Dr S. Saraswathi
N Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has stressed that every death in police custody with signs of torture should be investigated. The South Asia Director of Human Rights Watch has said that it is important for the authorities in India to embark upon robust efforts “to ensure police reform, accountability, and putting an end to the culture of immunity”.
Two incidents– one in Tamil Nadu in a place notorious for custodial violence and the other in Uttar Pradesh – involving police handling of accused person(s) in their custody have rocked the entire nation in recent days. The first related to the death of a father and son in police custody for interrogation and the other to encounter killing of an arrested person. The TN case is entrusted to an eight-member CBI team for investigation.
The Tamil Nadu case apparently arising from a minor offence of violation of lockdown rule on closing time of shops led to arrest of a shop owner and his son and shutting them in police lock-up. The allegation is about merciless torture of the traders in police custody to the extent of causing their death. The irony is that the incident happened close to the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture observed on June 26. The offence in this case is not grave by any stretch of imagination to require excessive use of police force. The UP case is a clear case of police excess after murder of eight cops by the accused.
It is for the government and legal and judicial authorities to deal with the cases. They will do it with reference to existing laws and regulations and prescribed procedures. For the society, more important is the criminal law and procedure and the role, responsibility, and authority of the police including methods of investigation and treatment of the accused and witnesses. Union Home Minister Amit Shah has categorically asserted a few days back that the age of third degree torture is over. He had been saying that the central government has “zero tolerance on custodial deaths, extra-judicial deaths, and police atrocities”.
A Member of Parliament has pointed out to the Home Minister that during 2019, the National Human Rights Commission recorded 1,723 cases of death of persons in judicial and police custody across the country. Though there could be many reasons for death, the number, if accurate is a cause for concern and remedial action. NHRC has registered over 400 cases of alleged death in police custody and over 5,000 cases of death in judicial custody. The MP has also referred to an analysis by the National Convention Against Torture for the period 2005-2018 which revealed that of the 500 deaths in police custody, only 281 cases were registered and 54 policemen were charge-sheeted and no one has been convicted.
The UN Convention Against Torture was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1984 and came into force in 1987. India became a signatory in 1997, but has not yet ratified the Convention by a comprehensive law. By June 2020, the Convention had 170 state parties. Prohibition of torture has long been established as a universal code or jus cogens that all countries have agreed to abide by. The Committee Against Torture (CAT) is a body of human rights experts that monitors implementation of the Convention by State parties.
To ratify the convention, the Prevention of Torture Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha in May 2010, but it lapsed. Its main provision was to make torture a punishable offence. The bill was again brought in the Lok Sabha in 2017 and 2018 as a Private Member’s Bill, but could not be passed. Some MPs are now demanding promulgation of an ordinance to curb custodial violence and police brutality.
Under NHRC Guidelines of 1993, every incidence of custodial death or rape must be reported to the Commission by the concerned State within 24 hours, and should be followed by post-mortem report, a video report, and a magisterial enquiry.
The writer is a former Director of ICSSR, New Delhi.