The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Whip after US rights trip

Calcutta, Nov. 12: A seemingly innocuous visit by a US state department official to the office of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission has embroiled the panel in an unseemly spat initiated by the government.

The “verbal instruction” — that the commission should inform the government before meeting anyone from the office of a foreign consulate — following the “discussion” the panel’s brass had with the US official did not go down well with those at the helm of the rights body.

“The person who came to me had some queries regarding an issue on which we were keeping track,” rights panel chairman Justice Mukul Gopal Mukherjee told The Telegraph. “I didn’t see any harm in helping someone working on issues similar to our concerns,” he said, responding to the government’s missive.

It all started with a US global affairs officer visiting the commission’s headquarters at Bhawani Bhavan earlier this month with questions on trafficking in women and children in the state.

“I met her at my office in the presence of other commission officials,” Mukherjee said. All the questions revolved around “immoral trafficking”, he added.

“What’s wrong if I know of the present status of the problem and tell someone what I know'” Mukherjee asked. “The person whom we met was not part of any investigating team and did not venture outside her brief.”

United States Information Service director Rex Moser, too, felt the visit was a “routine one”. “The global affairs officer was new to her assignment and she just wanted to get acquainted with the situation and introduce herself to contacts who would be of help in her job,” he said.

The visit, however, sent the government’s intelligence antennae cracking. Coming as it did less than two years after another “fact-finding” mission from the consulate (to Nanoor in Birbhum, where 11 landless farmers and Trinamul Congress supporters were lynched allegedly by CPM cadre in the run-up to the 2001 Assembly polls), the government went on an overdrive.

One of the seniormost officials in the government called up the commission’s office last week, asking it to henceforth intimate the government — and seek permission — before meeting anyone from a foreign consular corps. But all state human rights commissions are independent bodies not answerable to state governments, members argued.

It is not possible to intimate the government before every meeting with persons referred by a consulate, commission officials said. Besides, the incident over which the government chose to make the brouhaha was not an investigation by a foreign government. “It was a discussion where more than one person representing the commission was present,” one of the members said.

Though state chief secretary S.N. Roy would not comment on the issue, a senior home department official said the government responded with alacrity because it was concerned at rights groups’ attempts to make the arrest of a large number of political prisoners an issue.

“...The government wanted to make sure that the issue of Naxalites in prison did not go outside the state,” a commission member said.

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