Like many Kashmiri men before him, Rizwan Asad Pandit was picked up from his house for questioning. His eventual death in police custody has set in motion a chain of events, beginning from outrage among people and ending in an inquiry now being undertaken by the Jammu and Kashmir Police. The imagined trauma of a school teacher suffering in a camp of the state police's Special Operations Group (SOG) may have stirred civil society once again, yet Pandit's is neither the first custodial death in India, nor is it a sudden jolt in a system we believed was different.
Rizwan is another example of the ritual crackdown on Kashmiris who are vaguely separatist. In a state already saturated with armed forces keeping no one above question, Rizwan had ties to the Jamaat-e-Islaami, and such organisations have been on the receiving end of law enforcement's renewed suspicion. Mainstream politicians like Omar Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti and Sajad Lone have all condemned the return of this inescapable threat to the Valley.
In 2007, Tarsain Lal of Jammu district's Makwal village got into a what reports said was a small quarrel with a neighbour, but was picked up by the Jammu and Kashmir Police soon after. In a few days, Lal's body was returned to his family, with the police maintaining that he died of natural causes. Protests rose to such a crescendo that then chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad ordered the suspension and arrest of four policemen involved in his arrest and murder.
The same year, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court stayed trial court proceedings in the case of 21-year-old Zahoor Ahmad Sofi, who was picked up by the police from Brar village and subsequently killed in yet another SOG camp at Bandipora in 2006.
Sofi worked at a BEd college, was in custody for 13 days, at the end of which he had suffered three internal injuries, a ruptured left kidney and a haemorrhaging right kidney, Kashmir Reader had reported. Two police officers had been jailed for killing Sofi.
A PTI report from 2018 notes that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had registered nearly 1,680 cases of custodial deaths in India in a period of 10 months between 1 April, 2017, and 28 February, 2018. Of them, 1,530 were deaths that occurred in judicial custody, and 144 of them took place while the victims were in police custody.
"Custodial violence and torture continue to be rampant in the country. It represents the worst form of excesses by public servants entrusted with the duty of law enforcement," the report said.
A similar report by the American NGO Human Rights Watch looked at the period between 2012 and 2015. In that period, as many as 591 men and women died in police custody in India, as per government figures alone.
The figure is already high, even though it does not include the number of people who died under mysterious circumstances like alleged encounters. The death of Khalid Muzaffar Wani, the elder brother of former Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, in 2015 is one such example. Khalid was killed by the Indian Army in Tral, in what was publicised as an encounter with militants, but chances are slim that there had been an encounter at all.
One of the most important reasons why the lines are forever blurred in favour of the perpetrators in this regard, notes the Economic and Political Weekly, is that there has been no consistent documentation of police torture-related complaints.
The National Crime Records Bureau does not document cases of custodial torture, the report highlights. The NHRC does deal with cases of torture in custody, but the annual figures related to such cases do not get included in its reports.
Like Rizwan, most of the people who have died in police custody are political activists. Kalimpong Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) leader Barun Bhujel, who had been in the custody of the West Bengal Police since June 2015, died in October that year, with The Indian Express noting that there were rumours of a delay in giving the 40-year-old medical treatment.
The EPW report highlights how "anti-GAIL protestors in Kozhikode, Dalits protesting against violence during Bhima Koregaon celebrations and anti-Sterlite protesters in Tuticorin were all subjected to illegal detentions, mass arrests and torture in police custody".
Battles in courts
In the absence of legislation to provide recourse to those who suffer and die in police custody, the Supreme Court has long since tried to act as a watchdog. The process began in 1987, when one Suman Behera was taken from his house in Odisha's Sundargarh district for petty thieving. The day was 1 December. On 2 December, his mother Nilabati came to know that Suman's body had been found on the railway tracks. She wrote a simple letter to the Supreme Court, which the country's highest judicial authority took note of.
In several cases, like that of Rudul Sah (who was kept in jail for 14 years since his acquittal) and Sebastian M Hongray (the case wherein two villagers were held by armymen in Manipur's Huining village for no apparent reason) , the apex court attempted to right those wrongs that no sitting Bill or Act could.
In 2008, a Prevention of Torture Bill was introduced in Parliament, but it was sent to a select committee for further review. The committee's draft was presented in the Upper House in 2010, where it has been stuck ever since.
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Updated Date: Mar 21, 2019 08:46:53 IST