By Veer Vikram Singh
Article 21 in the Constitution says every human being has a natural right to life but that is a travesty considering the number of custodial deaths in India. It is a practice that dates back to colonial times but has continued unabated after the adoption of the Constitution of India and Article 21. According to the India: Annual Report on Torture 2019, 125 people died under police custody and the most common forms of violence include electric shock, hammering nails in the body, applying chilly power on different parts of the body, branding with a hot iron, inserting rods in the parts of the body, forcing legs apart, hanging upside down and merciless beating. The most disconcerting aspect is that about 75 percent of these 125 deaths happened due to alleged torture or foul play, and about 20 percent died under suspicious circumstances that police cited as suicide.
Recently, we witnessed two very infamous cases—the custodial death of Manoj and the custodial death of Tihar inmate Ankit Gujjar which became a subject of prolonged debate. In the case of Ankit’s death, the Delhi High Court asked for a status report to be submitted before it by the Tihar jail authorities. In the other case, the Orissa High Court directed the state to pay compensation of Rs five lakh to the parents of Manoj. There have been a number of cases of custodial deaths where the court has issued directions for compensation.
Another case came to light when a father and his son were picked up for opening their mobile shop during lockdown last year in Tamil Nadu and tortured by the police in lock-up and died in custody. The worst part was that the judicial trial started after eight months when the CBI took over the case and charged nine policemen with allegation of murder. The chargesheet produced by CBI before the court gave graphic details about the torture, with P Jeyaraj and his son J Bennicks forced to bend over a wooden table wearing only their undergarments while beaten with lathis.
The Indian judiciary has given several guidelines from time to time to protect the fundamental rights of persons in police custody. Here are some examples:
- Joginder Kumar vs State Of UP and Others 1994
The Court issued the following guidelines:
1. The police officer shall inform the arrested person when he is brought to the police station about this right.
2. An entry shall be required to be made in the diary as to who was informed of the arrest.
3. It shall be the duty of the magistrate, before whom the arrested person is produced, to satisfy himself that these requirements have been complied with.
- Munshi Singh Gautam vs State of Madhya Pradesh, Appeal (Crl.) 919 of 1999
In this case, the Supreme Court observed: “The de-humanising torture, assault and death in custody which have assumed alarming proportions raise serious questions about the credibility of the rule of law and administration of the criminal justice system…the concern which was shown in Raghbir Singh case more than two decades back seems to have fallen on deaf ears and the situation does not seem to be showing any noticeable change. The anguish expressed in the cases of Bhagwan Singh vs State of Punjab, Pratul Kumar Sinha vs State of Bihar, Kewal Pati vs State of UP, Inder Singh vs State of Punjab, State of MP vs Shyamsunder Trivedi and by now celebrated decision in the landmark case of DK Basu vs State of West Bengal seems ‘not even to have caused any softening of attitude in the inhuman approach in dealing with persons in custody’.”
- Yashwant And Others vs State of Maharashtra (2018)
The Supreme Court upheld the conviction of nine policemen of the Maharashtra Police in connection with a custodial death case and extended their jail terms from three to seven years each. While enhancing the prison term of the policemen, the apex court held: “With great power comes greater responsibility,” The police personnel were found guilty under Section 330 of the Indian Penal Code which involves voluntarily causing hurt to extort confession or to compel restoration of property. In the case of Paramvir Singh Saini vs Baljit Singh, the court ordered the installation of CCTV cameras with night vision in every police station and said that all interrogation should be in-camera proceeding.
Another annual report of 2020 published by the National Campaign Against Torture (NCAT) states that despite the lockdown from March 24 to July 31, 2020, India witnessed an increase in custodial deaths during the year and over one suicide every week because of alleged torture and violence in police custody. Recently the data shared by Nityanand Rai, union minister of state for home, showed that during detention from 2017-19, 1,189 persons were found to be tortured while 348 lost their lives in police encounters. This data is based on the information received from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). A total of 112 people in 2019 and 100 in 2020 died in police custody. Additionally, 542 people were tortured in police custody in 2018, 411 in 2019 and 236 in 2020. According to an official government statement: “Police stations are increasingly becoming centres for suicide due to alleged torture. At least one person commits suicide every week due to alleged police torture. In 2020, the NCAT recorded 55 deaths by suicide as a result of police torture i.e. more than one suicide per week because of torture in police custody.”
It is high time that the centre takes the lead in curbing these inhuman and illegal activities by the force created to protect the people. In a civilised nation, the legislature, judiciary and executive need to come together to protect citizens from custodial torture and deaths. Only if justice is done and seen to be done, can we establish the rule of law and achieve the true spirit of the Constitution.
—The writer is Assistant Professor, Jaipur National University