Conversation on Torturing Democracies: Past and Present
Our conversation will start off by situating the discourse on torture in the United States in a larger context of debates on law and violence in liberal democracies. Then we focus on three other themes from Jinee Lokaneeta's book, Transnational Torture: Law, Violence, and State Power in the United States and India, that have implications for understanding torture and state violence in Sri Lanka and India: Colonial Continuities, Exception and the Norm, and the interventions of human rights groups.
The permanence of extraordinary laws such as Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), and Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) in India, and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in Sri Lanka has to be understood in relation to the British colonial interventions. Colonial policies introduced a “rule of law” alongside spaces for extraordinary acts enabling postcolonial states to implement repressive policies. The use of torture, custodial deaths, and disappearances in South Asia has to be addressed in this context.
The justification of diluted safeguards in extraordinary laws often relies on a distinction between a temporary exceptional legislation to address terrorism and a well protected routine criminal justice system. In India, it appears as if the exception or state of emergency has emerged either during particular periods (1975-77) or in certain areas more than the other (Kashmir and North East for example) but in Sri Lanka, the state of emergency has been existing for decades. The question is how do these specific histories help understand this distinction made between norm and exception and the integral relation between the two.
The human rights movements in both the countries have emerged in response to state violence but over time, groups such as Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC) and University Teachers for Human rights (UTHR) have been forced to address the violence of non state actors such as the Maoists and LTTE. How have they addressed the issue of human rights and human dignity particularly since the non state actors in question claim to represent the people fighting for social transformation and autonomy?
About the Book
Evidence of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and harsh interrogation techniques at Guantánamo Bay raise the question: has the “war on terror” forced liberal democracies to rethink their policies and laws against torture? Transnational Torture focuses on the legal and political discourses on torture in India and the United States—two common-law based constitutional democracies—to theorize the relationship between law, violence, and state power in liberal democracies.
Analyzing about one hundred landmark Supreme Court cases on torture in India and the United States, memos and popular imagery of torture, Jinee Lokaneeta compellingly demonstrates that even before recent debates on the use of torture in the war on terror, the laws of interrogation were much more ambivalent about the infliction of excess pain and suffering than most political and legal theorists have acknowledged. Rather than viewing the recent policies on interrogation as anomalous or exceptional, Lokaneeta effectively argues that efforts to accommodate excess violence—a constantly negotiated process—are long standing features of routine interrogations in both the United States and India, concluding that the infliction of excess violence is more central to democratic governance than is acknowledged in western jurisprudence.
About the Speakers
Jinee Lokaneeta is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at Drew University, New Jersey. Her areas of interest include Law and Violence, Human Rights, and State Violence in democracies. She has published in journals such as Studies in Law, Politics and Society; Economic and Political Weekly; Theory and Event; and Law, Culture, and Humanities. She is also a member of South Asia Solidarity Initiative, which is an organization based in the United States that stands in solidarity with progressive social movements and democratic politics in South Asia and in the US. Prior to coming to the US, she taught Political Science at Kirorimal College, Delhi University, India.
Ahilan Kadirgamar is an activist with the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, a member of the South Asia Solidarity Initiative in New York , a contributing editor for Himal Southasian and blogs on Kafila. He is interested in the political economy of South Asia and writes on questions of state and society in Sri Lanka in forums such as the Economic and Political Weekly, The Sunday Island and the newly formed Sri Lankan social justice magazine dissenting dialogues.