The death of two men in police custody in Bihar’s Sitamarhi district on 7 March was just one of many cases of custodial deaths reported every year in India. The details about the police having had tortured the men – Gufran Alam and Taslim Ansari, who were detained in a robbery and murder case – by driving nails into their thighs, soles and wrists were chilling.
As per the Criminal Procedure Code, an accused has to be given grounds of arrest and produced before a judge within 24 hours of being arrested. Additionally, another person needs to be informed of the accused’s arrest. The accused also has to be medically examined and recording of all minor and major injuries has to be made, apart from being examined every 48 hours of detention by a doctor.
This is in stark contrast to the case involving the two men who died in police custody, which saw the absence of any answers from the police from the day of their arrest till their bodies were handed over after conducting the postmortem.
The issue of custodial death assumed cross-border importance recently after a Pakistani prisoner Shakirullah died after being beaten up by other inmates at the Jaipur Central Jail, amid heightened India-Pakistan tensions, earlier this month.
Torture, however, has been reported in not just police custody, but in judicial custody too. According to statistics presented by the home ministry before the Rajya Sabha on 14 March 2018, 144 deaths in police custody and 1,530 deaths in judicial custody were reported in 2017-18. That amounts to five custodial deaths per day, with Uttar Pradesh alone accounting for 365 of these cases.
The combined judicial and police custody deaths stood at 1,761 and 1,821 in 2016-17 and 2015-16, respectively. The study of custodial deaths also revealed that more than 65 percent incidents were attributed to suicide, about 25 percent to mental shock and less than five per cent to police harassment, according to a report in Free Press Journal.
Torture of inmates saw no age bar, with juveniles being subjected to cruel practices, and marginalised communities have been a target too, according to a report by the Economic and Political Weekly. The 2015-16 National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Annual report, the article claimed, has confirmed that custodial violence remains rampant in India, representing "the worst form of excesses by public servants entrusted with the duty of law enforcement".
What is appalling is the nature of action taken against public servants accused of committing excesses on inmates. According to PTI, the only case since 2000 where atrocities committed by the police on inmates were dealt with strictly was in 2005 when the infamous Urutti Kola, a practice where a heavy wooden or iron log is rolled over a person’s body, was used while interrogating accused Udayakumar in connection with a theft case in Thiruvananthapuram. An autopsy found 22 injury marks on the man’s body. The two constables who subjected him to torture were awarded death penalties by a special CBI court.
In cases like the Sitamarhi deaths, the responsible officers were suspended. As were the eight cops accused of dereliction of duty in the case of the custodial death of a Dalit man on 28 December 2018 in Uttar Pradesh’s Amroha. In a judgement in the case of a youth who was held by the Maharashtra Police in a theft case in 1993, tied to an electric pole and beaten with sticks and found dead a few hours later, the Supreme Court enhanced the cops’ sentences from three to seven years.
The apex court asserted that such incidents erode people’s confidence in the criminal justice system, calling out the complete lawlessness demonstrated in the case.
What adds to the problem is the reluctance of the authorities in proper documentation of cases related to torture in custody. With the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) not documenting torture-related complaints, data relating to custodial deaths is available only through media reports or NHRC reports.
Is it then the lenient repercussions — in the form of suspension or transfer — and the government's lackadaisical approach to prisoners that results in a sense of impunity among the keepers of the law as they falter in fulfilling their responsibilities towards inmates?
While the CrPC defines the rights of an arrested person, the definition of torture does not include discrimination, which may often result in a prisoner committing suicide. While in various cases of custodial torture, perpetrators have been dealt with in accordance with the degree of torture meted out by them, there is a need to define the grades of punishment for such acts as well as compensation to a tortured prisoner. The importance of medical examination remains paramount in these cases and full disclosure of health reports then becomes a mandatory practice.
Besides, the UN Convention against Torture or Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT), which was signed by India in 1997, remains unratified.
The Prevention of Torture Bill was sent to a select committee in 2008, which presented a draft in Rajya Sabha in 2010. But it didn't move further. Six years later, after the Supreme Case sought India’s compliance with UNCAT, the Law Commission of India recommended the ratifying of the international treaty and also proposed the Prevention of Torture Bill 2017. The treaty remains unratified in 2019, leaving the security of undertrials and inmates hanging in the balance.
With inputs from PTI
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Updated Date: Mar 13, 2019 20:32:12 IST