Is torture a necessary evil?
Torture is seen as routine police behavior in India. In fact it is common enough not to be reported unless it happens in broad daylight like in the case of the thief who was publicly tortured and the torture caught on camera. The public usually doesn’t bat an eyelid as can be seen in the picture on the right. In most states however it happens behind closed doors. Just this month a woman from Bangalore complained that the police had hit her and given her electric shocks.
Even though India has signed the UN Convention against Torture, it’s not been ratified. Also domestic laws against torture are weak.
Interestingly, Indian attitudes towards torture are ambivalent, and in fact less than 25 percent of Indians are actually against torture. That is if one goes by the research done by BBC/Globescan* last year. These are the findings:
About a third of people in the world are okay with the use of torture in prisons in some circumstances and if one goes country-wise, then the majority of the countries (19 out 25) believe that it is important to have clear rules against any kind of torture. And that torture was not justified under any circumstances. Australia, France, Canada, the UK and Germany had high levels of opposition to use of torture as a method to extract information even if meant saving innocent lives. The opposition to torture was seen to be much stronger in Europe than in the United States. However the figures show that even in ‘civilized’ countries there are a significant number of people who feel that torture is justified under certain circumstances. As The Economist says:
Most civilised people squirm at the thought of putting suspected terrorists on the rack or pulling off toenails. What if that prisoner knew the whereabouts of a ticking bomb—maybe a biological, chemical or even nuclear one? Wouldn’t a little sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation or even water-dunking be justified to save hundreds and perhaps thousands of lives? Whatever the law says, a lot of people seem to think so.
And setting ‘limits’ cannot work, not in a real-life situations, and not with all people. In fact even people saying NO to torture and countries passing laws against torture doesn’t always work…not in real-life situations. Torture continues to happen.
There does seem to be less acceptance of torture amongst those who live peaceful lives. And a greater acceptance amongst those who lead difficult, violent lives. More than 40 percent of people in Iraq and Israel are okay with torture and acceptance of torture is the least in Germany and France.
So does this mean that torture is here to stay as long as there is conflict? Does this in fact mean that torture is a necessary evil?
In India at least I can say that it is not as it’s used regularly, even for investigating minor crimes and to intimidate prisoners. Investigative agencies need to improve on investigative skills and develop their Intelligence instead of relying on torture and confessions to nab criminals.
Another point. As this article points out the victims of torture are usually the discriminated. In India it can be the Dalits, in America it can be the African Americans, in the ongoing war on terrorism it’s people of a certain religion, and mostly in all countries, it’s the poor and the powerless who are targeted. And the justification for the use of torture is always that it is used to save innocent lives. But who is to decide whether this is the person who knows or doesn’t know? And whether it will really save a thousand or a hundred lives? As far as I see it, it’s important to have clear-cut rules against torture because this inhuman method of extracting information has become a weapon of discrimination and hatred.
(*The survey was carried out for the BBC World Service by polling firm Globescan and the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA). 27,000 respondents in 25 countries were asked which position was closer to their own views:
1. Clear rules against torture should be maintained because any use of torture is immoral and will weaken international human rights standards against torture.
2. Terrorists pose such an extreme threat that governments should now be allowed to use some degree of torture if it may gain information that saves innocent lives.)
(First photo is from Tehelka and linked to the original. The other two photos are from the Economist)
Update (1st Nov): I came across a news report relevant to this article. It’s about how the police are torturing scores of youth of a particular community after the twin blasts in Hyderabad in August this year. Torture ranging from “electric shocks to the genitals, hanging suspects upside down through the night, beating on bare soles and finger nails and thrashing with bamboo fibres” is being carried out. The police insist that all those caught are terrorists.