Death behind bars: Justice through the Indian Courts as cases spiral

High Court orders Jharkhand government to pay damages of Rs 5 lakhs the in custodial death of Umesh Singh; Singh was implicated in a case related to protests against the heavy blasting in mines, which had caused damage to his house and other dwellings in the locality, reported The Telegraph
Representational Image | : Getty images

CJP’s legal resource into Indian jurisprudence by Constitutional Courts in cases of custodial death

A petition was filed by the deceased victim’s wife[1], Babita praying for an investigation into her husband’s death by the CBI as well as compensation for herself and her children to the tune of Rs. 10 lakhs.

According to Babita Devi’s advocate Shadab Ansari, Umesh Singh was arrested in June 2015 by Pawan Singh, the munshi of the Ghanudih police outpost, at the command of Harinarayan Ram, the officer-in-charge of the Ghanudih Outpost under the Tisra police station in the Jharia block of the Dhanbad district.

Umesh Singh was charged in a case involving protests over the frequent mine blasting that had damaged his home and other structures nearby. The court was informed that Umesh Singh’s body was found nearby Ghanuadih Joria after his family frantically sought him out when he failed to return home the following morning. His body had sustained severe injuries, and he was just wearing underpants, the court was informed. It was also claimed that, as the family confirmed in a video recording, the deceased’s shirt was discovered in the lockup of the police station. Obviously, it appears that this was a case of custodial torture.

At the Jharia police station, Babita Devi filed a FIR against Harinarayan Ram, Pawan Singh, Satendra Kumar, and unnamed police officers; however, the court was informed that the investigating officer failed to record the petitioners’ testimony for more than a year and a half.

Justice delayed is justice denied?

The court in the judgement, acknowledged that fatalities in custody constitute a breach of human rights. It acknowledged that the deceased’s passing away while under the custody of the police constituted a custodial death. This implies that the deceased’s death was caused by the police’s conduct or negligence, which violates his or her right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Chief Judicial Magistrate’s (CJM) judicial investigation and its conclusions were taken into account by the court. According to the CJM’s inquiry report, the deceased was discovered dead while under police custody, substantiating the accusation of a death in custody. This report was performed by a judicial body and included evidence to support the claims, thus the court gave it considerable weight.

The court also recognised the significance of awarding damages in situations involving custodial deaths. It made reference to a plan outlining the process for allocating compensation in such circumstances. The court emphasised that compensation becomes necessary in proceedings under Article 226 of the Constitution when basic rights are violated. This demonstrates the court’s dedication to making sure the victims or their families receive fair compensation for having their rights violated. The court therefore, awarded the family of the victim 5,00,000 rupees.

The court ensured through its judgement that the situation qualifies for a public remedy. This refers to circumstances where the court utilizes its power under Article 226 of the Constitution to grant appropriate remedies in situations that affect the public more broadly. The court asserted its jurisdiction and authority to pass orders that address the violation of human rights, grant compensation, and ensure accountability in the interest of justice.

The police officers accountable for the death in custody must now face departmental charges, per the court’s directive. Internal disciplinary actions taken by the police department to hold personnel accountable for their conduct or carelessness are known as departmental proceedings. The court emphasized the distinction and independence between criminal and disciplinary proceedings. According to the evidence and circumstances surrounding the custodial death, it was indicated that departmental processes should be started, and if proven guilty, action should be taken against the errant officials. Unfortunately, as is want in such cases, no criminal charges for loss of life have been directed by the High Court.

If the errant police officials are proven guilty, the court permitted the State to reclaim the awarded compensation amount from them. This implies that the State has the power to collect the compensation sum from the police officials if the departmental or criminal processes show their liability. This clause makes sure that individuals accountable for the custodial death bear the financial burden of compensation rather than the State or taxpayers.

Human rights recognition and protection are at the centre of this lawsuit. The intrinsic rights of every person to life, liberty, and dignity are unquestionably recognised by the court. It emphasises how gravely these fundamental rights are violated when people die while they are being held captive. The case draws attention to this problem and highlights the pressing need to protect human rights, especially in the context of interactions between law enforcement and people in detention.

The court’s order to begin departmental procedures against the police officers accountable for the prisoner’s death is a crucial element of this case. This emphasises the urgent requirement to make law enforcement personnel responsible for their acts. By doing this, the court emphasises the idea that no one is above the law, regardless of their status. This ruling sends a strong message that misbehaviour or negligence that results in custodial deaths won’t be allowed and that those accountable must suffer the necessary repercussions.

The pursuit of justice and the defence of human rights continue to be hampered by the distressing reality of custodial deaths, which occurs throughout societies all over the world. Even if the case in question is a recent one, it is important to recognise the vast number of other, very similar cases that have troubled the Indian court system. These examples draw attention to the protracted delays in delivering justice, which cause the relatives of the deceased great damage.

The grief endured by the families left behind is made worse by how long it takes to resolve cases of custodial death. Their anguish is exacerbated, their grief is extended, and their trust in the judicial system is damaged by the drawn-out legal proceedings. It is impossible to emphasise the emotional, psychological, and financial toll that these families have experienced. As time stretches on, their struggle for closure and accountability becomes an enduring battle. 

Other recent custodial death cases

According to data from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, Gujarat has topped the list of Indian states with the most number of custodial deaths during the past five years. According to the official data, Gujarat reported 80 incarceration fatalities during this time, with the numbers rising yearly. Only in 2021–2022 did the state record 24 deaths while in custody.[2]

According to information submitted in the Rajya Sabha by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), there has been a nationwide increase in the number of deaths while under the custody of the police of over 60% over the past three years and 75% over the past two years.

The data also showed that in Maharashtra, the number of such cases increased by a startling ten times, in Kerala and Bihar, by three times, and in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, and Karnataka, by two times.[3]

The terrible deaths of a father and son duo while they were being held in jail in Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin district outraged the country and attracted attention from around the world. The event started when J. Bennix, the proprietor of a small mobile phone store, received a warning from the police for keeping his store open past the curfew set in place because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Bennix allegedly got into a fight with the police, which resulted in the arrest and detention of his father P. Jayaraj.

According to eyewitnesses, Bennix was severely beaten by the police in front of his friends, who were present when the incident occurred. Both the father and the child were covered in blood due to the severity of the assault. According to family members, Bennix endured additional torture, including the insertion of a baton into his anus, which caused uncontrollable bleeding. Jayaraj received numerous shoe-toe kicks to the chest. They were hauled to a magistrate without receiving medical care despite their wounds. The pair was booked into a nearby sub-jail after being accused of several crimes under the Indian Penal Code. However, as their health declined, they were only sent to the hospital after it was already too late.[4]

Police nabbed two people by the names of Vignesh and Suresh on April 18, 2022, while conducting a vehicle check. They were found to be in possession of marijuana and liquor bottles by the police. Doctors declared Vignesh dead the following day, which led to questions regarding the circumstances of his passing. The police said that Vignesh had died due to a seizure, however on investigation it was found that he was mercilessly beaten to death. Six police officers implicated in the death in custody were detained after a comprehensive investigation.

The District Magistrate remanded the accused officials to judicial prison. They were accused of violating both the SC/ST Atrocities Act and Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with murder. An autopsy report that revealed numerous injuries and fractures on the body of the 25-year-old victim served as the foundation for the police officials’ arrest. Numerous bruises, especially on the victim’s head, along with deep muscle injuries, swelling, contusions, and wounds on the arms were noted in the report.

This case emphasises the tragic custodial death incident and the subsequent steps taken to conduct an investigation and prosecute those involved. The degree of the victim’s injuries were determined by the autopsy report, which led to questions about police brutality and the demand for accountability in law enforcement. A step has been taken towards addressing the problem and ensuring the victim receives justice with the arrest and charge of the involved police officers.[5]

The list of these cases just go on and on. The NHRC’s figures show a worrying trend of rising deaths while in custody. This information is concerning because Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees everyone the fundamental right to life. The severity of the problem is increased when a law enforcement agency neglects its responsibility to protect life. According to the NCRB’s 2018 prison report, 149 deaths in custody were ascribed to non-natural causes, and some deaths were classified as unknown as a result of insufficient reporting from some states. Suicides made up a sizable fraction of these fatalities, raising concerns regarding whether the prisoners were forced to commit suicide or did so voluntarily to escape additional abuse and torture.

Prisoners’ psychological health is frequently ignored, and there is insufficient psychiatric treatment available to help them deal with the stress and trauma they experience. The poor circumstances inside prisons only make the problem worse. The medical care provided to convicts falls short of acceptable standards, and violent confrontations between prisoners occur often and frequently result in death. Inmates’ physical suffering exacerbates their emotional suffering, which has a detrimental effect on their wellbeing. To defend the fundamental human right to life, state authorities should make sure that these necessities are met.

A person who has been detained shall only be subjected to a reasonable degree of force and should not be restrained longer than is necessary to prevent escape, according to Section 49 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. However, police officers routinely violate these standards and use excessive force. Since the police are frequently in charge of the investigation in situations involving custodial deaths, they have the potential to tamper with the evidence and cover up such incidents on paper.

The absence of systemic accountability and transparency is one of the main causes of police brutality and deaths in custody. Due to a lack of adequate systems for investigation, monitoring, and holding the accountable, instances of police misconduct and abuse frequently go unreported and unpunished. Such occurrences are continually occurring because of a culture of impunity fueled by ineffective oversight and poor application of the laws that are in place.

The employment of coercive techniques during interrogations is another element. Sometimes, the police violate the rights of the accused and the norms of due process by using torture and other unlawful approaches to coerce information or confessions. In addition to violating human rights, this compromises the fairness of the criminal justice system. Article 20(3) states that no one may be forced to testify against themselves. It is an extremely important law since it prevents the accused from confessing when they are forced or tortured into doing so. Police are allowed to question suspects under Section 161 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, but if they employ pressure to extract information from a suspect during an investigation, it is considered compelled testimony. Forced testimony is not taken into consideration since it violates Article 20(3).

Article 21 is the fundamental right to life enshrined upon us by the Constitution of India, the situation of the prisons and police brutality is taking away this fundamental right and then awarding petty amounts in the form of compensation, more than half of these custodial deaths are not even reported as they are committed by law enforcement officials, this gives them an easy way out, as they can tamper with the evidence.

The rise in custodial deaths can be partly ascribed to the lack of strict punishments meted out to those involved in the past and the absence of well-defined precedents. To maintain accountability and stop law enforcement officials from abusing their authority, a clear precedent must be set.

What the constitutional courts of India have to say about Custodial deaths and compensation in such cases-

In the landmark case of DK Basu v. Union of India[6] it was held that the custodial death of a person breaches their fundamental rights and is unlawful. When a right is protected by the State, recourse must be sought against the State if the constitutional requirement established has not been met. According to legal interpretations, Article 21 ensures the right to life, personal liberty, and the ability to live in dignity. As a result, it also contains a protection against abuse by the State or its agents, such as torture.

Article 22 guarantees protection from arrest and detention. It states that no one who has been arrested may be held in jail without knowing the reason(s) for their arrest and that they are not to be denied the opportunity to speak with and be represented by a lawyer of their choosing. Article 20 (3) provides that a person accused of an offence shall not be compelled to be a witness against himself or herself. The guidelines issued by the court were as follows-

  1. Police personnel must wear visible identification and maintain a register of personnel involved in the arrest and interrogation process.
  2. A memorandum of arrest should be prepared at the time of arrest, witnessed by a family member or respectable person, and signed by the detainee, including the time and date of the arrest.
  3. The arrested person has the right to inform a friend, relative, or someone interested in their well-being about the arrest.
  4. The police must notify the detainee’s next friend or relative outside the district or city about the time, place of detention, and custody.
  5. The arrested person must be informed of their right to have someone notified about their arrest or detention.
  6. The arrest details, including the name of the informed next friend and custody details, must be recorded in the Case Diary at the place of detention.
  7. A medical examination should be conducted at the time of arrest, recording any injuries, and an inspection memo must be signed by both the detainee and arresting officer.
  8. The detainee must undergo a medical examination every 48 hours by a trained physician.
  9. Copies of all relevant documents, including the arrest memo, must be sent to the Magistrate for registration.
  10. The detainee may be allowed to meet their attorney during the interrogation but not throughout.
  11. Police Control Rooms should be established for communication of arrest and custody information within 12 hours after the arrest.

The court also acknowledged that there is a need for compensation when someone’s fundamental rights have been violated.

Every time a person is injured and hurt, the law mandates that they have a way to seek redress in accordance with the idea of Ubi jus, ibi remedium, which translates to there is no wrong without a remedy. A mere declaration of invalidity or acknowledgement of custodial brutality or death is insufficient to offer a meaningful remedy when someone’s fundamental right to life has been violated. There must be other actions taken.

Although the Indian Constitution does not specifically mention compensation for violations of the fundamental right to life, the Supreme Court has established the right to compensation through its judicial rulings. This indicates that the court has acknowledged that the injured person is entitled to receive compensation as a kind of remedy in situations where there is a proven unconstitutional impairment of personal liberty or life.

In the case of Munshi Singh Gautam v. State of M.P[7] the court recognised that torture carried out by law enforcement officers is a serious offence that threatens civilised society by undermining citizens’ basic rights and human dignity. It promotes the notion among police that they may avoid responsibility because there isn’t any concrete proof. Direct evidence of police involvement in incidents of police torture or deaths in custody is frequently lacking because police officers frequently choose to keep quiet or tell lies to shield their coworkers. When prosecuting agencies themselves are involved, the prosecution’s stringent adherence to the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt can occasionally result in a miscarriage of justice.

If action is not taken to solve this problem, the judiciary and the criminal justice system may become less trustworthy in the eyes of the general populace, which will erode trust in the system. Because there is generally little direct proof or documentation of the acts, conviction rates for crimes involving police atrocities are sometimes low.

The Law Commission has suggested changes to the Indian Evidence Act that would transfer the burden of proof in these situations to the police officers. To reduce custody crimes, assure responsibility, and provide victims justice, the executive branch, legislature, and courts must act decisively. To ensure the truth is revealed and those responsible are held accountable, courts handling custodial crime cases should use a pragmatic and considerate approach rather than a restricted technical one.

This ruling highlights the necessity of broad structural changes, a shift in mindset, and the pursuit of justice and the truth in situations of custodial offences.

In the case of Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons, In re[8] it was held that-

  1. Even if a person is found not guilty after a trial, they are still entitled to compensation if they were unlawfully held. Compensation can be ordered to be given to the missing person’s relatives in circumstances of disappearances while they are in jail.
  2. The right to compensation has been developed by the courts in situations of unconstitutional impairment of life or personal liberty, notwithstanding the Constitution’s lack of an explicit provision for it.
  3. The State is held vicariously accountable for public employees’ violations of the fundamental right to life, and monetary compensation is a reasonable and practical remedy.
  4. Sovereign immunity is not an acceptable defence, and the strict liability principle is in effect. The State is obligated to make the payment and may pursue restitution against the perpetrator.
  5. The precise facts of each case will determine the amount of compensation given. The amount of compensation isn’t determined by a set formula.
  6. Traditional remedies are not replaced by the relief granted by the court to address the violation of fundamental rights; rather, it supplements them. Any damages granted in a civil lawsuit may be offset against the compensation determined by the court and paid by the State.

However, in the same case the court has recognised that Custodial death is seen as a crime, therefore providing financial relief to the deceased person’s heirs is not the sole suitable relief.

There is a requirement for a sympathetic review of every prison. Violence against prisoners is a serious issue in civilised societies. Custodial violence in any form is repugnant and is condemned by all facets of society. People in positions of power need to be especially sensitive to those who are being held in captivity. Even though the results may have been inconsistent, the constitutional courts have constantly highlighted this issue.

The case of Prabhavathiamma v. the State of Kerala and others [9] involved the passing away of a scrap metal worker who was being held in detention in Thiruvananthapuram. The CBI Court subsequently gave the two accused service personnel the death penalty after a decade-long trial in the case. Justice Nazar stated that the police officers violently murdered the victim and damaged the police institution’s credibility.

The judge also ruled that pardoning such severe crimes was not an option since doing so would undermine public safety and encourage police to utilise their authority in arbitrary ways. Death sentences are a type of punishment that are rarely given, however in this case, the Bench made its decision based on the seriousness of the offence committed.

In conclusion, the issue of custodial deaths in India is a serious human rights violation and a cause for grave concern. The examples discussed here focus light on the terrible reality of custodial deaths and the pressing need for institutional reforms, justice, and accountability.

Custodial deaths are have been recognised by India’s constitutional courts as being illegal and a violation of fundamental rights. As a remedy to redress these transgressions, they have emphasised the significance of providing compensation to victims or their relatives. In order to prevent police brutality and guarantee the protection of those in detention, the courts have also emphasised the need for structural improvements, improved oversight, and a mental shift.

These decisions highlight the value of in-depth investigations, departmental actions against erring police officers, and a strong precedence to prevent such tragedies. Even in the absence of a specific constitutional provision, the courts have emphasised the State’s vicarious accountability and need to pay damages.

Police wrongdoing and the rising incidence of deaths while in custody call for immediate reform. To prevent mistreatment and torture while in custody, adequate protections must be put in place, such as identification of police officers, accurate record-keeping, medical examinations, and communication with family members. A culture of impunity must be eradicated, and those responsible must receive severe punishment.

Systematic improvements, such as improved training for law enforcement authorities, increased transparency, and the development of independent supervision mechanisms, are required to truly guarantee the fundamental right to life and dignity. Building a criminal justice system that upholds the values of justice, accountability, and respect for human rights should be the objective.

In the end, the judicial, executive, and legislative departments of the government must work together to pursue justice in situations of custodial deaths. India can safeguard the protection of its citizens’ rights and restore faith in the legal system by cooperating to address this pressing issue.

All the judgements cited may be read here:

  1. Babita Devi and Ors Versus The State of Jharkhand
  2. Dilip K. Basu v. State of W.B., (1997) 6 SCC 642
  3. Munshi Singh Gautam v. State of M.P., (2005) 9 SCC 631
  4. Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons, In re, (2017) 10 SCC 658
  5. J. Prabhavathiamma v. the State of Kerala and others, 2008 Cri LJ 455

(The author is an intern with Citizen for Justice and Peace,


[1] Babita Devi and Ors Versus The State of Jharkhand through Principal Secretary, Home Department, Govt. of Jharkhand, Ranchi and Ors, W.P.(Cr.) No. 48 of 2017





[6] Dilip K. Basu v. State of W.B., (1997) 6 SCC 642

[7] Munshi Singh Gautam v. State of M.P., (2005) 9 SCC 631

[8] Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons, In re, (2017) 10 SCC 658

[9] J. Prabhavathiamma v. the State of Kerala and others, 2008 Cri LJ 455


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