CUSTODIAL VIOLENCE AND DEATH IN INDIA
Maharashtra National Law University, Mumbai
Recently, many newspaper and media article headlines have been all about a term, the existence of which is completely contradictory to the rule of law. While criminal law in India is said to be formulated so as to ease the burden of the accused, the ever-increasing cases of custodial violence and death in the country scream otherwise.
Custodial violence basically means the violence suffered by any person in police or judicial custody. On the same lines, custodial death is a form of death caused by such custodial violence. Besides death, rape and torture are two other forms of custodial violence. Even if the reports of the matter have surfaced only recently, custodial violence is not a recent phenomenon. There are provisions in Indian legislation which vaguely deal with this phenomenon. Sections 330, 331 & 348 of IPC; Sections 25 & 26 of the Indian Evidence Act along with Section 76 of CrPC and Section 29 of the Police Act, 1861 are present and can be used to curb the tendency of policemen to resort to torture to extract confessions etc.
In spite of the presence of these legal provisions, custodial violence is still very rampant in India. For a statistic, a report titled ‘India: Annual Report on Torture 2019’ noted that theough 2019, India witnessed 1,606 deaths in judicial custody and 125 deaths in police custody. This brings the total number of deaths to 1,731 for only this one year. If we do the math, the numbers amount to almost five such deaths on a daily basis for the complete year. The most recent case that came to light is that of a father-son in Sathankulam, a town in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu, who were detained by the police on June 19, 2020, citing minor lockdown violations. Later, they were allegedly assaulted, physically and sexually, by the police. In a matter of days, both of them succumbed to the injuries inflicted and the police personnel simply claimed that the deaths were caused due to medical reasons. This one incident itself is enough to make us re-realize the pressing concerns related to this issue.
More often than not, a lot of these cases of violence and consequential deaths happen while the police personnel use methods of torture while interrogating the detained suspects. Among such personnel, there are also some that strongly believe that third degree methods are the only ones that can produce actual results. There are also others who are simply blinded by greed for money or power, the prospects for which might have been brought before them by relevant beneficiaries in related cases. Even barring these, there are numerous other reasons – like pressure from the higher-ups, sadism etc. – that contribute to the increase in custodial violence and death, not just in India, but all over the world.
As such, there is a definite need of specifically targeted anti-torture legislation to curb such harmful practices once and for all. Conventional trials and conviction becomes especially difficult in these cases because under Section 197 of the CrPC, no government official or member of the armed forces alleged to have committed a criminal offence while acting or purporting to act in the discharge of their official duty can be prosecuted except with the prior sanction of the central or state government. Thus, prior government permission is required to prosecute such erring public officials. It hence becomes extremely necessary to prioritize ending the impunity of police personnel so that the people responsible are properly punished for their crimes.
Further, although India has signed the United Nations Convention against Torture (and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment) more than 24 years ago, it is still yet to ratify it. This convention requires member countries to bring their domestic legislation in conformity with the provisions of the Convention. Ratifying the Convention will hence ensure that the State is held responsible for the harm inflicted by its departments on citizens. Custodial torture will then be regarded as a separate crime and punishing the officers for their excesses will be standardized by a separate penal law. The last time a step was initiated towards ratifying the UN Convention was when a loosely and vaguely defined Prevention of Torture Bill, 2010 was introduced in the Lok Sabha to give effect to the provisions of the Convention. However, with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha, the Bill lapsed. Thereafter, the Central Government in September 2020 informed the Lok Sabha that it has no proposal with it to bring a legislation to prevent the torture of individuals by police and public officials. It is high time that the government ramps up its policy formulation scheme and brings about actually necessary and relevant reforms.
Lastly, there is also a severe need for structural reforms like rebuilding the foundational training programmes for the police force, focusing more on human rights and the reasons for their presence and application. It is also important to sensitize the personnel against the established mindset of discrimination that often leads to hate crimes inside prisons and help them strive to build a more streamlined procedure of scrutiny and supervision to ensure that law and safety of individuals are at the topmost priority at all times. It would not make much sense if the citizens of a country feel unsafe and insecure around the executives tasked with their safety and protection.
It is thus time for us to stop normalizing and glorifying the unnecessary violence cause by police personnel in any capacity whatsoever, and bring about reformative legislation that helps reduce the plight of those who have already suffered, and also prevents the sufferings of those who, for any reasons whatsoever, get involved in this cycle of law.