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Is torture a necessary evil?

October 31, 2007

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.

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27 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2007 12:29 pm

    Nita: I had read this bit in the Economist with some interest, so it is great to see it covered by you.

    I think the views of the randomly surveyed citizens of various countries reflect how deeply ingrained (or not) the sense of impunity in the security/ police forces in those countries are. In other words, what happens when details of torture become known at large, and whether any moral outrage or a sense of societal shame ensues. I think the sense of impunity is particularly well-expressed in India for a range of reasons, some of which might be the hierarchical system in society which automatically makes those on the ‘lower’ rungs surrender to authority. (Which begs the question about the sources of authority but that is probably a blog post, not a comment 🙂

    You say: “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.”

    The broad premise is fine but I would argue that it depends more on whether a country’s security is in a state of flux or stable.

    In Europe, by and large, the memories of WW-II are very fresh and that informs many societal views on compassion, torture, war and peace. They remember their painful history. An example is Eastern Europe. Their views on torture – despite the recent bloody history of some – are not exceedingly different from the rest of the Europeans.

    So the interesting bit would be to see if any of those currently in an unstable situation will achieve lasting peace and if they do, whether societal attitudes change to being more easily outraged at the thought of torture.

    A longitudinal project if there was one!

    PS: Pity the movie review effectively “buries” this wonderful post. 😦

  2. Bharath permalink
    October 31, 2007 1:18 pm

    A Crime Aganist Humanity.

    Glad that media has captured this torture but still It was of no use.. The police in that image is not convicted..

    The big problem is usually w.r.t. torture is done in secret environment.. Like there are several unreported crime(especially murder n rapes) done by Police in the torture room. Most incidents of torture are never investigated. Sometimes even police group bribes foresic experts/medical officers to falsify reports. Those who complain may be again tortured or attacked. and a poor cannot even afford a lawyer.. or cannot even reach a NGO/Media.

    We need more stronger law & investigations which works promptly and impartially.

  3. Bharath permalink
    October 31, 2007 1:20 pm

    Great Post Nita.. This is Biggest problem in society.

  4. October 31, 2007 1:39 pm

    Shefaly, I have acted. I have changed the timestamp of the movie review so it’s earlier. 🙂
    I agree with you that whether torture is considered ‘acceptable’ or not “depends more on whether a country’s security is in a state of flux or stable.” Yes ofcourse this aspect is critical although I am not sure it is more important. But perhaps it is, I have to give this more thought. That point you made about Europe’s history is very valid and something I had not pondered on. Overall a lot of food for thought. Thanks.

    Bharath, thanks. 🙂 Yes, the situation is very bad in India and one can only imagine the horrors that go on behind the closed doors of police stations. The movie Black Friday did show this in passing. A lot needs to be done!

  5. October 31, 2007 1:45 pm

    Thank you, Nita. You are a whiz at WordPress I see. 🙂

    Not really! Just picked up a few things, all very recent. 🙂 – Nita.

  6. October 31, 2007 10:01 pm

    Let us look at the rights or moral perspective (something you have focussed on). Torture is basically the State taking away the rights of a person. Now, does a State have such a right? Yes, in those situations where, by his actions, a person violated the law to such an extent that his rights are revoked. Examples are murder, rape or terror attacks.
    So, if a prisoner is suspected beyond doubt of being such a threat to society, it may be moral to take away his right to his own physical sanctity and existence.
    However, this absolute right of the State is a very dangerous one, liable to abuse, especially in a society with lax implementation of laws and widespread corruption.
    Hence, I would say I support the right of developed societies to sanction torture in special situations, but is probably not a good idea in societies like ours’.

  7. October 31, 2007 11:54 pm

    No, I don’t believe torture is a necessary evil and it should not be tolerated. I’m ashamed to live in a country where my government believes torture is necessary.

    There are no actions without consequences and it’s possible that terrorist attacks could occur less frequently in a society that allows torture, but at what price? Is it worth torturing innocent people? Is it worth killing a few of them? Because if we set ourselves on the path of torture, those are things that will happen.

    If you say yes, what about if one of those innocent people aren’t just strangers, but your family, your friends, even yourself? Do you think it’s worth sacrificing those things for a little extra safety? Can you really feel it’s right to sacrifice others for your safety?

    The government cannot insulate its citizens from tragedy. There are steps it can take to prepare for disasters and try to protect its citizenry. But when a government begins exchanging personal freedom for tighter controls all that happens is that one person’s tragedy is exchanged for another. And instead of being perpetuated by an extremist group, it’s perpetuated by the society as a whole.

  8. November 1, 2007 7:29 am

    Rambodoc, the problem is that innocents get tortured. And I don’t think that developed countries have a great record in that sense. Remember the case of Haneef who was wrongly detained in Australia?
    Another problem is that countries which have strict laws against torture also do these things as it is usually the state which does it. And the state is protected often in the interests of ‘national security’.

    Ordinary Girl you echo my sentiments. I think of the innocent people. And when you said:

    If you say yes, what about if one of those innocent people aren’t just strangers, but your family, your friends, even yourself?

    that is exactly what I think of. When one thinks of this it becomes clear that torture should not happen. It’s against the law of humanity.

  9. November 1, 2007 9:06 am


    “I think of the innocent people.”

    I think that _is_ part of the problem. Most people can stretch their imagination to think of innocent people, but the way our minds are programmed to think about fears and extreme negativity, few actually stretch and project that fear on themselves and their own families.

    “This will never happen to me” is at the root of many unexplained and puzzling behaviours in India including why we value life so little in India (it is someone else’s – we value our own lives enough to buy insurance!).

    Compassion is the ability to complete that picture with oneself and one’s own family in it. And I think that is greatly in short supply.

  10. November 1, 2007 1:24 pm

    True. Torture should not be the only method of investigation and that police has to act human. But do you realize that in a country like India, torture or inhuman behavior of the police is the only deterring factor to criminals. They know that they can buy judiciary outright and that a case lodged against them will see the light of day after years together. They don’t courts. Their only fear is the police remand room.
    Removing this one fear without replacing it with trained, motivated policeforce and better conditions for police is only going to take the country faster towards the dark alley.
    All said and done, it is important to brainwash the mentality of our police force and train and equip them with better investigative methods before we talk of stopping the torture.
    Though different from all the views mentioned above, but this is my take. And yeah I have thought of Ordinary Girl’s sentiments.

  11. November 1, 2007 8:29 pm

    Minal, how about a different deterrent other than torture? Wouldn’t it be better work at fixing the judiciary so it can’t be bought rather than condone torture?

  12. November 2, 2007 12:22 am

    “Because of the various women I have been in bathing terms with, I have gleaned some information on what a woman does in the bathroom for so long.”
    This can apply even to imprisonment and death penalty.
    The latter still has its opponents, but you mean to say that because innocents can get imprisoned, we should do away with it?
    Incidentally, Haneef just escaped conviction. I don’t buy his innocence. But that is a purely personal and inconsequential viewpoint.

  13. November 2, 2007 12:25 am

    Good grief, Nita,
    A goof up! I copied “the problem is that innocents get tortured”. Instead, somehow, a line from my own post got copied. I really don’t understand! Please accept my embarrassed apologies and do the needful!

  14. November 2, 2007 12:26 am

    Come to think of it, this situation is hilarious, though the joke is on me!

    You are right Rambodoc. 😆 this is hilarious! However I am glad you explained otherwise I might have thought it funnier! 😀

  15. November 2, 2007 2:36 pm

    ohhh my dear O. G.
    If we could fix out judiciary and police, we would have to rename our country. i am sure all of must have come across this data that was published some two years ago that with the no. pending cases with courts it would take the judiciary, at the present rate, another 350 years to solve them!!
    Nowww, how fast do you think we are going to get across that one?
    But yeah , i would be the first one to welcome any feasible deterrent other than torture. I def support u on that.

  16. December 27, 2007 3:29 am

    America is a terrorist state. The things they do when they think no one is looking are absolutely terrifying. First, they ripped my family apart. Then, they have the balls to put in my family’s place undercover CIA people who wear life like bodysuits which look exactly like my real family. Then, they dehumanized me at my workplace at the NYC Department of Education with the book Animal Farm. During this time as well, people would come into my room at night while I was sleeping, drug me and interrogate me while I was under the influence of the drug. I do remember being asked, “Would you ever spy for America?” and “Would you ever spy for Israel?” Also, someone I was talking to very often said to me, “When the pain of staying the same is greater than your fear of change, you will change.” He also said, “Take control of your life.”
    Then, I was made aware that something was going on with my family. A lot of stuff happened around this time, which I remember in great detail. That summer, I went to work for a homebuilding company in Scottsdale named Meritage Homes. There, ALL the employees were actually CIA spies spying on me and testing me out to see if I would take part in their bodysuit program. A lot of stuff went on there with a people in bodysuits pretending to be my grandmother, her friend Jerry, my uncle, my aunt, and my three cousins, the youngest of which was a seven year old girl.
    Since I came back to NYC, the CIA tried to recruit me into the bodysuit program. It got to the point where they wanted me to prove that they could trust me.
    I also think that in June of 2007, prosecutors were trying to obtain a warrant for me for some reason. I honestly don’t know why they would want to do this, but I have a feeling all of the activities concerning my family’s dissappearance and my torture will try to be justified for reasons relating to some kind of government investigation. What Bullshit! The government scouted me a long time ago as a person they thought they could recruit into their terrorist activities, then they proceeded to rip my family apart and condition me for this program, all under the guise of a legitimate investigation.
    In August of 2007, I was being provoked IN MY OWN HOUSE THAT I”VE BEEN LIVING IN SINCE I WAS FOUR YEARS OLD and things got out of hand. I won’t get into it, but one of the CIA people got a bloody nose. (YAY!) She claimed to have a broken nose. I sold my car, the people at the lot I sold it to were also CIA bitches in bodysuits. They gave me a check wich wound up bouncing. Then, I turned myself in to the fuzz and there, the Detec. said he was the “psychic detective”. Then, one of the cops upstairs was talking to me about how he was the cop who investigates “identity theft”. It’s all too much to be coincidence.
    Then, I was dropped off at a motel, then a few days later, the CIA guy who pretends to be my own father called the cops on me. The cops told me they got a call that I was “making threats” and they were given this very blog too! But they were not given the parts revealing the CIA’s bodysuit program. I was placed in handcuffs and taken to Bayley Seton Hospital psychiatric unit. There, I was questioned by a woman who looked somewhat familiar (from Meritage Homes, a lady named “Ann”) and admitted to the psych ward. There, ALL THE STAFF AND PATIENTS WERE CIA operatives. The “resident doctor” was named Frank Galante and his supervisor was Syed Ali. Under their watch, I was kept inside the psych ward from August 10 to October 4th, WITHOUT GOING OUTSIDE ONCE! They also forced me to take antipsychotic medication. The treatment there was absolutely inhuman, the “doctors” threatened me several times saying that if I did not recieve bloodwork, they would go to a judge to have me injected with anitpsychotic meds. Also, several “patients” made light of the fact they knew all about the CIA bodysuit program and why I was there. Then, as if all this was not enough, I was sent to South Beach Psychiatric center, which is the mad house of Staten Island. There, I was kicked by a “staff member” and I also have the suspicion that the people there were all CIA too.
    Now, I am in this corrupt psychiatric system, stuck in a corrupt, terrorist country surrounded by a bunch of AMERICAN TERRORISTS WHO HARASS ME EVERY DAY ABOUT THE FACT I’M SEPERATED FROM MY FAMILY AND THEY ARE LIVING THEIR LIVES AS MY REAL FAMILY EVERY DAY. Today, I was coming downstairs and the two CIA people who pretend to be my mom and dad were in my room. He heard me walking down the stairs and he said “He’s coming. He’s coming.” I have no idea what they could be spying on me for still to this day. My family has been kidnapped, I’ve been harassed, dehumanized, institutionalized, drugged, tortured, my privacy invaded, “conditioned” for the CIA’s bodysuit program and I still have no idea where my real family is. I have no idea if (or why) the government is investigating me for some reason. All I know is that I’m going to spend every day of my life spreading the word to the whole world about America’s terrorist activities based on my own personal experiences.

  17. December 27, 2007 3:53 pm

    Sounds like JR has a classic delusion of persecution. This is one of the highlights of schizophrenia.
    I am just mentioning here how the above comment sounds like to me, a clinician. In this world, I do agree that any fantastic creation of imagination may be verified by reality, which often betters imagination. That said, my diagnosis stands, unless proved otherwise.

  18. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    December 27, 2007 5:16 pm


    It would be useful to know how you got access to a computer with monitored internet access to get your story out, and how you decided to post it on this particularl blog. Just in case one of us ever got into a similar situation, it would be good to remember how you managed.

  19. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    December 27, 2007 5:33 pm


    // Indian attitudes towards torture are ambivalent, and in fact less than 25 percent of Indians are actually against torture. //

    More than the low percentage of Indians against torture, what is frightening is that, of all the countries in the BBC survey, India is the only one where the proportion of those justifying torture EXCEEDS the proportion of people against torture.

    I wonder what would be revealed by similar statistics comparing between the different states of India. I would not be surprised if Bihar and UP did NOT top the list, and if Gujarat came out somewhere close to the top, if not right at the top.

    This is very frightening indeed.

  20. December 27, 2007 6:07 pm

    I think JR’s message could be some sort of sick joke. No telling people’s sense of humour! Maybe he/she is laughing at us right now!

    Vivek, I am not sure that I agree with your regional estimates. torture takes all forms and it’s rather well hidden in the more sophisticated places. At times it is simply given another name.

  21. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    December 27, 2007 7:29 pm


    I think you have misunderstood my comment. It was about people’s ATTITUDES to torture, not the incidence of torture per se. Living as I do in Gujarat, I am very distrubed by the number of supposedly educated, civilised and economically well-off people who condone police violence against anybody merely suspected of being “anti-national” or a “terrorist”. And I don’t need to spell out who qualifies for those epithets.

    All I am saying is that while it is customory (shall I say “run down”) certain parts of the country for such evils, my own perception, based on casual conversations with and comments by people from a wide socio-economic spectrum is that those who endorse torture are often from the class that tends to lead public opinion.

  22. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    December 27, 2007 11:15 pm


    I wonder if you edited the following part of the last para?:

    //All I am saying is that while it is customory (shall I say “run down”)…//

    I don’t remember writing it that way. You have the prerogative to edit, of course, but the way it reads now I don’t understand it.

  23. Sahil permalink
    December 27, 2007 11:29 pm

    I only want to add an example to your article: the worst form of torture you could give anyone is what is faced by undertrials in India -unfortunate victims of a lethargic, inefficient and apathetic judicial system. Our jails are overflowing in present capacity even as it takes months and years for these innocent people to plea for justice. Often for a crime that carries, say, a 6 month sentence at the most- an undertrial might spend 2-3 years in lock-up before a hearing is made. Even though the case is dismissed after that, it can ruin someone’s life and career.

    As they say “Innocent until proved guilty” -the joke is on us as a civil society. Just imagine the agony, anxiety and depression faced by undertrials and their immediate family members. Our judicial system treats them in the same category as hardened criminals. The obvious reason they cannot fight against such injustice is because of the huge bail amount set for their release. In contrast, affluent members of society walk out on bail even when convicted of serious crimes.

  24. December 27, 2007 11:47 pm

    Vivek, I have not touched your comment. It’s interesting that you cannot understand what you yourself have written! 🙂

  25. December 27, 2007 11:53 pm

    Sahil, I read of a man who spent 50 years as an undertrial. Our system is indeed very cruel.

  26. December 28, 2007 12:08 am

    “Vivek, I have not touched your comment. It’s interesting that you cannot understand what you yourself have written!”
    Shall I say AMEN to that?

  27. Anon permalink
    September 28, 2008 8:56 pm

    Very interesting post and a very interesting array of response. But let me start by asking this first.

    Tell me a way to get information from a criminal without torture? Nobody is yet to tell me one. If we do not know one, we can safely conclude that in absence of torture, only way to go through a resource intensive long hunt for evidence. (For argument’s sake, we shall assume all criminals want to avoid prosecution and so will never volunteer information).

    So the only way left is to gather other evidence in regular fashion – the Sherlock Holmes style.

    But oops! We have one of the lowest law enforcement density in the developing world (we shall not even talk about the funding and staffing). But we want results. We pour out our anger in editorials, rallies and blogs when we do not see convictions for criminals.

    Ironically, despite rampant(!) use of torture as a short cut in police investigations, our police system is still plagued with chronic inefficiency.

    The right question to ask is ‘What necessitates police torture and what makes it acceptable to people’? I am sure that humans do not enjoy the torture in general. Without discussing any of these two issues, there is no point in any discussion on immorality of discussion. It would be same writing a full book on “Yeah… Hunger is bad”

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