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Why Satnam Singh, a bipolar patient, died in custody

The profile picture on the Justice for Satnam page on Facebook is that of 23-year-old Satnam Singh, a former student of the Bishop Cotton School, Shimla and an undergraduate student of National Law University (RMLNLU), Lucknow, who reportedly had to discontinue studies as he developed psychosis and bipolar disorder. It’s like any other Facebook-worthy picture – goofy smile, closely cropped and hardly indicative of anything else about the person.

Only, Satnam, who according to an Indian Express report had gone missing from his Gaya home on May 30, was arrested from a meeting of religious leader Mata Amritanandamayi in Kollam, Kerala on charges of attempting to murder her. Four days later, on 6 August, Singh was found dead in a mental hospital in Thiruvananthapuram with more than 30 injury marks on his body.

Satnam Singh. Image courtesy: Facebook page.

The Facebook page, formed by acquaintances and shocked sympathizers, quotes his brother Vimal Singh as saying that the injury marks on the deceased’s body seemed like ones made by hot iron rods. The police, according to the page, even after realizing and declaring that Satnam was of ‘unsound mind’, allegedly meted out third degree torture.

Satnam was reportedly chanting ‘Bismillah Rehman O Rahim’, an Arabic chant when he was caught. According to a Bar and Bench article by Raghul Sudheesh, the Mental Health Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, where Satnam died, confirmed noticing injury marks on his body at the time of admission but didn’t carry out the mandatory examination of the injuries. Presumably, because Satnam was shifted from a ‘criminal ward’ of a hospital and was, by then, held guilty by the police of conspiring to murder the religious leader.

While Satnam’s death was unfortunate, it is far from surprising in a country, which has next to no medical support infrastructure for people suffering from mental disorders like him. The National Human Rights Commission in 1999 conducted a survey of institutionalised mental healthcare and concluded there are just two types of privately and publicly funded hospitals for mental health in India – one, which is more of a ‘dumping ground’ for the mentally ill, where patients languish under deplorable living conditions and families conveniently get them off their backs and another one, which is more of a better-equipped foster home, with food and matrons, but no real treatment.

An article published in India Together recounts how 28 inmates of a home died in Tamil Nadu in 2001 after their building caught a fire – they couldn’t try escaping as they were chained together.

In an article published by the Indian Council for Medical Research suggesting changes to the Mental Health Act 1987 points out how the act doesn’t tackle how emergency treatment might be extended to people suffering from mental disorders, making it evident that mental health, takes up the last rung in the hierarchy of medical priorities. It’s important to note here that Satnam was rushed to the mental care centre after he reportedly went out of control in the general hospital.

There are just five functional Mental Health Authorities in India– the number never went up due to lack of resources.

Section 84 of the Indian Penal Code of 1860 provides "Nothing is an offence which is done by a person who, at the time of doing it, by reason of unsoundness of mind,  incapable of knowing the nature of the act, or that he is doing what is either wrong of contrary to law." However, in the lack of strong supporting laws to rein in police tyranny, Satnam got anything but a fair trial.

Parakram Kakkar, Satnam’s friend, told Bar and Bench, “I don’t know how to react.” So don't mental health facilities of India, when they are needed.

 

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