mother. She had taken no food for 5 days before she died. But, neither any official from Block nor village head nor any doctor came to my house. Village head says that he has purchased the vote and he does not care the poor people. Hardly, I find work in an agricultural field throughout the whole year. Our livelihoods depend upon collection of dry woods from the jungles. Early in the morning, often we go to the Jungle without food to collect dry woods. In the evening after returning from jungle I go to market to sell the bundle of dry woods. Next day, by selling the dry woods I earn Rs.50 to Rs.70 (Less than two USD). I mean for two days work, I earn Rs.50 to Rs.70. There is no hospital in the village or nearby area. In emergency we have to go to Ahraura (a nearest market). Often patients die in the half way. There is no resource of drinking water in the village. We bring water to drink from the nearby river. I do work in the stone quarry of Rakesh Patel at Shakteshgarh. For medical treatment of my mother and for other essential requirements, I have taken a debt of Rs.10,000/- from my employer Rakesh Patel. He pays only Rs.5 to 6 out of Rs.10, which is actual wage rate. If one dares to leave the work, certainly would be beaten. Thus, goes on the testimony of Ramchander........
The team met many other Musahar People facing hunger in that village. Amravati a 12 Years old girl from Musahar community told that she used to go the Jungle to collect dry woods. But, these days, often she has to live without food. Ramdulari, from the Chamar community narrated how, Lallan Patel and his goons destroyed her plants damaging vegetable (parwal) worth Rs.10,000/- by force and took possession of that piece of land which was in the name of her mother. Police took no action against Lallan. Krishnavati Kol told that when Musahars and Kols demanded their rights from the administration, they were called Naxalites. Instead of listening the truth and their sufferings they were beaten badly and taken away by the police. Each villager has a story to tell, a story where in the name of nation building the elites systematically kill the poor. And this process is not confined to this village of Musahars only.
How poor people are forced to live with a sense of victimhood
The development agenda followed by states in India, present a broad range of economic advancement and social diversity while maintaining uniform democratic practices. But, what varies among these states is the functioning of the institutions, created to reflect and protect the democratic aspiration of the people. These 'variations' are rooted in 'resultant' legislative failure and mis-directed 'trajectory' of development planning.
It is not just a coincidence that while the numbers of rich have increased in the state, the number of landless people has multiplied, so are the areas under the control of non state actors. According to the report of the Ministry of Home Affairs, 2010-11, "Left Wing Extremists operate in the vacuum created by functional inadequacies of field level governance structures, espouse local demands and take advantage of prevalent dissatisfaction and feelings of perceived neglect and injustice among the under privileged and remote segments of population." This is also echoed by the Supreme Court bench in their recent judgement on a 23 years old case, fought for 'adequate compensation' between tribals of Sundergarh, Odisha and Mahanadi Coal Field Limited (MCL), a Public Sector Company. The Honourable Supreme Court asked the State "Why the state's perception and vision of development are at such great odds with the people it purports to develop? And why are their rights do dispensable? ".The situation is no different for the people of Darlipali, of Jharsuguda district who have been fighting with the same MCL for their 'right to proper rehabilitation and adequate compensation'. Although they are among the fortunate few who were not physically displaced by the company, they are nevertheless surrounded by the coal mines and the consequent pollution. These tribals are helplessly watching one by one among them losing their battle for survival. Their case relating to 'adequate rehabilitation' is still subjudice.
Why a poor tribal, dalits or a women is subject to humiliation or torture in every parts of the country. Sometime this happens to them as an individual and sometimes the entire group or the entire community remain at the receiving end of torture. This is done both physically and psychologically to disintegrate them as an individual, so that they stop living like a normal human being. Torture is used by the prevalent exploitative social structure and institutions as an instrument of social control that takes the dignity away from the poor.
Musahars, now known as 'Rat eater community' is a nomadic group which fought with British, and Kings to protect their freedom. They never embraced slavery till the state decided to protect its forest resource and the Musahars were forced to settle down. (Refer gazetteer). Till few years back no starvation death has been recorded in this community. The livelihood problems started when they were not stopped by the forest department to enter into the forest to collect leaves. The Phulpur police record refers them as hard working, fearless and a dangerous community. Police looks for every opportunity to implicate the community members on cases of petty theft and send them into the prison. In more than 90 percent of cases of torture against the Musahars, PVCHR has found that fake cases has been filed due to collusion between local mafia and police/local administration. The prison officials also desperately need them for doing the menial work like cleaning the toilet and sweeping the complex. The PVCHR fact finding team also found that Musahars are not even eligible for red cards as the state does not consider them very poor. Many of the starving population of the community even do not qualify to be considered for white card meaning they are not below poverty line.
With the video documentation of starvation death (later titled: How India kills its own people) PVCHR filed petition in the office of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the Chief Minister of UP. Instead of speaking on behalf of the victims, the priority was to get the victims speak for themselves. For a kind of organisation like this was an improved advocacy strategy. As a result, all the 52 families got land of a bigha (26140 Sq meter ) each, red card for receiving highly subsidised food grains what is more important, a district level office visited the village for the first time. The entire struggle for citizen's right to life in the case of Musahars exposed the fear of nexus between the state and non state actors and the impunity they enjoy. It also brought into focus the discriminatory practices by the state, structured violence against the marginalised community and prevalence of 'mind of caste'[i] in the social and institutional structure.
The case of Bhanwari Devi illustrates the role of caste and gender bias in India's justice system. A grassroots worker or sathin with the Rajasthan Government's Women's Development Programme (WDP), Bhanwari reported the child marriage of a 1-year-old girl. On September 22, 1992, in retaliation, members of the child's family gang raped Bhanwari in front of her husband. These individuals were acquitted, with the judge stating that since "rape is usually committed by teenagers, and since the accused are middle-aged and therefore respectable, they could not have committed the crime. An upper-caste man could not have defiled himself by raping a lower-caste woman."[ii]
Resentment against the state's relentless assaults on the rights and freedom of the impoverished people in the form of displacement, hunger death, loss of land for mining and industries, detention and custodial violence were manifested through small or big agitations. These people primarily comprised of marginalised and disadvantaged groups like tribals, dalits, or the economically backward sections comprise of the majority of the victims of various types of human rights violations. Declining responsiveness of the justice delivery institutions and decreasing faith by the majority of the population belonging to the marginalised groups who incidentally form the backbone of the Left Wing Extremism (LWE) or Naxalite Movement or the Maoist movement in the state raises the fear of state being perceived to be sliding into a dysfunctional state.
Besides impact of neo liberal economic policy and discriminatory social structure influenced by mind of caste, the 'culture of impunity' enjoyed by the state and non state actors has its origin in (1) economic development in the state did not accompany investment on democracy and strengthening of institutional accountability; (2) mineral based industrial policies without regulatory mechanism generated vast amount of black money subsequently, used for circumventing institutional monitoring as well as justice process; (3) deliberate act of sabotage by the state machinery on the civil society groups which believed in initiating consultative process among the victims – marginalised groups and organise agitate for their rights.
Rights make it clear that violations are neither inevitable nor natural, but arise from deliberate decisions and policies. By demanding explanations and accountability, human rights expose the hidden priorities and structures behind violations.[iii]
The neo liberal economic framework that drives the policies and functions of the state and international institutions have also helped development of a new set of non state actors to perpetuate violence in the society while safeguarding the property and interest of the rich. This is a direct linkage between policies on privatization and growing influences of the large business houses or MNCs. The state autonomy has been curtailed and people's life makes no consequences.
The UN Special Rapporteur in his Second Progress Report on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights reaffirmed how Structural Adjustment Policies have been devastating to the vulnerable sections of the population, such as the poor, women and the children. The Special Rapporteur's report concludes that "the relative decline of national sovereignty and domestic control over local economic processes and resources and the corresponding growth in the level to which the international financial agencies directly influence domestic policy decisions are clearly aspects of the adjustment process which conclusively affect economic, social, and cultural rights."[iv]
The most important challenge is to secure people's right to state accountability and this cannot be achieved without recognising the exploitative character of the society and the state. Worst, the change has to come or to be initiated by the people who are already in the higher echelon of the power structure. Reform, for them, means managing and not resolving the challenge in hand. If coerced, they would prefer peripheral changes leaving the larger structure intact. Changes that are regarded as a threat to the immediate interests of those who determine economic and social priorities are unlikely to be enacted.[v] Thus, some political and economic structures turn out to be extremely difficult to alter. This needs that court, elected representatives, media, and civil society groups should go beyond from their traditional role to that of a social engineer for building solidarity and social reconciliation. Information technology could be a powerful facilitator in this regard. Part of restructuring political systems, therefore, is empowering weaker parties to negotiate solutions to deep-rooted structural problems.[vi]
PVCHR's Strategy: Breaking the silence
The U.S. State Department's annual report for 1999 on human rights practice around the world describes human rights and democracy—along with "money and the Internet"— as one of the three universal languages of globalization.[vii]Human rights have gone global not because it serves the interests of the powerful but primarily because it has advanced the interests of the powerless. It has gone global by going local, imbedding itself in the soil of cultures and world views independent of the West, in order to sustain ordinary people's struggles against unjust states and oppressive social practices.[viii]
Rooted in the local culture, PVCHR's work on human rights believed in improving through learning. Distance and time are two factors that influenced PVCHR's strategy. As an NGO, it realised that the distance between Varanasi and Lucknow (State capital of Uttar Pradesh) and Delhi never ends when it comes to seek justice for the victims. Minutes become years, thanks to our justice system and responses of the institutions. The frustration and desperation to do something to bridge the time gap forced the organisation to experiment new ideas. It started with the case of hunger death of Musahars, where PVCHR used the video documentation of the testimonies of the victims in its petition to the State government and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The victims themselves were the evidence and it worked wonder for the victims. On camera, a mother's tear does not lie when she narrates about the death of her child whom she could not feed. The team in PVCHR could, in one stroke, through the video set the tone for serious advocacy and the state had to answer many uncomfortable questions in the media. The evidence presented in the case was self explanatory and the media persons liked it. After this story, media came back to PVCHR for more information on hunger and stories of malnutrition. The available information helped in media advocacy. In some cases, with web input from PVCHR some journalists gave new treatment to their old stories.
PVCHR.Blogspot.com started when hardly any NGO, in India was amplifying its stories/successful interventions through the internet. There was no deliberate strategy behind sending the good work through bulk mail. Till one day, the head of a Delhi based NGO working on Human Rights, asked Dr. Lenin, why he mails all the information of his work back in Varanasi to so many people? He also advised (warned) that big names in the NGO sector who are incidentally in the list of recipient may not like the ordinary information he keeps sending. Dr. Lenin candidly answered, if someone does not like he/she can delete the mail or write PVCHR not to send mails again and nothing of that sort has happened. Later on the former made an honest confession that he does not like the victim's empowerment work of PVCHR. What he really did not like was the new stories of struggle by the survivors and support provided by PVCHR in setting the process of 'access to justice' were uploaded in regular interval. This was an occasion for Dr. Lenin and others in PVCHR for serious introspection. Does the advice reflect mind of caste?
For PVCHR, victims remain at the centre of its work. It believes in empowerment of powerless and that is where the organisation derives its legitimacy. Internet and other mediums have contributed immensely in different way to strengthen advocacy revolution. All form of information and communication technology including the digital ICT like computer, internet, mobile phone, and 'new social media' like face-book and twitter, known as 'Liberation Technology'[ix] is used by the organisation to seek freedom from discriminations and violence.
Use of technology has given freedom to express to all the volunteers in organisation. It has helped them in shedding their inhibitions. They have learned to express themselves in every possible way. An office staff wanted to be in the face-book was helped by his colleagues. Every day he looks at the information uploaded in the home page and marks 'like' which he finds interesting. When asked about what he feels about the FB, with pride in his face he says that it has given an opportunity to express him. It does not matter whether he can write in the timeline or not. Rohit, the computer operator, who comes from a poor Dalit family, uploads his photograph in which he is wearing a blue shirt and posed in a blue background, a colour that represents Bahujan Samaj Party, (BSP). He feels close to the colour as the party has given pride to the dalits in the society. As a technology it has democratised the institution by providing equal opportunity to take up issues and work for the victims. Till 2010, it was only Dr. Lenin who was filing complaints in the Human Rights institutions and the State administration. Now there are six more persons who joined Dr. Lenin to file complaints on human rights violations. Their trainings have made them aware of the fact that if they succeed in saving somebody's life, they strengthen the constitution of the country, if the perpetrator succeeds, they fail the constitution. Availability of technology has provided the volunteers of PVCHR to amplify the urgency of securing the life of the probable victim through urgent appeals. In many cases the victims or probable victims has escaped suffering or torture or even secured his or her life due to international visibility of the case. By using messages through SMS to the higher police authorities and other administrative authorities, on impending encounter (extra judicial killing), volunteers have saved lives of the poor people.
Liberation technology, also known as "accountability technology"[x] helped PVCHR countering impunity. Many videos of police torture and audio of threat by state and non state actors to the victims were uploaded in free sites like You Tube. This has acted as strong evidence in proving impunity against the state law enforcing agencies. One such video of right wing Hindu fundamentalist group engaged in riot against minority Muslims in Moradabad was uploaded in the You-tube. The National Commission for Minorities took cognizance of the case and asked the state to identify the policemen silently watching the rioters. These videos also received comments from the viewers, thus, widening the scope of debate.
Technology also initiated other kinds of accountability for the organisation. It demanded accountability for content it uploads in public domain. With the help of technology the organisation initiated silent uprising to upscale its work. Each staff and volunteer got opportunity to identify his/her work space, strategy to fulfil its commitment to the survivors, accommodating claims and counter claims among themselves, contributed to team work, helped in standardising the language of communication within the organisation, significantly affecting the nature, frequency, speed, and cost of interaction and adhere to the value of the organisation. It is because of technology, PVCHR could protect its integrity against massive onslaught of a vicious and false campaign. By putting all the documents relating to Organisational Development (OD) process of the organisation in the website, it highlighted the representative character of the management which included 50 percent mandatory representation for women and the internal decision making process. This also helped in countering the propaganda that the organisation belongs to Lenin and Shruti and they are the final authority.
ICT have strengthened the work of Human Rights Defenders for the victims. Highlighting the migration and hunger death of Muslim Varanasi saree weavers have resulted in government of India offering 2000cr relief package to the weavers. Lack of infrastructure sometimes fails the use of technology. In 2010, a timely call by Dr. Lenin saved the life of a person from being killed in a fake encounter, but last year, in 2011, the local police targeted the man again. Sensing the danger he tried to contact Dr. Lenin again. Unfortunately, during that time Dr. Lenin was travelling in the interior area without mobile connectivity. By the time he returned to network coverage area and checked his mail he found an urgent message from a relative of the person. When he tried to contact the person, the encounter had already taken place. It is a different matter that the organisation has been fighting for the justice for the victim's family, but a precious life could not be saved. Electronic evidence helps building trust with the survivors. Even the National Human Rights Commission has initiated process of acknowledging complaints through SMS service. For NHRC it might have been a way to reduce burden of their staff to produce hundreds of pages of acknowledgement letter, but it has also contributed immensely towards the building institutional accountability and enhancement of its image.
Strengthens politics of the survivors
The communication among victims, HRDs and the State through use of IT has limited the influence of the perpetrator living within the state structure. The new found solidarity among dalits, tribals, minority groups and progressive upper caste people have unnerved the elites in the society. Globalisation helped in movement of technology, capital and skilled human power but it never worked for 'globalisation of justice'. As long as victim's voice is restricted and suppressed, there will be no peace and development. Fighting impunity is more important than addressing issues of governance. No amount of governance reform in a corrupt society will improve the life of its citizens unless there is functioning justice system. In 2002 the Supreme Court had one Dalit out of 26 judges, while the High Courts had 25 Dalits out of 625 positions.[xi] Also illustrative of the lack of Dalit and lower-caste representation in the judiciary is the fact that Brahmins, who comprise just 5 to 9 percent of India's 1 billion people, fill 78 percent of India's judicial posts.[xii] A survey conducted by Delhi-based NGO Sakshi found that 64 percent of judges believe that "women themselves are partly responsible for the violence they face."[xiii]
The prevalence of caste and gender bias among India's judges is another factor which imperils the right of Dalits to equal treatment before organs administering justice under Article 5 of ICERD. Such bias has resulted in improperly conducted trials, including acquittals that blatantly ignore evidence and witness testimony and entrench the system of impunity that greets perpetrators of violence against Dalits.[xiv]
PVCHR's initiative to reach out to the communities of victims among the dalits, minorities and progressive upper caste and make a beginning of a caste reconciliation process is the outcome of its learning at the grassroots. Through the testimonial movement and 'neo- dalits movement'[xv] it is trying to amplify the voice of the survivors from ground zero to the international level. Information technology has played a very vital role in connecting the dalit children with the school children in Germany. Girls from the Muslims community are now getting training from PVCHR on use of ICT to protect the male members from harassment from the security agencies. Sharing the testimonies among the survivors not only resulted in formation of a network but also believing that the other's suffering is more than mine.
Historically, all the movements that fought for freedom and justice succeeded in changing the nature of governance. In the age of liberation technology, it is not easy to influence people and mobilise them. Rich and middle class Indians will never succeed in organising and running a movement because they themselves are the beneficiaries of the exploitative system. Their support to movements in the cyber world or on the street is a desperate attempt to be seen amidst others is an opportunist decision. Only victims who is the producer and a sufferer can come together to build movements and change the system. They can carry with them all those forces who believe in a casteless society to build a new nation free from exploitation by the state and society. They will succeed as long as they follow the words of Baba Sahib Ambedkar: First agitate, and then organise. Any such movement will bound to generate popular and technological support to succeed, God willing.
* The writer serves in the organisation as an Advisor and responsible for Advocacy strategies. He holds PhD in International relation from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi
[i] In that Country the law of religion, the laws of the land, and the law of honour, are all united and consolidated in one, and bind a man eternally to the rule of what is calledhis caste. Edmund Burke
(ii] Human Rights Watch, Broken People, p. p. 176 (citing "In Brief: Recent Rape Cases," in Kali's Yug (New Delhi), November, 1996, p. 20).
[iii] Confronting the Impunity of Non-State Actors: New Fields for the Promotion of Human Rights, Chris Jochnick, Human Rights Quarterly 21 (1999), The Johns Hopkins University Press, Page 60
[iv] The Realization of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Second Progress Report Submitted by Mr. Danilo Turk, Special Rapporteur, U.N. ESCOR, Comm'n on Hum. Rts., Sub-Comm'n on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, 43d Sess., Agenda Item 8, I1 85, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1991/17 (1991).
[v] Burton, John. Conflict: Resolution and Provention. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990), Page. 237.
[vi] Richard E. Rubenstein, "Conflict Resolution and the Structural Sources of Conflict," in Conflict Resolution: Dynamics, Process, and Structure, ed. Ho-Won Jeong. (Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Co., 1999), 181
[vii] United States Department of State, 1999 Country Reports on Human Rights ,Washington, D.C., 1999, Introduction.
[viii] United States Department of State, 1999 Country Reports on Human Rights (Washington, D.C., 1999), introduction. Page 290
[ix] Liberation technology, Larry Diamond, Journal of Democracy Volume 21, Number 3 July 2010, © 2010 National Endowment for Democracy and The Johns Hopkins University Press
[xi] Cited in R.D. Sharma, "Crime against Women," The Hindu, May 15, 2001, http://www.sarid.net/religious-dimension/gender-and-religion/04-30-crime-agaist-women.htm (accessed February 7, 2007).
[xiii] Cited in R.D. Sharma, "Crime against Women," The Hindu, May 15, 2001,
http://www.sarid.net/religious-dimension/gender-and-religion/04-30-crime-agaist-women.htm (accessed February 7, 2007
[xiv] ] India, Hidden Apartheid, Caste Discrimination against India's "Untouchables", Shadow report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of racial Discrimination, Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice, nyu school of law, Published by Human Rights Watch, Vol. 19, No. 3 (C), February, 2007, Page 53.