In a country where custodial deaths & torture have been normalised, its a whistle-blower who gets ‘exemplary punishment’

Custodial torture has been glorified for most of free India’s history. Right from mainstream films with hyper-masculine protagonists eager to “take law in their hands” and to deliver justice without delay, without following procedures. T sections of the the print media, which never questions excesses committed by the people in uniform. In India, unfortunately, the police has been known to bypass arrest procedures and even, sometimes, if not often, torture suspects in custody to death.


A recent RTI reply from the office of the State Police Headquarters in Cuttack, Odisha, since 2016-2017, showed that a total of 868 complaints had been received against erring police officials from the rank of constables to Inspectors of Police who are mostly confined to their particular police stations and deal with the public directly. However, the same RTI reply indicates that when it came to disciplinary actions, the total number of police officials in the state against whom disciplinary actions were taken for misbehaviour with public in 2016 and 2017 stood at “zero”. The report noted, “In a clear hint of ‘all is not well’ with the department, the self-admission of the police department now hints that many errant police officials ranging from the ranks of constables to Indian Police Service (IPS) cadres had been booked on the counts of bad behaviour and other charges.”

In 2016, a total of 439 such cases were registered, while in 2017, a total of 429 such cases were registered, which included 21 complaints against “top honchos”.

In this overall scenario, the recent conviction of ex-IPS Officer Sanjiv Bhatt on June 20, with life imprisonment in a 30 year old alleged custodial death case has once again brought the question of accountability in the police machinery to the forefront. This area has remained a black hole, where not only is it nearly impossible to bring any of the police officials responsible for a crime to justice, but also it’s equally difficult to access data or information on the subject. Bhatt’s case is also mired in allegations of political vendetta as the same state government that rigorously prosecuted him over the past seven years, had protected him against prosecution till 2011.

The Times of India today reported how, in India saw 1,557 custodial deaths between 2001 and 2016, the last year for which data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) is available. Over these 16 years, the number of policemen convicted for custodial deaths is a mere 26, the vast majority of them in Uttar Pradesh. Data compiled from editions of NCRB’s annual publication ‘Crime in India’ shows that over this 16-year period, the largest number of custodial deaths, 362, happened in Maharashtra followed by Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Gujarat stands at number 3 with 180 custodial deaths in this period, with no officer being convicted for these crimes. These were the only states with over 100 custodial deaths each. Of these, only in the case of UP were there any convictions. UP witnessed 17 policemen being convicted for custodial deaths. None of the other four, including Gujarat, seen even one policemen being convicted for people dying in custody during this period. The government of India has simply stopped uploading data on this and other issues since 2016.

Custodial crimes and complaints against police personnel
Custodial death is the event of demise of an individual, who has been detained by the police on being convicted or being under trial.  According to the latest available National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB, 2016) data available, in a total number of 92 cases of custodial deaths (which included both persons on remand and not on remand), zero number of policemen were convicted. Of the 60 custodial deaths that took place when the person was in custody but not on remand (before being produced in court), less than a third saw cases registered against police personnel in connection with deaths and a sixth saw a charge sheet being filed against the accused policemen/officers.

Further, per NCRB, of the 32 total deaths while the person was in custody (judicial or police), a judicial enquiry was ordered in 28 cases. Only in six incidents, cases were registered against police personnel in connection with deaths. In 14 of these cases, policemen were charge sheeted and but all were acquitted.

In all, there were 209 cases of “Human Rights Violation by Police” (page number 536), only in one fourth of these cases “police personnel were charge sheeted” but there were zero convictions.

A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted, “While Indian police typically blame deaths in custody on suicide, illness, or natural causes, family members of victims frequently allege that the deaths were the result of torture or other ill-treatment.” In 2015, police registered cases against fellow police officers in only 33 of the 97 deaths in police custody. Satyabrata Pal, until 2014 a member of the National Human Rights Commission, told Human Rights Watch, “The entire intention in a police internal investigation is to whitewash.”

The 114 page report, “Bound by Brotherhood: India’s failure to End Killings in Police Custody” noted that between 2010 and 2015, there were at least 591 custodial deaths.

While the NCRB report for the year 2016 placed total number of custodial deaths at 98, another report titled “Torture Update: India” published by Asian Centre of Human Rights (ACHR) in June 2018 said that while replying to a question in Rajya Sabha, the Minister of State for Home Affairs, Hansraj Gangaram Ahir stated that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) registered a total of 1674 cases of custodial deaths including 1530 deaths in judicial custody and 144 deaths in police custody between April 1, 2017 and February 28, 2018. This placed the numbers at a worrying five deaths per day in custody!

The Supreme Court, in March 2018, while hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) had said “Prisoners can’t be kept at in jails like animals” after it was informed that many of the over 1300 prisons across the country were overcrowded, to as much as 600 percent in some cases.

The ACHR report noted, “During this period (1 April 2017- 28 February 2018), the highest number of custodial deaths took place in Uttar Pradesh (374) followed by Maharashtra (137), West Bengal (132), Punjab (128), Madhya Pradesh (113), Bihar (109), Rajasthan (89), Tamil Nadu (76), Gujarat (61), Odisha (56), Jharkhand (55), Chhattisgarh (54), Haryana (48), Delhi (47), Assam (37), Andhra Pradesh (35), Uttarakhand and Telangana (17 each), Karnataka (15), Himachal Pradesh (8), Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura (6 each), Jammu & Kashmir and Meghalaya (4 each), Mizoram (3), Manipur, Chandigarh, Sikkim and Nagaland (2 each). The States and Union Territories where no custodial death took place are Goa, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Andaman & Nicobar, Daman & Diu, Lakshadweep, and Puducherry.”

Even other countries have feared extraditing prisoners back to the country for the fear of torture. India refuses to ratify the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT). A Bill to statutorily prevent torture following international recommendations and the recommendations of the Indian Law Commission has been pending in Parliament since 2010.

While successive governments have remained callous about the status of torture, Indian prisons and custodial death, the sudden extraordinary punishment awarded to Bhatt, a visible critique of the current regime and a whistle-blower does ring an alarm bell. Not only could this conviction be rooted in political vendetta, but also it does grave injustice to the situation of hundreds and thousands under-trials, mostly Dalits, Muslims, Adivasis, Kashmiris lodged in Indian jails without seeing so much as a ray of light in their cramped cells.




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