Policing the police

When a father handed over his son to the police in Mumbai and he never came back

How the police disregard the laws designed to prevent torture and mistreatment in custody.

“He was crying bitterly, he was saying, ‘Daddy save me, save me. They have been beating me the whole night. They will kill me, Daddy. These policemen will kill me.’”

Leonard Valdaris, father of 25-year-old Agnelo, is haunted by the last words his son ever said to him. Agnelo died in police custody in Mumbai on April 18, 2014, two days after being arrested.

Agnelo Valdaris’s arrest, his treatment in police custody, and the police investigations into his death tell a chilling story of how police in India flout legal procedures, use torture against suspects, and then shield perpetrators responsible for such abuses. As part of an investigation into 17 cases of deaths in police custody between 2009 and 2015, Human Rights Watch examined legal and medical records related to Valdaris’s arrest and death, and statements made by doctors, police officials, witnesses, and others to the investigating agencies.

Play

Torture in police custody

Police from Mumbai’s Wadala railway station arrested Agnelo Valdaris from his grandparents’ home around 2 am on April 16 on suspicion of robbery. Three others, Sufiyan Mohammad Khan, 23, Irfan Hajam, 19, and a 15-year-old boy whose name is withheld for his protection, were arrested for the same crime.

The police allegedly beat and sexually abused all four suspects to confess to robbing two gold chains, three gold rings, some cash, a lunch box, and spectacles from a man traveling in the local train. Hajam, in his statement to the Central Bureau of Investigation, said that he was stripped, tied up and hung upside down with an iron rod inserted between his legs and arms, and then beaten with a wooden stick and belt. He alleged that the policemen attempted to rape him with a wooden stick and threatened to burn his genitals with petrol. He also said he was forced to perform oral sex on the other suspects, with police threatening to beat him up further if he refused.

Hajam and the other co-accused said they also witnessed the police torturing Valdaris. The police beat him with a stick and belt, and kicked him repeatedly in his chest.

Disregard of legal safeguards

An examination of records in this case show police flouted multiple legal procedures that are aimed to protect criminal suspects from abuse.

The police violated the Supreme Court’s 1997 directives under D.K. Basu v. West Bengal, now incorporated into the Code of Criminal Procedure, which require officers to identify themselves clearly when making an arrest; prepare a memo of arrest with the date and time of arrest that is signed by an independent witness and countersigned by the arrested person; and ensure that next of kin are informed of the arrest and the place of detention.

The rules require those arrested to be medically examined after being taken into custody, with the doctor listing any pre-existing injuries – any new injuries will point to police abuse in custody. Another important check on police abuse is the requirement that every arrested person is produced before a magistrate within 24 hours. The magistrates have a duty to prevent overreach of police powers by inspecting arrest.

Valdaris and his friends were detained in violation of the law. The police officially recorded Valdaris’s arrest more than 36 hours after he was taken into custody. An assistant sub-inspector of police, who was on duty at the Wadala railway police station that night, later told the Central Bureau of Investigation that he deliberately made incorrect entries in the police general diary on the directions of his senior officer to cover-up the actual date and time of arrest.

Police did not produce Valdaris before a magistrate within 24 hours as required by law. On the evening of April 16, Leonard Valdaris wrote a letter to the Mumbai commissioner of police about his son’s detention. “Till now they have not produced him in any court in Mumbai. I do not know about his whereabouts,” he wrote. The next day, Leonard filed an application in the metropolitan magistrate central railway court asking the court to direct the Wadala railway police to produce his son in court. The court ordered Agnelo Valdaris to be immediately presented in court. However, although police admitted to the arrest, they did not produce him in court saying that they had taken him to the hospital for the mandatory check-up.

Police also violated rules by waiting 38 hours after his arrest before taking Valdaris for a medical check-up. During his check-up Valdaris complained to the doctor that he was assaulted by police officials while in custody. The doctor later told the CBI that the police put pressure on him to prepare a medical report favorable to them by writing that Valdaris’s injuries were self-inflicted.

Lastly, the police violated India’s Juvenile Justice Law. After arresting the 15-year-old boy, the police should have placed him under the charge of a special juvenile police unit or the designated child welfare public officer instead of holding him in regular police custody.

Evading Accountability

After Valdaris died in their custody, the police sought to evade responsibility.

First, they altered police records of the date and time of arrest because they had flouted a key safeguard: producing suspects before a magistrate. In most of the custodial death cases documented by Human Rights Watch, those arrested died within hours of their detention and therefore were never produced before a magistrate. National Crime Records Bureau data from 2010 to 2015 shows that 416 of 591 people who died in police custody died before police obtained an order from a magistrate authorising their custody.

They then attempted to alter medical records. After both Valdaris and the attending doctor refused to accept that the torture injuries were in fact self-inflicted, the police threatened Valdaris’s father into signing a false statement. Leonard Valdaris said he gave a written statement to the hospital that his son’s injuries were self-inflicted under threat from the police that if his son’s statement regarding torture was not withdrawn, they would not produce him in court.

However, the police still failed to produce Valdaris in court, reporting next morning that he died after being struck by a train when trying to flee custody.

“The police personnel killed my son because they were scared that he was going to complain about the torture to the magistrate,” Leonard Valdaris said.

A report in Mumbai Mirror.
A report in Mumbai Mirror.

Initial investigations into Valdaris’s death by state police attempted to shield the police officials responsible. Valdaris’s co-accused, who witnessed the torture, complained to senior police officials that they were intimidated and threatened by the investigating officer.

They, along with Leonard Valdaris, filed a petition in Bombay High Court asking that the investigation be handed over to the CBI. In 2016, the CBI filed charges against seven policemen and a policewoman for criminal conspiracy, fabricating evidence, negligence, voluntarily causing hurt, and wrongful confinement under the penal code – but not murder, concluding that Valdaris died because of being hit by a train. It also filed charges against three of them for aggravated penetrative sexual assault and sexual harassment of the 15-year-old under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act. The trial has yet to begin.

Leonard Valdaris says he is paying the price for trusting the police to carry out their duties lawfully. “I fully cooperated with the police, trusting them. I handed my son over to them. Now I am carrying the guilt every day. Had I not given my son to the police, he would have been alive.”

This is the first in a three-part series looking at torture and deaths in police custody and the urgent need for police reform in India.

Jayshree Bajoria is the author of the new Human Rights Watch report, Bound by Brotherhood”: India’s Failure to End Killings in Police Custody.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.