Policing the police

How four policemen in Mumbai were convicted for torturing and killing a man

A postmortem report, a special public prosecutor and an eyewitness testimony turned the tide in the case of 20-year-old Aniket Khicchi.

Aniket Khicchi and Ratan Vani were arrested on October 26, 2013, for alleged theft and taken to the Vanrai police station in Mumbai’s Goregaon neighbourhood. Khicchi died that night. The police did not inform Khicchi’s family either of the arrest or of his death. The police said that Khicchi, 20, had tried to run away, and when he fell, an angry mob had beated him up, resulting in severe injuries that led to his death. His family disputed that story, and said he died from beatings by the police.

In January 2016 four constables were convicted for torturing Khicchi, causing his death in police custody.

In handing down guilty verdicts, Judge SM Bhosale noted, “The word ‘custody’ implies guardianship and protective care. Even when applied to indicate arrest or incarceration, it does not carry any sinister symptoms of violence during custody.” The four policemen were each sentenced to seven years in prison for culpable homicide not amounting to murder and for voluntarily causing hurt to extract a confession.

This was a rare case because usually in India deaths in police custody are successfully passed off by police investigators as suicides, natural deaths, or deaths caused to illness. As a new Human Rights Watch investigation into 17 deaths in police custody that occurred between 2009 and 2015 shows, a lack of eyewitnesses, the propensity of government doctors to back dubious police claims in autopsy reports, police intimidation of victims’ families and witnesses, and weak and biased police investigations have provided police broad impunity for crimes against those who are held by police.

Khicchi’s case points to both the challenges in prosecuting police officers as well as recommendations for reform.

Marshalling evidence

A critical piece of evidence in this case was the postmortem report. A postmortem report is the “most valuable record” for drawing conclusions about how a death occurred, according to the National Human Rights Commission. Khicchi’s post-mortem report shows 56 injuries and final cause of death as “head injury with multiple injuries.” According to the report, all contusions were caused by a hard and blunt object.

Copy of post-mortem report of Aniket Khicchi, October 28, 2013.
Copy of post-mortem report of Aniket Khicchi, October 28, 2013.

When the police attributed those injuries to a mob attack, Khicchi’s family members urged the police commissioner to transfer the investigation to an independent agency. In October 2013, the crime branch of the state Criminal Investigation Department took over the case. A month later, the crime branch filed charges and arrested four police officers on murder charges.

Another significant piece was the court’s willingness to bypass the regular public prosecutor and appoint a special public prosecutor after Khicchi’s lawyer, Mihir Desai, argued that he could not trust public prosecutors. “If we didn’t get a special public prosecutor, I am doubtful whether a conviction would have happened,” Desai said. “Half the time as a public prosecutor, you are taking instructions from the persons who are now the accused.” Too often, public prosecutors, who are officers of the court and are supposed to represent the state, show a bias in favor of police accused of wrongdoing.

In Khicchi’s case, the court noted several procedural violations at the time of arrest. The arrest record was drawn up at 2.40 pm on October 26, but the policemen who took the two suspects into custody did not register a First Information Report or make an entry into the police station diary as required by law until after 8 pm. Until that time, Khicchi and Vani were illegally detained and interrogated inside the police station. The court also said that even though the accused police officers claimed that Khicchi was assaulted by a mob and that they had rescued him from about 60 to 70 people, the policemen did not take him for the required medical check-up.

Protecting witnesses

However, the prosecution wasn’t without the usual challenges in such cases. The biggest challenge was getting witnesses to testify to torture who are often other police officers or criminal suspects present at the time in the police station. Said special public prosecutor Rati Amrolia, “The fact that most key witnesses are policemen themselves, they are never supportive of any aspect of prosecution’s case. All police witnesses that were material to us turned hostile. Even independent witnesses turn hostile because of the intimidation by police.”

Amrolia said they were fortunate because they had an eyewitness in the case, Vani, who was arrested along with Khicchi. Vani’s testimony played another important role in ensuring the conviction of the accused police officials.

“How I wish to hear the same verdict in my son’s case,” said Leonard Valdaris, father of 25-year-old Agnelo Valdaris, who also died from torture in police custody in Mumbai.

Valdaris’s hope is echoed by many families who lost their loved ones to police torture. Police accountability and enforcing existing rules on arrest and detention are essential to deter further abuses, but changing the culture of torture will also require training police officers in modern, non-coercive methods of investigation and implementing pending police reforms from the 2006 Supreme Court judgment in Prakash Singh v. Union of India. The Indian government should also enact an effective victim and witness protection law to protect them from threats, intimidation, and harassment.

The police cannot change in the absence of fundamental reforms to modernise, including recruiting more police investigators, improving the working conditions of low-ranking personnel, and establishing functioning complaints authorities to inquire into allegations of serious misconduct, including custodial deaths.

As Judge Bhosale reflected on police actions in his judgment: “If you for once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizen, you can never regain the respect and esteem for the whole police department.”

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

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

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German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

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Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.