PUCL Bulletin, March 2001

NHRC wants prosecution of army personnel; Also recomends compensation to farmers

In a decision dated 1 November 2000, the Commission made far-reaching recommendations to the government of India, Ministry of Defence to compensate farmers of Andhra Pradesh who were victims of actions taken against them by personnel of the army.

The Commission, on 19 May 1999, had taken suo-motu cognizance of a media report which had alleged that some 300 army personnel had gone on a pre-dawn rampage in that city and had attacked farmers who had come to sell their wares at Rythu Bazaar in Hyderabad on 12 May 1999. They threatened the farmers who were sleeping in the compound and severely beat up four of them who had protested.

The losses incurred during the incident were estimated by the district administration to be worth some Rs. 12 lakhs. The farmers had occupied sheds set-up the bazaar by the State Government on military land with the permission of the army authorities. The State Government had condemned the action of the army personnel for taking the law into their own hands and had lodged a strong protest with the Defence Minister and Army Headquarters.

In reply to the Commission's notice of 19 May 1999, the Ministry of Defence had responded justifying the action of the army men in forcibly evicting the farmers stating that the State Government had backtracked on its assurance to vacate the area within the specified period for which it had been leased by the army. The Ministry denied the violation of any human rights by the army.

On the other hand, the report of the Collector of Ranga Reddy District, who was an eyewitness to the whole incident, said that despite her pleadings, hundreds of military personnel had demolished the property erected at Rythu Bazaar while she and the police personnel who were present at that time could only remain silent spectators. Around 80 farmers who were at the site at the time of the incident were manhandled and four of them were seriously injured. Vegetables worth Rs.1.7 lakhs were strewn around at the temporary structures erected were irreparably damaged. The total damage worked out to Rs. 11.26 lakhs. Photographs supported the Collector's eyewitness report.

The Commission, on considering both these responses, recorded in its proceedings of 20 September 1999 that the two reports, from two responsible and highly placed functionaries of the Central and State Governments, were in total variance. It observed that the pertinent question was whether or not the army personnel had committed high handed acts. Therefore, it requested the Secretary, Ministry of Defense, to get the entire matter examined, including the aspect of the propriety of the Ministry in making such sweeping denials of events in the face of an apparently authentic report of senior officers of the State Government.

The Commission also requested the Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh to examine both the responses and give his own report. The report of the Chief Secretary clearly indicated the high-handedness of the army personnel and made the disturbing observation that the role of the Andhra Pradesh Sub-Area Command in the incident had been questionable. The Chief Secretary's report was also sent to the Ministry of defence for its response.

The Ministry of Defense, however, reiterated its earlier version and asked the commission to call the concerned officers of the army and State Government and take a view in the matter. But in the meeting called by the Commission on 6 September 2000, the concerned army officials chose not to come and were represented only by the Civilian Staff officer of Army Headquarters.

Based on the facts and circumstances of the case, the Commission had to formulate its opinion and consider the allegation of violation of human rights of the victims. There was no hesitation in rejecting the version of the army authorities, which is in direct conflict with the version of the State Government. Certain admitted facts and circumstances also supported this conclusion of the commission.

The commission also learned that the State Government, keen to ensure the continuance of the Bazaar in the same location, has already moved for this land to be exchanged with some other land of the State Government, which could be given to the army instead. Discussion in this regard was in progress between the State government and the army and the Sub area commander had been requested to await the final outcome of this discussion. Thus, there was no occasion for the district collector to tell the Sub-Area Commander to carry out the eviction, as has been alleged by the army. Moreover, the unusual time of the early morning chosen for carrying out the surprise action, without any prior notice to the occupants or to the District Collector, supported the allegation of high-handedness by the Army men and their intention to take even the State Government by surprise.

Rejecting the clandestine and unlawful action of the army men, the commission said, "A civilized legal system does not permit even a trespasser with settled possession to be thrown out in this manner without resort to the procedure established by the law".

The commission thus directed the government of India, Ministry of Defense to pay a sum of Rs.12 lakhs as compensation for loss to property, a sum of Rs. 10,000/- to each of the four farmers beaten up by the army men and a sum of Rs.5000/- to each of the farmers forcibly evicted. The Government of India has been asked to pay the above amounts, granted as immediate interim relief under section 18 (3) of the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 to the Government of Andhra Pradesh. The Chief Secretary, Ministry of Defense within one month, will make the calculation of the total amount. The Government of India will pay this amount to the government of Andhra Pradesh within one month thereafter, for disbursement among those entitled, within one month.

The Government of India has also been asked to consider initiating proceedings to identify the Army personnel responsible for the violation of Human Rights in the above incident and to take appropriate action against them. The Ministry of Defense has, further, been asked to formulate necessary guidelines for the observance of human rights of the civilian population by the Armed forces while performing their duties in non-combat areas.

In concluding, the commission has emphasized the urgency and need for amending the protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 to empower the national Human Rights Commission to inquire more effectively into human rights violations by Armed Forces. Any further delay or inaction is likely to erode the credibility of the Government of India in its commitment to respect human rights.

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