ON JUNE 18, 1999, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) decided to look into allegations of atrocities committed by personnel of the Joint Special Task Force (JSTF) in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, constituted in 1993 to track down sandalwood smuggler Veerappan.
It has been 10 years since the probe was set up, but, in a defining case of lethargy, its final report and recommendations in the matter are still due. In the absence of the report, a controversy is brewing in Bengaluru over how and where to place responsibility for the atrocities the Task Force policemen allegedly committed.
Established under the command of Shankar Bidari, who is now the Police Commissioner of Bengaluru the JSTF operation was completed in 2004 when Veerappan was shot dead in an encounter. But for nearly a decade before his death, villagers in six districts in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka — the area of the JSTF operation — have complained of serious violations by its men. The alleged violations include torture, rape, maiming, giving electric shocks, beating and suspending people from housetops.
There are also allegations of killing innocent people in fake encounters, or detentions without trial under the draconian Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, which has since lapsed. The NHRC was apprised of these charges from 1997, through complaints from villagers and NGOs. It finally constituted a panel, the Sadashiva Commission, to enquire into the allegations.
The Commission report, submitted in 1999, endorsed the charges. The governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu each pledged Rs 5 crore as compensation for each survivor and the relatives of those killed. Eight years after the Sadashiva Commission report was submitted, the NHRC put out an interim order in January 2007, awarding 89 victims and their families compensation totalling Rs 2.80 crore.
ORDER OF OCCURRENCE
The Joint Special Task Force (JSTF) is constituted in 1993 to track down sandalwood smuggler Veerappan
Villagers in six districts in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka — the area of the JSTF operation — complain of violations by the unit’s officers
The NHRC is apprised of these charges from 1997 on through complaints from villagers and NGOs active in the area
The NHRC constitutes the Sadashiva Commission to enquire into the allegations agaisnt the JSTF
The Commission report, submitted in 1999, endorses the charges but does not name or implicate JSTF officers
Eight years after the Commission’s report, the NHRC’s interim order, awards compensation to 89 victims but does not name any JSTF officers
The journey to justice is, however, far from over. Neither the Sadashiva Commission nor the NHRC’s interim order name or directly implicate JSTF officers responsible for the atrocities. However, NGOs that have taken up the victims’ cause — the South India Cell for Human Rights Education and Monitoring (SICHREM), People’s Watch and others are categoric in their assessment. They say Bidari must be held accountable as he was the JSTF commander from 1993 to 1996, the period when the maximum violations took place. The NGOs are demanding that the NHRC submit its final report and mandate the Karnataka Government to institute an inquiry into Bidari’s role.
In the interim period, they say, Bidari must be recalled from his current position as Bengaluru Police Commissioner. “Allowing Bidari to occupy such a high post demonstrates a clear case of the impunity enjoyed by the police in this country,” says Ashok Mathews Philip, SICHREM’s executive director. “How can we trust one who has blatantly disregarded human rights?” Philip’s concerns are backed by a national-level campaign on the prevention of torture.
SICHREM has organised several public tribunals, released reports and held press conferences. So far, none of these have made an impact on the NHRC.
GIVEN THE circumstances, activist pressure is unlikely to yield much result from the Karnataka Government. Reputed to be close to Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa, Bidari was appointed within 45 days of the BJP government taking power in 2008.
A 1978 batch IPS officer, Bidari was posted as JSTF commander in 1993 at a time when the force was deeply demoralised by the Veerapan’s brutality. Leading from the front, Bidari engaged his force against the brigand in a number of encounters.
Veerapan, who had more than 150 gangsters, 135 firearms and three tonnes of explosives in 1993, was reduced to just five by April 1996. According to Bidari’s website, 60 gang members were killed in various encounters under his leadership and 126 gangsters and harbourers were arrested. As many as 58 cases were registered, investigated and chargesheets filed.
The NHRC’s conclusions are a little different. Based on depositions by 243 people, the Sadashiva Commission concluded that a total of 36 persons “killed in suspicious encounters by the STF”.
Bidari and 37 other JSTF police officers were among those who deposed before the Commission. In their depositions, all “vehemently denied the allegations of rape, outraging the modesty of women and perpetration of other atrocities and described them as false and motivated”. The Commission said the denials were “natural and not unexpected”.
Bidari’s deposition before the Commission in 2002 stated his willingness to accept moral responsibility as the JSTF commander. If the Sadashiva Commission found his team guilty of human rights violations. Commendation for the operation should go to the officers directly, he said. Several newspapers reported the statement at the time — these were, after all, words becoming of a leader.
Memories of that statement seem to have faded. Bidari has struck a pose of innocence. He has taken refuge behind the claim that the Sadashiva Commission and the NHRC interim report never directly named him. The allegations, he claims, are part of a political conspiracy through which “malicious, baseless and false propaganda” is being spread. “If they (SICHREM and other organisations) continue to do so, I will take legal action,” warned Bidari.
In the face of this controversy, the only recourse now available is for the NHRC to submit its final report. Over 15 years have passed since the atrocities and close to a decade since the NHRC assured redress. How much longer can victims and their families possibly wait? Bidari, meanwhile, has submitted a review application as part of his renewed attempts to get a gallantry award for killing a close Veerapan associate in October 1993 in an encounter.