‘Most of the violent incidents included murder, rape, molestation, assault, vandalism, looting, dispossession, arson, extortion, threat and intimidation’, says the report.
New Delhi: The situation in West Bengal is a manifestation of the “Law of Ruler”, instead of “Rule of Law”, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has stated in a scathing report on the post poll violence that has taken place in state following the 2 May declaration of results, when Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) returned to power.
The NHRC, in its findings, spread across 50 pages, and 11 annexures of more than 3,000 pages, has found 29 instances of murder and at least 12 instances of attempt to rape and sexual assault. The report, under the sub-heading “list of notorious criminals/goons” who were involved in the violence has named several TMC leaders, including MLAs and ministers such as Khokan Das, Jyotipriya Mallik and Saukat Mollah.
In its final report on the poll violence, submitted to the Calcutta High Court on 13 July, the NHRC has left nothing to ambiguity in its criticism of the Mamata Banerjee government and stated that “Bengal reflects the appalling apathy of the state government towards the plight of victims. This was retributive violence by supporters of the ruling party against supporters of the main opposition party. It resulted in disruption of life and livelihood of thousands of people and their economic strangulation. The local police have been grossly derelict, if not complicit, in this violence.”
“There have been several sexual offences but victims are scared to speak out. Loss of faith in the state administration among victims is very evident. An alarming aspect of this violence amply figuring in the public domain was that it evoked no empathy in the state administration in any tangible manner. Neither senior officers nor political leaders condemned the violence, visited the spots, assuaged the victims or did anything substantive to ameliorate the problems. People were left on their own to protect the violation of their human and fundamental rights, including right to life, liberty, dignified living and health.”
A committee was formed by the NHRC chairman on the direction of a five-judge bench of the High Court. The committee has recommended that grievous offences like murder, rape, etc., should be handed over to the CBI for investigation and these cases should be tried outside the state. The other cases should be investigated by a court-monitored SIT. For adjudication, there should be fast track courts, Special PP and Witness Protection Scheme.
The operational teams of NHRC, which prepared the report consisted of one SSP, two Assistant Registrars (Law), nine DySPs, 13 Inspectors, 10 Constables, two Junior Research Consultants (JRCs) and other secretarial staff who went to different areas of the state to carry out field visits.
The NHRC team carried out spot visits to several places, conducted discreet enquiries into important and grievous incidents, without disclosing their locations and tour programmes. The committee members also organized camp sittings at various places such as Kolkata, Purba Medinipur, Howrah, East Bardhaman and Murshidabad to give a personal hearing to the victims/complainants/petitioners.
The NHRC, in its report, has further stated, that “It has to be mentioned that the scale of these incidents is widespread and extensive across the entire state of West Bengal and this kind of enquiry and spot inspection is unprecedented and being handled by NHRC for the first time. Despite constraints of manpower and resources, these teams worked day and night and covered 311 spot visits in a brief period of 20 days. The committee received around 1,979 complaints/petitions covering over 15000 victims.”
“A very large number of complaints have been received from districts Cooch Behar, Birbhum, Purba Bardhaman, North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas and Kolkata while within the administrative districts, the most affected police districts are Baruipur PD, Bashirhat PD, Barrackpore PC and Diamond Harbour,” the report says.
As per the data shared by the West Bengal police with the NHRC, the NHRC found that the number of people who were arrested vis-a-vis the FIRs filed was abysmally low. “From the data, it is evident that the percentage of accused arrested out of those cited and the percentage of accused who are still in custody is abysmally low, which shows inept performance of the local police and there is no deterrence for criminal elements as seen from the above crime data. In the cases which were officially registered by police, the number of arrests made is very few, in contrast to the large-scale violence and huge number of accused in most cases. Cases have not been investigated on priority and, in many cases, sections invoked are not commensurate to the gravity of offences that occurred. The statement given in the above table reflects that, out of 9,304 accused cited in the FIRs, only 1,354 (14%) have been arrested and, out of these arrested, 11086 are already on bail. Thus, overall speaking, less than 3% of the accused are in jail, while 97% are out in the open, making a mockery of the whole system. It is quite evident that the police is working under influence and in a biased manner and do not have the courage to take action against looming goons belonging to the ruling dispensation. The I/Cs of police stations have not even visited the places of many of the violent incidents, nor collected any evidence or recorded statements, let alone registering FIRs,” the NHRC found.
The NHRC found that of the 311 spot enquiries conducted by the teams, in as many as 188 instances (60%), FIRs have not been registered by the police. Even in the 123 cases where FIRs have been registered, in as many as 33 cases (27%), police have resorted to dilution by using milder sections of law. The NHRC team, which visited the villages, observed that “people are not coming out of their houses because of the reason that if they make a complaint, then the goons of TMC will further victimize their family members. The complainants also stated that there is no support or security provided by the police officials and they even got pressured by police to withdraw the complaint or else they refused to take the complaints. Informally, incidents of sexual assault, rape and molestation were also reported, but no one was ready to depose or give any statement to the committee members out of fear and backlash. The downtrodden people were found living miserable lives, everything from the house was looted including food, stove, utensils, etc.”
The report further goes on to say, “It is clear that across the length and breadth of West Bengal, the police miserably failed to perform its duties. It is important that strong deterrent action is taken at least against a few police officers, district heads and SHOs of police stations for their acts of omissions and commission.”
“Analysis of statements recorded of the victims/complainants, supporting documents, data and other related information collected from the spot enquiries, including camp sittings, registered cases, etc., revealed that a large number of criminals, who enjoy state patronage and support, were responsible for abetting, planning, organizing and even committing offences in a systematic and widespread manner,” the report reads.
“Most of the violent incidents included murder, rape, molestation, assault, vandalism, looting, dispossession, arson, extortion, threat and intimidation. Pertinently, they were neither sporadic nor random; instead, they targeted specific persons (those associated with the main opposition party). There are large gaps in the cases registered by police compared to complaints received by this committee,” the NHRC found.
According to the NHRC the “violence was retributive. It was in retaliation to those who ‘dared’ to vote or support the major opposition party. Victims were helpless and hopeless due to the torture and trauma. To add to the indignity were reports of instances where heads were tonsured or public apologies were made for having ‘erred’ in supporting the major opposition party.”
“A large number of houses, shops and vehicles, etc., of workers of the main opposition party were vandalized and looted and water and electricity connections severed, resulting in disruption of life and livelihood of these families. Many of the victims were also asked to cough up large sums of money as a precondition to their return to their homes. Many have not yet returned. Several victims complained about their identity cards, like ration cards, Aadhaar cards, Swastha Sathi cards, etc., being snatched or destroyed by goons of the ruling party, which prevented them from availing legitimate benefits from the government. Several victims also complained that they were being discriminated against in getting vaccination for Covid-19 because they were perceived to be supporters of the main opposition party. Owners of some private establishments reportedly showed the door to some of their employees yielding to pressure from goons of the ruling party. Thus, their right to life and to health was being violated,” it reads.
“As in a large number of incidents, there has been rampant burking of offences, including FIRs still not being registered, FIRs registered after many days and in many incidents, the sections invoked are of lesser magnitude. Because of the time lapse between date of incidents and inquiry or investigation in the field, in many cases, especially of alleged rapes/assaults/injuries, collection of evidence may lose relevance as no medical reports were made in a majority of the cases.”
The NHRC members, as per the report, were discouraged from carrying out their responsibility. “The state government made accommodation arrangements for the members of this committee in Bedi Bhavan, Kolkata. This place was absolutely unsuitable due to ill maintenance, bad odour, lack of cleanliness in rooms and kitchen, etc. It is learnt that the state government has better accommodation in Kolkata, but chose to not provide the same to the committee. Similarly, the lodging arrangements for Sri Rasheed were very poor. Moreover, adequate transport was not provided to a team of the Inquiry Committee on 10.7.2021.”
“The spate of violence shows a pernicious politico-bureaucratic-criminal nexus. Criminals indulged in violence against political rivals while the bureaucratic edifice was complicit in various degrees. This is a deadly combination that has sinister implications for any state and will ultimately corrode the entire edifice. The presence of this nexus in a border state also has larger national security implications.”
The NHRC has given 28 recommendations, the prominent among which includes: “CBI Investigation: In view of the present situation described above, there is a need to provide justice to victims and restore their confidence in the Criminal Justice System, which can be best rendered by a neutral agency. Hence, it is recommended that all heinous cases, including murder, unnatural deaths, rape and grievous hurt, and complaints carrying these allegations, should be transferred to the CBI for investigation. These cases should also include the following:
“Trial of CBI cases: Trial of all the above cases investigated by the CBI should be held outside the state.
“Establishment of SIT: A Court monitored SIT (Special Investigation Team) should be formed immediately consisting of senior supervisory IPS officers and others. This SIT should register cases (if not already done by local Police) and investigate all the cases and complaints mentioned.
“Court Monitoring: All the cases investigated by the SIT should be monitored by the court. Fast Track Courts: should be notified to try these cases investigated by the SIT in a time-bound manner. Special PP: A special team of Public Prosecutors should be attached to the SIT to monitor the quality of investigation, collection of evidence, placing of charge sheets in Courts.
“Immediately formalize the witness protection programme to ensure that more victims and witnesses come out and file their complaints. The said committee by the NHRC was constituted as per the directions of the Calcutta High Court which is hearing a number of PILs on the matter.”
Reacting sharply to the report, West Bengal Chief Minister and TMC president Mamata Banerjee accused the BJP of using “impartial agencies” to hatch a conspiracy against her government. “Because of political vendetta, the BJP is misusing some institutions to malign the image of Bengal. They cannot digest their electoral defeat in West Bengal,” she said while adding that incidents of pre-poll violence in the state, when “law and order was under the Election Commission”, had been passed off as post-poll incidents. Banerjee said the NHRC “should have respected the court” and “instead of leaking the findings to the media, it should have first submitted the same to the court.”
The NHRC, while refuting the allegations raised by Banerjee, released a statement stating that it had “provided a copy of the said report to its advocate in Calcutta, who shared with the advocates of all the parties concerned in the related multiple writ petitions in accordance with High Court directions”, and that “the matter being sub-judice, the committee of the NHRC did not share its report to any entity other than those specified by the Hon’ble Court”. “The attribution regarding the alleged leakage of the said report to the NHRC is absolutely baseless and factually incorrect,” the NHRC stated.
Kolkata-based lawyer Debu Choudhury, who is representing one of the PIL applicants in the High Court, said that the number of cases of rape is far more than what the NHRC has documented in its report. “The next hearing of this case is 22 July. If the HC that day gives an order in favour of the victims, many more people, who are scared right now, will get the courage to come out and file a complaint. We know of a village where more than 15 girls have been raped, but they are not filing a complaint because of fear. The number of murder cases, as per our findings, is 44. If a SIT is set up, the number of murders and rapes being reported will rise exponentially. The NHRC got less than 15 days to complete its investigation and in those 15 days, they found so many victims. The number of those who have been affected are at least 10 times more,” he told The Sunday Guardian.
Pankaj Singh, former expert on Mission to the United Nations, who now practises in the Supreme Court, said that the impact of the violence in Bengal was witnessed in Assam too. “Due to the violence in West Bengal, people were forced to flee to Assam and seek state protection. The victims and survivors include women, children, old men and women who were subjected to persecution that includes death threats, homicide, gender based violence, including rape and arson, among other Common Law Crimes. About 450 people who were grassroots workers of the opposition parties fled from Cooch Behar, Rampur and Falmari in West Bengal to Srirampur and Dhubri in Assam. The persons included men and women of all ages and children and Dalits who faced persecution based on their imputed political opinion and religion,” Singh said. He has filed a PIL in the case along with lawyer Gautam Jha in the Gauhati High Court in which a notice has already been issued to the State of Assam and the Union of India.