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Custodial Deaths In India Are Not About Some ‘Bad Cops’ But A Rotten System

Posted: July 16, 2020

Custodial deaths in India are not an aberration, but the outcome of a system that believes it’s okay to use violence as a tool for ‘results’.

Lately, online or offline, it was very hard to miss the conversations around custodial deaths in India, and the larger issue of police-inflicted violence. The death of the father-son duo due to police inflicted torture in Sathankulam, and the subsequent online outrage and media scrutiny revealed the systemic bias against minorities and vulnerable people, and the lack of accountability of those “who serve to protect.”

The brutality of the crime appalled everyone, and many were quick to point out the gender, religion, caste and class divide that haunts Indian reality. Statistics reveal the impunity with which those in power go unchecked and there are many  cases that can be taken as case studies to highlight the urgent need for changes in the police and law enforcement agencies of the country. 

Custodial deaths in India: A closer look

Indian courts have long been criticised for their delayed justice model. This slow reach of the law to catch up with perpetrators, especially those emboldened by authority makes the system-in-place insufficient. Evidence, tampering and intimidation work as a tool to break cases and the trope has been sadly successful many times.

There are many aspects to police brutality that need to be analysed like the vulnerability of the victims, the role of the media, the state machinery, and finally, judicial recourse. 

For example, in the infamous Vachati case, it’s easy to decipher how vulnerable sections of the society become easy targets for violence. In 1992, Vachati, a tribal village in Tamilnadu was  ransacked by police personnel and forest officials. The justification given for the rampant violence, rape, and destruction of property was that the raid was meant to “to gather information about sandalwood smuggling.”

This definition was later expanded to erase the innocence of the villagers as they were portrayed as smugglers. The label was endorsed by the state machinery officers when the incidents of violence were highlighted by the media a fortnight later. This portrayal of villagers as smugglers is emblematic of how easy it is for those in power to falsify a narrative of terror. 

Bias due to caste, class, religion and gender prevails throughout the society. Women, minorities (of class, caste and religion) are particularly defenceless against autocratic authority that displays such bias. 

This pattern continues in the violent death of Thangjam Manorama, a Manipuri woman picked up from her house by the 17th Assam Rifles for interrogation in 2004. The FIRs subsequently filed by the Assam Rifles alleged that she had links to separatists, and information about weaponry. Manorama was found dead in police custody with multiple wounds, including to her private parts, although the police claimed that she was shot in her legs while trying to escape. 

The ease with which a version alleging victims as ‘offenders’ passes off in official documents, highlights the red-flags in our law enforcement. In both the Vachati and Manorama cases, it was subsequent commissions that brought to light the abuse of power. 

Sexual violence an easy way to attack women in custody

The ransacking, rape, torture, and arrests carried out with impunity by various branches of the law enforcement illustrate the institutional patriarchal bias. Demanding a fair probe in the Manorama case, older women in Manipur paraded naked with the banner “Indian army, rape us”.  A media spectacle became necessary as conflict zones are prone to strict censorship measures. People still view the power of the media as one potential source for justice, even though that has not always been the case. 

Eighteen women were raped in Vachati, during the systematic assaults that happened in the village. The report on Manorama’s case released in 2014 after much red tape indicates that she too was subjected to rape and torture. The Commission added that of the sixteen bullets, none hit her legs as alleged in the Assam Rifles’ account. 

Justice delayed…and denied

Despite the gaping holes in the official accounts, the process of seeking justice for victims and survivors of police custodial violence remains a struggle in itself. Intimidation and evidence tampering is rampant even when police officials are brought to trial.

In the case of Udayakumar, a victim of police custodial death in Kerala, sloppy investigations and the subsequent transfer to the CBI marks the struggle for justice. The ‘Guilty’ verdict, after 13 years, was mainly due to the grit of the deceased’s man mother, Padmavathi Amma.    

Be it the Vachati case or Udayakumar, the trial period was marked with indifference by the perpetrators. Delaying tactics and bypassing of procedural norms delayed proper investigation and prolonged the trial process as well. 

As a well-oiled machinery of hegemonic class/caste relations, the state machinery often aids this injustice to prevail. The number of accused convicted at the end of the Vachati trial were 215 out of a total of 269. The remaining 54 had died by this time as the whole process took nearly 20 years. 

Sadly, in the case of Manorama, the lack of transparency in this judicial process has denied justice for her till date. The case is indicative of authority without accountability. Sexual violence is a tool used to subjugate women in areas of conflict. In cases of rape and assault, it’s already difficult for women to report crimes, let alone when the rapists are cops. 

The rare examples of speedy justice stand out

The Marine drive rape case of a minor, in 2005 and the conviction of the rapist, the police constable the following year is a rare example of speedy justice. The chain of events following the crime, like the constable’s dismissal, filing of charge sheet, victim/ witness depositions followed by verdict ensured that the system worked to attain justice for the rape survivor.

One can also reflect on how the urban/rural, class, caste, bias plays out on the road to justice. The media limelight that surrounded the high profile crime in metropolitan Mumbai impacted in a prompt chargesheet, trial, and judgement. 

Urgent steps needed for change

The annual report on torture 2019, released by UNCAT specifically points to how women are tortured and targeted for sexual violence in custody. The extensive report details the methods, cases, and the subsequent inaction that follows police/custodial violence.  

“The number of custodial deaths during 2019 remained over five persons per day. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of India recorded a total of 1,723 cases of death of persons in judicial custody and police custody across the country from January to December 2019. These included 1,606 deaths in judicial custody and 117 deaths in police custody1 i.e. an average of five deaths daily.”

The human rights abuses, the delaying tactics by government officials, the apathy of the governing parties that follow many cases of police custodial violence, explains the vulnerability of the victims in the face of the state mechanisms. Delays in reporting, silencing by officials play a key role in the way justice gets denied for the victims. Often at the interventions of Human rights commissions and judicial committees, victims are granted compensation but the impunity of the perpetrators go unchecked.  

Some measures can be adopted to alter this nightmare for victims of custodial deaths, police violence. As per the guidelines shared by the Model  Police Act 2006, some of the measures recommended for states were:

  • Setting up a Police Complaints Authority with five members (a retired High Court Judge, a retired police officer of the rank of DGP from another state cadre, a retired officer with public administration experience from another state, a civil society member and a person with at least 10 years of experience as a judicial officer or lawyer or legal academic) 
  • Ensuring that district level authorities include retired judges, police officers, practising lawyers, etc).
  • Adequate staff strength at every level, to investigate various crimes in a professional manner
  • All essential amenities including a building, a reception-cum-visitors’ room, separate toilets and lock-ups for men and women, adequate space for storage of property in custody

and many others like these, to ensure both the rights of the accused and a sound working environment for the police staff.

Many states and districts are yet to adhere to these drafts citing absentee authorities/officials and primarily due to a lack of political will in professionalising the police force. 

Additionally, ratifying the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) and enacting a national law against torture would provide additional means to combat these sytemic biases. Though India has legally accepted a number of international treaty obligations which prohibit torture including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Geneva Conventions (and its Additional Protocol II), it has failed to enact a national law to criminalise torture.

Convictions in cases of police violence and custodial deaths in India are abysmal  with just a few to point to as examples. This is a disturbing trend that undermines the integrity of our law enforcement and judiciary.

While many cases do receive compensations, the lack of a law to address this issue, explains the apathy of the policy makers towards the issue. Judicial interventions only act as a ‘quick-fix’ with no guarantee of Justice for all.

Top image is a still from the Hindi movie Article 15

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