As many as 100 people were reported to have died in police custody in 2017, according to National Crime Records Bureau data. Of these, 58 people were not on remand – they had been arrested and not yet produced before a court – while 42 were on police or judicial remand.
In 62 cases pertaining to custodial deaths, 33 policepersons were arrested, 27 were charge-sheeted, four were acquitted or discharged, and none were convicted.
“One hundred custodial deaths in one year, in my view, points to serious cause for concern,” Devika Prasad, programme head, police reforms at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, a non-profit, told IndiaSpend. “It indicates that conditions in custody are not conducive to keeping people safe and alive. The police must be made to answer for someone turning up dead while in their custody.”
Publication of the data is no deterrent to such actions, as news reports of several custodial deaths followed the NCRB’s data-release on October 21.
On October 27, a 26-year-old, Vijay Singh, died in police custody at Mumbai’s Wadala Truck Terminal police station, following which five policepersons were suspended, The Times of India reported on October 30.
Singh was taken into custody after a complaint by a couple, who had accused Singh of harassing them by pointing his bike’s headlights at them while they were seated together. The youth’s family and friends have alleged that he was whipped and denied medical aid despite complaining of chest pain.
In another incident in Uttar Pradesh, 50-year-old Satya Prakash Shukla died in police custody after being tortured, his family alleged, The Tribune reported on October 30. Shukla was accused of looting a bank employee in the Peeparpur area of Sultanpur.
“Every custodial death, every case of torture is to be condemned, analysed and investigated properly to come up with findings, which then have to be put in ameliorative action,” Yashovardhan Azad, former chief information commissioner and Indian Police Service official, told IndiaSpend. “The basic directions of the Supreme Court [on police reforms] need to be followed, infrastructure needs to be ramped up, capacities should be built and manpower investment is required.”
The health and safety of any arrested person – any person in custody – is the responsibility of the police, Prasad said: “This is why the law mandates a judicial inquiry to be carried out when a person dies in custody to look into the cause of death and the circumstances around it. And also why the police are to report a custodial death to the National Human Rights Commission within 24 hours of occurrence, which in turn propels other accountability measures such as a videographed postmortem. These are accountability measures to safeguard against excessive force or illegality in custody.”
Most reported cause: Suicide
Custodial deaths reported in India increased by 9% from 92 in 2016 to 100 in 2017, as per NCRB data. Andhra Pradesh reported the most deaths (27), followed by Maharashtra (15) and Gujarat (10) in 2017. These three states accounted for more than half of all custodial/lockup deaths reported.
Suicide (37) was the most reported reason for custodial deaths in 2017, followed by “death due to illness/death in hospitals during treatment” (28) and “injuries sustained during the police custody due to physical assault by police” (5). “Other” reasons – not specified – accounted for 22 deaths.
“To a certain extent, suicide deaths in custody are true,” Azad said, citing the example of the Nirbhaya case, where he said “Ram Singh [the main accused] was in jail and not even in police custody when he committed suicide. It could be because of shame or other reasons.”
Human rights violation
The NCRB also recorded 56 cases against police personnel for human rights violations in 2017 – 57 police officers were arrested, 48 charge-sheeted and three convicted. Most cases registered under this category were for “torture/causing hurt/injury” (17), followed by “deaths in custody” (7), “encounter killing” (2) and “extortion” (2).
“Torture is a grave crime and human rights abuse should never be seen as inevitable,” Prasad said. “If a policing system is relying on torture to retrieve information from accused persons, it is broken and has lost its credibility. There is nothing useful or purposeful that can come out of torture.”
It is only painstaking investigation, finding and following up on clues, corroborating information, collecting and preserving evidence, learning new interrogation and investigative techniques that can hope to retrieve accurate and useful information, Prasad said, adding that torture is absolutely prohibited by law in India: “It is against the law to forcefully extract a confession.”
Injury is inflicted usually while trying to solve cases related to crime investigation and property – like house-breaks, Azad said. “The conviction in house break cases is very low so there is intense pressure on the police to solve the cases within a limited period during which the police succumb,” he said.
Force is used while apprehending a criminal or suspect on the run for a long time. In rural areas, there is no scientific aid like CCTV to support the process of investigation and in such cases, the police succumb to the use of force, Azad said. The state of equipment is poor due to small budget allocations.
Calling for improved infrastructure and personnel capacity, Azad said, “rickety infrastructure with rudimentary facilities cannot inspire high-grade policing. Except for a few places in the headquarters, there are no proper interrogation cells. One cannot bring the suspect or the accused on the vehicle 80 km - 100 km, to interrogate, at the police headquarters. So they try quick methods. Lower-level officials at times use force which can cause accidental injury or hurt leading to serious damage. This is the reality of policing.”
Police stations in rural areas lack basic amenities such as telecommunications signal or network, internet connectivity, vehicles and motorable roads. Conditions in the hawalaat or lockup are so bad that just living in such conditions is torture, apart from being held in custody, Azad said.
“We have zero-tolerance against extra-judicial deaths, police atrocities but we should also concentrate equally on terrorism because that’s the biggest attack against the human rights,” Amit Shah, Union Home Minister, said addressing the audience at the 26th Foundation Day celebrations of the National Human Rights Commission in Delhi on October 12, India Today reported.
“It is our responsibility that not a single person should die in police custody needlessly, or [that] a person should be a victim of extrajudicial killing,” Amit Shah said. “But we will also have to provide facilities for every person to live with dignity.”
“There are instrumentalities present in the system today to tackle the issue of custodial deaths,” Azad said. Every custodial death is subject to a magisterial enquiry. Even if one says the magistrate is in the same setup as the police or is working hand in hand, one has the right to file a complaint and go to court. “In many cases, the courts have taken strict actions against the accused policepersons. Not just the police, other factors and non-functioning of instrumentalities also need to be looked in to or questioned like the magistrate, court orders and the whole executive setup.”
“The policemen need to be trained on investigation and techniques by the Central Bureau of Investigation,” Azad added. “They need to go for refresher courses on various subjects including psychology, which doesn’t happen. Instrumentalities are not working, so these are the basic reasons which we have to be looked into.”
Talking about reforms and measures to prevent custodial deaths, Prasad said, “Prevention requires a genuine and visible commitment to zero tolerance to custodial violence of any kind by police leadership. And it also requires the guarantee of prosecution of police for torture and custodial death, to send the surest signals that there is no room for inhumane actions and practices in the guise of policing. This is not the case at present.”
Also imperative is the implementation of every legal safeguard already in place – the right to medical examination, right to be produced before a judicial magistrate and to complain of maltreatment or torture, limits on the duration of police custody, right to a lawyer, right to inform a friend or family about being arrested or detained, Prasad added.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.