IN the end it was a victory for civil rights. After 19 years of legal wrangles, acute frustration and a long wait for justice, retired police officer Ranajit (Runu) Guha Niyogi and an associate were sentenced to simple imprisonment for a year and fined Rs 2,000 each for torturing and maiming a teacher, Archana Guha, during the Naxal movement.
On July 7, 1974, the police picked up Archana, a headmistress, from her residence at Cossipore, an industrial suburb in north Calcutta. They were in search of her Naxalite brother Soumen. Arch-ana was taken to Lal-bazar, the police headquarters, where she was rigorously interrogated, at one stage for 72 hours without respite.
Her story: the policemen, at Niyogi's behest, hung her upside down and struck her on the soles of her feet with batons, before using cigarette butts to burn her elbows and nails. When she was released in May 1977, she was paralysed from the waist downwards. She filed a suit against Niyogi and his men the same year.
Niyogi, who was officer-in-charge of the Anti-Naxalite Cell, epitomised the reign of terror let loose by the state government in the '70s to stump out the 'Naxal menace'. A star officer pampered by then police chief, Ranjit Gupta, Niyogi soon clambered up the ranks to retire as deputy commissioner of police (traffic).
The reactions to the landmark judge-ment delivered by Metropolitan Magistrate S. Biswas vary. "The man should have been put away at least for seven years," says Sujato Bhadra, spokesman for the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR). Others, however, point to the inherent complexities of a political system which must give proper place to the judiciary, the executive and the legislature. All three areas of governance have been put to the test by Archana's celebrated crusade against the system and, perhaps, none has come out on top.
Says a senior advocate of the Calcutta High Court: "Human rights spokesmen must bear in mind that the judges do have to ponder over the impact of their pronouncements on the administration as a whole. The punishment is obviously more symbolic than substantive, but the important message it conveys will not be lost on anyone. No one will now assume that he is above the law."
In fact, a senior police officer admitted: "What happened then was that the offiers in uniform had been given a free hand while dealing with Naxalites. Then chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray and police chief Ranjit Gupta were the architects of the tough line against the extremists and their sympathisers. Runu Niyogi and his men were exceptionally brave and showed great resourcefulness. But their tactics involved the use of third degree methods liberally, as the administration looked away."
Between 1977 and 1996, the case against Niyogi and four others, (Santosh Dey, Arun Banerjee, Aditya Karmakar and Kamal Das) shuttled back and forth in different courts, as legal experts debated its merits. Eminent lawyers like Ashoke Sen, Kapil Sibal and the late Sankardas Banerjee were involved in the dispute. Caught on the wrong foot, the policemen tried to stall proceedings as far as they could. Two of the accused, Banerjee and Karmakar, are dead. Das, a former Naxalite, is absconding. At the end only Niyogi and Santosh received their comeuppance, as the Bankshall court gave its verdict—against which both will appeal.
Bhadra is extremely critical of the role played by the Left Front government as well as a section of the judiciary: "We led deputations to Chief Minister Jyoti Basu and met other Left leaders, who always promised us justice. But nothing moved on the ground. It was not until the Supreme Court intervened and directed that hearings must be finished on a day-to-day basis and no further plea for adjournment was to be entertained, that a verdict finally loomed on the horizon."
Niyogi himself has taken his punishment philosophically. "I will make no comments except to say that I maintain what I said before—namely, I am innocent. However, as a be responsible for the actions of others. I would never violate the oath of secrecy I took and involve others," he says, hinting that larger forces were at play.
Archana, who was lucky in that Amnesty International sponsored her case—even meeting her legal expenses though her brother was her lawyer towards the end—has left for Denmark where she now lives with her husband P. Jenson. The support from Amnesty, which declared her the first international victim of official torture, transformed her from the 'vegetable-like existence' she started leading in 1977, into the determined never-say-die woman she is today. Despite being partially paralysed, she can walk with support, board a bus and do other physical work, thanks to treatment abroad. "I am happy with the verdict, which vindicates my case. I hope the police will learn a lesson from this," she told her friends before leaving. It is a hope many share with her.