Friday, July 24, 2009

Inflicting pain on the common man

In Kerala, the police and government officials readily use torture to try to solve cases. Dr. S.D. Singh, through his Torture Prevention Centre, has been trying to create an awareness about how torture devastates the lives of victims and their families

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1970 psychiatrist S.D. Singh was working in a hospital belonging to the Plantation Corporation of Kerala at Kalady. One morning he was looking at the X-ray of a patient by the name of Varghese.

“I told him he had a very old fracture,” says Singh.

Varghese replied that many years ago a 6’ tall forest ranger by the name of Shivadas in Kalady had hit him on the ribs.

“I stared at him, speechless, because he was referring to my father,” says Singh. He prescribed some medicines and, feeling disturbed, he immediately went home.

Thereafter, he went to Thiruvananthapuram to meet his bed-ridden father.

“I asked him about Varghese,” says Singh. His father burst into laughter, and said, “In those days Varghese was a well-known ruffian. Thanks to me he was straightened out.”

Singh stared at his father in silence. “I realised my father did not have any feelings of guilt,” he says. “Instead, he was proud about what he had done, while I felt he was wrong in inflicting pain.”

It was this incident that sparked a lifelong interest in torture and for the past several years Singh has been spearheading a campaign to bring greater awareness of the cruelty inflicted by the police and government officials on the common man.

His turning point came when he attended a two-week training programme on torture medicine in New Delhi in 1995, which was conducted by the Indian Medical Association, in partnership with the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). Singh also attended a course conducted by the IRCT in Denmark.

Thereafter, Singh set up the Torture Prevention Centre, India Trust, at Kochi.

In Kerala, police and government officials often resort to torture to try to solve cases. Singh remembers a case of a 32-year old man in Marayur, Munnar. In 2007, he was picked up by forest officials from Chandni Bar on suspicion of sandalwood smuggling. He was taken straight to the forest station and beaten up. Passers-by could hear his cries for help.

Eventually at midnight, there was a silence in the station. By this time a crowd had gathered outside. At 1 a.m., the officials brought out the dead body with the aim of disposing it, but the people forced them to take it to the Tata Hospital.

“The next day the police lodged a criminal case against the forest officials,” says Singh. “This case is still going on.”

Singh says that for those for survive the injuries to the mind are far more severe than the damage to the body.

“Torture can trigger severe anxiety, insomnia, distressing dreams, panic attacks, depression, and even suicide,” he says. “It can be arrested through regular counselling and medication. But, unfortunately, the damage to the psyche can never be healed permanently.”

One reason is that the methods used are terrifying. The physical methods include
slapping on both ears at the same time, submerging the face in the water, applying electrical shock to the genitals, and making the person hang upside down.

The psychological methods include denying water or sleep for several hours, and forcing the person to stand for a long time. Sometimes, the prisoner is given false information. The officer will say, “Did you know that your wife had an accident and died?”

When a man hears this, his mental equilibrium is shattered and he is desperate to go home and find out what has happened. So he agrees to whatever crime the officer says he has committed, although he may be innocent.

“But when he finally reaches home he realises that nothing has happened to his wife,” says Singh. “That is another shock.”

Singh blames a lack of training for the widespread use of torture. “The middle and lower rung officers have not been taught to get information by scientific interrogation methods,” he says. “The only method they know is of inflicting pain.”

Another problem is that most doctors are not trained to detect the effects of physical and mental violence. An accurate medical testimonial is of immense support to the victims in the court of law.

“Doctors usually classify torture as a human rights violation,” says Singh. “The terminology is different. A violation is only a violation. But a torture is a much stronger and potent word.”

Through the Torture Prevention Centre, Singh teaches government officials and doctors about the terrible effects of harming people. “So far 300 doctors have gone through a training programme,” he says. “If torture continues, it will destroy our democracy one day.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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