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CCTV cameras in police stations: SC order in right spirit but may not work on ground

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The apex court order to have CCTVs in the centres may be an attempt to check police brutality, but it is not practical as torture often takes place in barracks, quarters and safe houses away from cameras.

By Rajbir Deswal

A new instrument has been roped in by the Supreme Court to check police brutality and illegal ways of interrogation by investigating agencies. However, it is yet to be seen if this will help the accused and victims in any way and strengthen the cause of human rights and civil liberties.

The Supreme Court has asked states and Union Territories to “ensure that CCTV cameras are installed in each and every Police Station functioning” in their respective limits and to store the recording for a minimum of one year. A bench of Justices RF Nariman, KM Joseph and Aniruddha Bose also asked the centre “to install CCTV cameras and recording equipment in the offices of” the CBI, NIA, ED, NCB, DRI, SFIO and “any other agency which carries out interrogations and has the power of arrest”. The ruling came on a plea by one Paramvir Singh Saini, who raised the issue of audio-video recording of statements of witnesses and installation of CCTVs in police stations.

I recall a saying prevalent in the historic Phillaur Police Training School of Punjab, which graduated into a Police Training Academy. It said: “Qile ki baat zile main nahin chalti; aur zile ki baat qile main nahin chalti (What is relevant in the training institution is not relevant in the field and vice versa.”) The irony of the statement speaks louder than its logic, though. In police procedures, there are many things that cannot be done according to the rule book. However strange this may sound, it is true if one goes by the practical aspect of police investigations and procedures which steer the case during a court trial. For this purpose, there is a special subject in all police training institutes: Practical Police Training.

The apex court order comes against the background of allegations of alleged torture by the police in order to not only secure information, but to cut short investigations. Of course, other vices such as corruption and highhandedness too are there.

The first Torture Commission was instituted as early as 1850 when the Madras Presidency witnessed instances of “thanas-in-charge” letting loose barbaric means on accused persons and criminals. Even the Police Commission of 1902 castigated the “unnecessary severity” with which accused persons were treated. Unfortunately, there has, till date, been no legal definition or explanation of “torture” in our legal system. The Domestic Violence Act and the Dowry Prohibition Act do talk about “mental torture”, but what has to be stressed first by prosecuting cops and courts is physical injury as a result of torture.

Lately, a need was felt to have a judicial inquiry against those police personnel accused of custodial deaths and the circumstances which led to them. The National Human Rights Commission too ordered every custodial death to be reported to them within 24 hours of taking place. CCTV cameras should keep an eye on all such practices, but only when they are carried out in front of them.

Going by the historical count, the epicentre of all kinds of torture in custody are the interrogations centres. The Supreme Court order on the need to have CCTV cameras installed in all interrogation centres is well-intentioned, but many have questioned the practicability of the idea.

Shankar Sen, former DGP of Odisha and former D-G of the Human Rights Commission of India, said: “It is difficult to expect that this new directive of the apex court to install CCTV cameras in police stations, police outposts and other interrogation centres will usher in a new dawn and put a stop to the adoption of third-degree methods by the police. Even now, to avoid public notice, police torture often takes place in barracks, quarters or safe houses. Thus, the installation of CCTVs, though a welcome check, will not do away with the evil practice unless there is strict surveillance and commitment by senior police officers.” He also emphasised the need to sensitise the police personnel so that they learn to respect human dignity and abjure use of force.

VN Rai, former Director, National Police Academy, Hyderabad, believes that the “Supreme Court’s directive to install video cameras in police stations, touches three essential handicaps in organised policing in India trust, transparency and torture. This would not be the first time that such a top-down approach was attempted by the Supreme Court to correct a long-standing policing fallacy. Arrest and bail are the other two notable areas where the apex court tried the same ‘issue expansive guidelines’ approach with little success.” He added: “To make such measures work, a new approach to police training that puts a premium on constitutional conditioning, would be required. Unfortunately, most police experts believe that the camera technology ordered will not give the desired results because of human factors. A comparison can be made with the US situation where even policemen equipped with body cameras indulge blatantly in racial killings and undue arrests.”

The police working style all over the country is almost the same. Sometimes it is necessitated by circumstances and sometimes, according to the police personnel’s convenience, whims and fancies. At times, even outside factors such as the fear of court admonitions, media bashing, anxiety to please seniors and technicalities involved in investigation are found to be the causes of the police not adhering to the rule book.

For example, there is a Register Number Two, called Roznaamcha, in every police station and police unit. This register notes down all the happenings in the police unit, including reporting, arrival, departure of staff, collecting samples, court appearances, inspections, acquisitions, arms and ammunition. This register is expected to run as per time. It cannot be late in recording anything and action is called for in case of any discrepancy on the part of the station house officer or the munshi of the police unit for its late running. But for many reasons, this is allowed even by senior officers.

I came across a case where three men had murdered a seven-year-old girl who stood witness to her elder sister’s rape by them. The accused, while serving sentence and on parole, killed the younger sister out of vengeance along with her father, mother and brother. None in the village came forward either to report the case or stand witness. The police brought the raped woman, who was married off in an adjoining state, “to report the case” with her husband, who stood witness to the entire crime. The Roznaamcha was made eight hours behind the faked reporting in order to make it look like a genuine reporting time so that the courts believed the prosecution version. However, two wrongs do not make a right, but with the courts giving so much of weightage to the reporting time, the prosecution finds tampering with the Roznaamcha an easy tool. Although deplorable, and not in keeping with the spirit of law and procedure, such aberrations keep on happening. It’s questionable if CCTV cameras can capture all this.

Aloke Lal, former DGP, Prisons of Uttarakhand and author of a best-selling novel, Narcos of Barabanki, firmly believes the Court order is impractical. He said: “The idea of installing CCTV cameras in police stations is a progressive one. The use of third degree and other forms of abuse will go down. The moot point is: will the admissibility of numerous statements under Section 161 of the CrPC be freshly looked at?” Incidentally, the Section says that any police officer investigating may orally examine any person supposed to be acquainted with the facts and circumstances of the case. Such a statement is admissible during trial. It is not to be signed by the accused or the witness since it will be hit by Section 162 of the CrPC. If a camera is there to record, will it be admissible as evidence? If so, is there then a need to look at the provisions of Section 161?

There would be a great amount of data that will be generated and it would be difficult to store and retrieve it. “Those who have the experience of computers will tell you how much data one CCTV can generate in 24 hrs. Multiply it with not only the total number of police stations, but other offices listed in the apex court order and then multiply them all with 365 days (the Court wants data to be retained for a year). Then multiply that by three as all data to be secured needs three geographically separated back-up locations. Add to this the cost of installation and maintenance of the CCTV cameras. An impractical order,” said Lal.

However, in a recent judgment, the Punjab & Haryana High Court ordered errant cops who wouldn’t bring on record the available CCTV footage to be booked.

Looks like the police is caught between the devil and the deep sea.

—The author is a retired IPS officer, an advocate, a columnist and a commentator

Read Also: Supreme Court stays criminal proceedings against Azim Premji, wife

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