On June 24, a Delhi court ordered the registration of a first information report against unidentified police officials on the charge of culpable homicide in connection with the death of a man in police custody. Culpable homicide not amounting to murder is a non-bailable offence punishable under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code with imprisonment up to 10 years, which in extreme cases can be extended to life imprisonment.

Dalbir Singh, 54, had died at the Naraina police station in West Delhi on February 22. The police said Singh – arrested for allegedly trying to procure medicines on forged prescriptions from the Army Base Hospital – had fallen to his death from the second floor. They said he may have either committed suicide or fallen while trying to escape. According to the police, Singh was last seen in an interrogation room on that floor and was unattended when the incident occurred. However, his family alleged that the police had tortured and killed him and then thrown his body off the second floor.

Singh’s death brings back the focus on custodial deaths in the Capital’s police stations, the status of these cases and the action taken against police personnel, if any. Pointing out that the rate of conviction in custodial death cases is abysmally low across the country, activists and lawyers suggest that one way of holding the authorities accountable may be to have the cases investigated by independent agencies.

Inconsistencies and contradictions

In the case of Singh’s death, a judicial enquiry was conducted. After receiving the inquest report, accessed by Scroll.in, the court ordered that a case be registered. Citing the report, it pointed to several inconsistencies in the case – for instance, none of the witnesses could narrate the exact sequence of events leading to Singh’s death, and there were contradictions in their accounts of the sound of Singh falling on the concrete ground outside the police station building. The report also stated that after getting his remand from the court, the police had taken Singh straight to the police station and not to an affiliated hospital for a medical examination as is mandatory under the law, that there was no record in the police daily diary of his death, that his son was not allowed into the police station for more than three hours after Singh’s death, and that the CCTV in a crucial spot was dysfunctional.

After the case was registered, Deputy Commissioner of Police (West Delhi) Vijay Kumar said the District Investigation Unit was looking into the matter.

Dubious record

The circumstances of Dalbir Singh’s death bear a striking similarity to two other custodial death cases in the city in the last four years. This has raised questions about the Delhi Police’s record and what seems to be a pattern of propagating misleading theories about such deaths.

In December 2016, a body was found near the under-construction Majlis Park Metro station in North-West Delhi. There were injury marks on the face of the deceased and a post-mortem examination revealed his knees were fractured. It later emerged the man, a fruit seller, had been at the Adarsh Nagar police station just two days ago. The police officials admitted in a court that they had picked him up in connection with a fight, and claimed he had jumped off the station’s third-floor interrogation room in a bid to escape. The court ordered an independent investigation and the police were subsequently accused of torturing the man to death and dumping his body in an isolated spot. There was no entry in the daily diary. The fruit seller’s family alleged he had been pushed by his interrogators. A judicial enquiry was conducted and, subsequently, a case registered. The suspended officials are on trial.

Fruit seller Sompal (left) died in police custody in Delhi in December 2016.

The other case, in which six policemen are on trial for a custodial death, dates back to 2014. The police officials, from the Uttam Nagar Police Station in West Delhi, are accused of picking up a man over a firing incident in Bindapur in the city’s south-west and beating him to death while trying to get him to confess. They then took him to the Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital and reported him as an unidentified body. In this case too, no entry was made in the daily diary.

The diary, popularly called the Roznamcha in Delhi, is supposed to record every minute day-to-day happening in the police station such as the registration of complaints, medical reports, entry and exit timings of individuals brought to the police station with or without remand, and the recovery of items among others.

What the numbers say

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 623 people died in police custody across India between 2010 and 2016. The bureau attributes such deaths to a range of factors – suicide, illness, accident during escape and police torture, among others.

Numbers under the last category are usually low, despite the families of victims alleging foul play in the majority of cases. For instance, of the 97 custody deaths reported by Indian authorities in 2015, only six were attributed to physical assault by police, going by the bureau’s data. In 2016, it was eight out of a total of 32 cases.

The Asian Centre for Human Rights estimates there were 144 deaths in police custody across India between April 1, 2017, and February 28 this year. In their report released on June 26, they attributed the data to a response to an unstarred question in Parliament. The National Crime Records Bureau is yet to publish its data for this period.

‘Convictions hardly happen’

So, what happens after the registration of FIRs against police officials?

“Convictions hardly happen,” said advocate Prashant Bhushan. “The witnesses are policemen themselves, they collect the evidence. How can such cases ever reach any logical conclusion? There is urgent need for an independent agency to look into such matters.”

According to a 2016 report by Human Rights Watch, while courts, human rights commissions and other authorities in India ordered investigations in some cases of deaths in police custody between 2010 and 2015, these did not result in a single conviction. It was only in 2016 that four policemen in Mumbai were convicted for the custodial death of a 20-year-old suspect three years ago, the report added.

In Delhi, there have been a few convictions in such cases. In December 2017, the Delhi High Court upheld the conviction of six policemen from the Special Staff of the Delhi Police for the custodial death of a person in 1995. It did the same in 2009 in the case of three policemen found guilty of setting a man ablaze in a police station in 1980.

On January 5 this year, the court upheld the life sentence awarded to a police constable for the murder of a man in custody in 1991.

Echoing Bhushan’s view, Jayshree Bajoria, the author of the Human Rights Watch report, said, “Accountability in case of custodial crimes is rare because it is mostly police officers and other suspects in custody who bear witness to custodial torture and killings. So, producing evidence against the police in custodial crimes is very difficult, largely because police who bear witness and those who investigate try to shield their colleagues.”

But Prakash Singh, former Border Security Force director general and chief of police in Uttar Pradesh and Assam, disagreed. He said investigation of such cases within the police department should not be a problem as long as officials stick to the fundamentals of fairness, accountability and transparency.

Listing other challenges to accountability in custodial deaths, Bajoria said “the propensity of government doctors to back police claims” was one. “Autopsy and forensic reports frequently support the police version of events even where there is no apparent basis,” she said. “Also, the national and state human rights commissions have largely failed in their oversight role in cases of custodial killings. They recommend inquiries or compensation, but seldom recommend disciplinary action or prosecution.”

She went on to say that the families of victims seeking justice often face intimidation and threats from the police. Many of these families are poor and socially marginalised, making them especially vulnerable to such harassment. Bajoria added that this highlights the need for a witness and victim protection system in India.