Nobody knows how many Indians die in custody because official figures vary wildly
Nobody quite knows how many people die in custody. That is because in 2018 NCRB recorded 78 deaths in police custody while NHRC registered 1,966 cases during the same period
When law enforcement agencies become perpetrators of violence, it becomes an ominous abuse of authority and custodial deaths unacceptable excesses by police force on citizens.
Types of torture by the police documented in India include hammering iron nails in the body, hitting private parts, electric shocks on genitals, inserting hard blunt objects in anus, urinating in mouth, applying roller on legs and burning, ‘falanga’ wherein the soles are beaten, stretching legs apart in opposite sides, and hitting private parts.
Other methods of torture include administering electric shocks, pouring petrol or applying chilly powder in private parts, beating while handcuffed, pricking the body with needles, branding with hot iron rod, beating after stripping, beating after hanging people upside down with hands and legs tied, forcing to perform oral sex, pressing finger nails with pliers, beating with iron rods after victim is suspended between two tables with hands and legs tied, and kicking the abdomen of pregnant women.
A recent report by an international human rights body, the National Campaign Against Torture (NCAT) reveals as many as 1,731 custodial deaths recorded in India in 2019. Victims were mostly from vulnerable communities, Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis. This works out to five custodial deaths daily. Even more ominously, 1,606 of these people died in judicial custody and 125 people in police custody.
NCAT’s analysis reveals 75 (equivalent to 60 per cent) of the total 125 deaths in police custody belonged to the poor and marginalized communities including 13 from Dalits and Adivasis, and 15 from Muslims, while 35 were picked up for petty crimes. Three of these were farmers, two were security guards, two drivers, a labourer, a rag picker, and a refugee. The report reveals further that women continued to be tortured or targeted for sexual violence in custody and the victims often belonged to the weaker sections. During 2019, the deaths of four women were reported in police custody.
According to the NCRB, 78 deaths were reported in police custody in 2018, compared to a total of police custodial deaths of 1,966 registered by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in the same period. Differences between the data of the two official agencies show there is something glaringly wrong in factual collating of official data.
It is relevant here to mention that the current NDA Union Government is notorious for fudging all types of data to hide its failure at all fronts. In 2017, 100 custodial deaths were reported. Custodial deaths, therefore, do not reveal the full picture.
The police in these cases function as oppressors, killers, investigators, and prosecutors (all in one). Not surprisingly, no policeman is punished.
Hence, there is a dire need, as never before, for amending the Indian Police Act, 1860 in the light of the Supreme Court of India’s directions in Prakash Singh judgment of 2006 and several police reforms commissions/ committees reports to make police impartial, non-partisan and accountable to the people in keeping with their oath to the Constitution of India. There is also a pressing need for separating investigation from police and entrust it to a dedicated investigation wing in order to minimize rampant corruption in the police force.
It is learnt officially that of the 255 custodial deaths between 2017 and 2019, no police personnel were punished for their misconduct. So are the cases between 2014 and 2015.
But the Union Ministry of Home Affairs issued an Advisory on July 13, 2020 to all States and Union Territories asking them to sensitise and direct all state functionaries, district and lower levels to follow law of the land and the guidelines issued by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on custodial deaths. Needless to add, similar Advisories issued earlier have borne no fruit.
Despite India having signed the United Nations Convention Against Tortures, 1984, enforced since 1987, the country has not ratified it till date. The UPA Government brought a Bill in the Lok Sabha to ratify the UN Convention. But the Bill was thwarted by the BJP, which was then a strident opposition party. NHRC is also to blame partly as it has not lived up to the expectations of the people in this regard. It has failed to mount pressure on the Government to ratify the impugned UN Convention.
Investigation wing of the NHRC is a police outfit. Heads of all national commissions, such as, National Commission for Scheduled Castes, National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, National Commission for Minorities and National Commission for Women are represented on the board of NHRC to ensure standards of human rights of all strata of people. Despite that there is no improvement in human rights of citizens. UN Convention Against Tortures seeks to prevent all types of tortures and other acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment around the world. Currently, the Convention is under review to make it more effective. Except seven countries that include India, all UN member nations have ratified the UN Convention Against Tortures.
At present, India has 1,350 prisons with a rated full capacity of 4,03,739 prisoners. All jails are bursting with overcrowding and degrading inhuman conditions, so much for standards of human rights of prisoners in terms of the Constitution of India.
The Constitution envisioned prisons as centres of reforms, which is not happening. On the contrary, those who come out of prisons either turn out to be hardened criminals or rebels against the system of governance.
(The author is a retired Government officer with deep interests in civic issues)