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17 July, 2009

Custodial torture by law-enforcing agencies in India


Former United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark once said, ‘A right is not what someone gives you; it’s what no one can take from you’. But here things turn different, ‘right is not something what we can give you; it will be taken from you’, so is the state of affairs when it comes to the torture in police custody in India. In the wake June 26, which marked the International Day against Torture, the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) released a report named ‘Torture in India 2009’, compiling the true facts of ill-treated human rights in India. This report has zeroed in on custodial tortures especially by the police, armed forces and armed opposition groups etc. It reveals several accounts of atrocities by the so-called law enforcement officers from all over India. The panoptic narrative of deaths in the police custody with detailed state wise account of such incidents rules the roost in this report.

This is based on a nationwide campaign against torture and the study of a plethora of cases of last eight years. From April 2001 to March 2009 an estimated 1,184 persons were killed in police custody in India. Overwhelmingly, most of the victims were killed as a result of torture within the first 48 hours after being taken into custody, so rampant are the police in handling the people in custody. Torture in police custody is a pervasive problem that predates this report. The State and the police remain in worrying denial. The annual reports, Crime in India, of the National Crime Records Bureau of the Ministry of Home Affairs that report very few deaths in police custody reflect this disturbing denial.

The highest number of custodial deaths was reported in Maharashtra (192 cases) followed by Uttar Pradesh (128), Gujarat (113), Andhra Pradesh (85), West Bengal (83), Tamil Nadu (76), Assam (74), Karnataka (55), Punjab (41), Madhya Pradesh (38), Bihar and Rajasthan (32 each), Haryana (31), Kerala (30), Jharkhand (29), Delhi (25), Orissa (24), Chhattisgarh (23), Uttarakhand and Meghalaya (16 each), Arunachal Pradesh (11), Jammu and Kashmir and Tripura (9 each), Puducherry and Chandigarh (3 each), Himachal Pradesh (2) while Manipur, Goa, Sikkim, and Dadra & Nagar Haveli recorded one case each. National Crime Records Bureau’s statistics says that over 31 persons died by committing suicide in police custody in 2007, 24 persons in 2006 and 30 persons in 2005. This report highlights that the National Human right commission has failed to effectively address torture and other human rights violation. According to a statement by Suhas Chakma, Director of ACHR, these deaths in custody do not however represent the actual number of deaths in police custody in India. A number of cases of custodial death taken up by ACHR with the National Human Rights Commission show that the NHRC was not informed by the police about these custodial deaths, while the NHRC has expressed its anguish against the failure to report these cases of custodial deaths but the NHRC's guidelines on reporting custodial deaths within 24 hours continue to be flouted. According to a senior lawyer, India has the highest number of cases of police torture and custodial deaths among the world's democracies and the weakest legislation against torture. Unfortunately, in the country, torture is seen as routine police behaviour to extract confessions.

The case of 22 years old Md Qudus Ali from Urup, Imphal East district of Mnipur is a strange one. On 7 February 2008, he was allegedly tortured to death in the custody of state police commandos at Thambalkhong in Imphal East district. The victim was allegedly picked up from the premises of the Office of the District Commissioner, Imphal East where he had gone in connection with his electoral photo identity card. The police, however, claimed that the victim was a “militant” and that he was killed in an encounter. A large number of reported cases of torture and custodial death are a result of attempts to extract a confession relating to theft or other petty offences. This implies that suspects belonging to the lower economic and social strata are particularly vulnerable. The police routinely cite “suicide” as a cause of death in custody. In a reply to the Rajya Sabha on 12 March 2008, then Home Minister of India, Shivraj Patil cited suicide as one of the primary causes of custodial death. But the Home Minister failed to clarify as to why so many accused had committed suicide in police detention, what had led them to act in this manner and how they had accessed the means like knives, poisons and open electric cables etc as they are in custody.

Suicide does of course occur. However, examination of number cases by ACHR suggests that the causes of deaths are often a cause for concern. There are frequent allegations by the families of the victims of torture; torture that either impacted the victims actions or resulted in a death that was subsequently covered up. The explanations of the police are also often inadequate. The police regularly claim that people have committed suicide by using handkerchiefs or by consuming poison while in police custody. This seems fabricated when they repeat the same for many cases. The question of the access of the means to suicide still remains unanswered.

Further, deaths in the custody of the armed forces and the Indian Army under the control of the Central government are not reported to the NHRC as it does not have jurisdiction to investigate violations committed by the armed forces. ACHR itself has filed 50 complaints of extrajudicial killings from 2003 to 2009 from Manipur alone. Many of these alleged extrajudicial killings were indeed deaths in the custody of the Manipur Police Commandos but since the Manipur Police Commandos claim to be conducting operations jointly with the central armed forces, the deaths in the custody of the Manipur Police Commandos are not reported to the NHRC.

The disturbing finding of the report points the finger at the Government as India has not ratified the Unite Nations Convention Against Torture, although it has been a signatory since October 1997. Ratification is necessary for appropriate changes to be made in the prevailing laws, and to enable institutions and executing authorities in India to be committed and accountable to address the practice of torture. Fighting torture has been a long standing campaign of many human rights organizations in India, – be it in the case of Jammu and Kashmir, the North East, Gujarat or as recently in the case from Nandigram and Singur. But the thousands of such victims who were forcefully removed from their villages and pulled to camps still suffer for no cause. In fact these blameworthy and reproachful facts marked a blot on the world’s largest democracy.

N.M. Salih is a Delhi based journalist working with The Milli Gazette, a fortnightly English newspaper. He can be contacted at

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