If the protector becomes (the) predator, civilised society will cease to exist… Policemen who commit criminal acts deserve harsher punishment than other persons who commit such acts, because it is the duty of the policemen to protect the people and not break the law themselves
– Supreme Court of India, 2010
On 14 May, police rounded up four men in Etah district of Uttar Pradesh, 260 km west of the state capital, Lucknow, in connection with a month-old case of murder. Three days later, one of them, a 33-year-old farmer named Balbir Singh, lay dead in a hospital in Lucknow. âThe police gave him electric shocks and injected acid and petrol in his body,â says his brother- in-law, Sunul Kumar. âThey forced him to sit on an electric heater that burnt his body horribly.â According to Kumar, Singh told him before dying that the police wanted him to confess his involvement in the murder.
So critical was his condition that Singh was moved to three hospitals in as many cities before he died. He named the policemen who tortured him in a dying declaration before a magistrate. The police were forced to register a case of murder. Five lowly policemen were suspended. No arrests are yet made. A sub-inspector is on the run. Devendra Pandey, who heads the police station of the alleged perpetrators, was merely transferred, though, according to Kumar, it was Pandey who gave Singh the electric shocks. Singh has left behind a one-year-old son and a pregnant wife.
The scourge of torture by police and prison officials is routine, random and vicious across India. On 18 May, Khalid Mujahid, 32, fell dead on his way back to a prison in Lucknow from a court in Faizabad. His death has generated unusual focus and political attention on the issue of police torture and custodial deaths. For the most part though, police torture hardly ever features as a red-button issue for Indians. First, there is a sense that torture only happens to the deserving. Second, there is a common perception that torture is the only â even if illegal â way of extracting crucial information from deadly terror suspects or mafia gangsters. Both these assumptions are false. Torture almost never yields accurate information. In fact, it is a security hazard as victims often confess in utter desperation to crimes they have not committed, while the real perpetrators roam free. Equally, torture is not restricted to rare cases. Often, it is perpetrated on those caught on trivial charges. According to the NHRC, over 14,000 people have died in police custody and in prisons in the decade ending 2010. This translates to a rate of more than four deaths a day. In the past three years, the NHRC has recorded 417 deaths in police custody and 4,285 deaths in judicial custody.Â Apart from 1,899 cases of ‘sexual harassment and torture’ in police custody, NHRC has also recorded 75 cases of alleged rape by policemen in the last three years.
The story of Ratanji Vaghela is symptomatic of the sheer randomness of this brutality. On 27 April, Gujarat Police arrested Vaghela, a patient of depression and amnesia, for crossing the path of an official convoy in Gandhinagar. The family alleges torture, due to which he had to be hospitalised with severe wounds. âThere are very few countries in the world where torture is as systematic and endemic as in India,â says New Delhi based campaigner Suhas Chakma. Rights activist Teesta Setalvad of Mumbai agrees: âTorture is not the exception, but the norm in jails as well as prisons across India.â
Vaghela may still turn out lucky. On a plea from Chakma, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), an autonomous statutory watchdog, has ordered the state government to pay him an interim compensation of Rs 3 lakh and probe the allegation that he was tortured. But for the tens of thousands of citizens subjected to brutal torture across police stations and prisons in India, there is virtually no end to the tunnel.
âI have seen people beaten until they collapsed. I heard a prisoner was beaten until he died,â says Binayak Sen, a rights campaigner in Chhattisgarh, who spent two years in prison and was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2010 for sedition. âThere is no question of natural justice. It is done with impunity. This is the everyday reality of torture in Indian jails.â Sen, whose incarceration became a global cause and who is on bail having appealed his conviction, says he was called crazy when he protested the torture of fellow prisoners. He says he never saw a victim of torture try to seek justice.
While the rest of the world is no stranger to torture by State agencies, India has the dubious distinction of sticking out as a sore thumb in the comity of nations. Along with half-a-dozen tiny nations such as Comoros and Guinea-Bissau, India is the only big country that has failed to ratify the UN Convention Against Torture, by outlawing torture and legislating punishment, despite signing it. An attempt to legislate to outlaw torture went into deep freeze in 2010 after rights campaigners pointed out howlers in the draft Bill and a parliamentary committee began to sift through it.
As a result, an architecture of torture dominates Indiaâs law enforcement, and the judiciary turns a blind eye. âWe have seen the courts demand action against the police, but in most cases, torture invokes only a verbal outrage on the part of the judiciary,â says Supreme Court lawyer Vrinda Grover, a long-time campaigner against torture. âIt does not necessarily lead to effective prosecution of the perpetrators of torture.â
If ever a stink stirs judicial and quasi-judicial agencies, compensations are paid out, but any prosecution of the guilty drags forever. Stunningly, data from the National Crime Records Bureau, a government agency, shows there have been no convictions despite numerous cases filed against policemen and prison staff.
Activists reckon that most deaths emanate from torture, though, of course, officials always deny that. Most deaths are written off as suicides; very many are put down to illnesses and diseases. And the number of those who survive is exponentially larger and highly underreported. For most victims, torture begins a never-ending nightmare.
Mukesh Kumar, 21, was arrested on 24 January in Sheikhpura, a district in Bihar 120 km south of state capital, Patna, for bootlegging. According to a complaint he later filed with the State Human Rights Commission, Kumar was taken to the official residence of the cityâs Superintendent of Police (SP) Babu Ram and thrashed. A baton was pushed into his rectum. (The police deny the charge.) Doctors at a hospital where he was brought four days later found his intestines had ruptured. He was told they might never heal.
Kumarâs relatives admit that, desperate to feed his family of five, he had taken to plugging moonshine. They were forced to bring him to the State-run All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi for surgeries that have already cost Rs 2 lakh. âHe passes stool through a pipe and canât walk to the toilet,â says Kumarâs uncle, Dhiraj Singh. âWhat do you do when the guardians of law commit such a crime?â After newspapers wrote of the torture, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar ordered the SP transferred out. âAll the policemen involved in the case, including the SP, have been transferred,â says Sheikhpuraâs new SP, Meenu Kumari. âI cannot comment further.â
With 11 crore people, Maharashtra has just over half the population of Uttar Pradesh. Yet, it tops the country in the number of cases of custodial deaths and torture by police and in prisons, beating even Indiaâs most populous state. Recurrent bombings, supposedly by homegrown Islamic fundamentalists, and a Maoist rebellion in the stateâs east have stoked the appetite for torture among the law enforcement agencies.
On 26 March 2012, a bomb exploded in Gadchiroli district, killing 12 members of the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force. It responded by raiding surrounding villages with the police, who arrested 11 men. âEvery morning and evening, we were hung upside down and our feet, ankles and back caned,â Nanaji Chambrupadha Bapra, 28, told this reporter on a visit to his village. âAfter four days, the police stopped the torture but still wonât release us,â adds Shatrugan Rajnaitham, 18. The men were instead charged with waging war against the State. They were bailed after three months.
âThere is no evidence against them but they were picked up because it was convenient,â says their lawyer, Jagdish Mishram. And fruitful. âWhen they caned the soles, the pain shot up here,â says Naresh Sank Kujuri, 26, pointing at his head. âThree days later, I told them I had planted the bomb.â The families of these men, all poor farmers, have run up debts of lakhs of rupees on legal and health expenses. Of course, the police reject the charge. âNone of the men were tortured,â Gadchiroli SP Suvez Haque told TEHELKA. âWe arrested them on the basis of evidence.â
Kujuriâs story illustrates how torture is entirely self-defeating. Bandhu Mishram, 46, a tailor in Nagpur district and a veteran of torture, describes how the police set about implementing their regime of torture. He has been arrested thrice in a short life: in 1984, 1996 and 2010. In his early years he was targeted, he says, for his trade unionism and activism to demand a separate state of Vidarbha in the east of Maharashtra. In 2010, the police named him a Maoist rebel and arrested him.
âThey break you down scientifically when they want a confession,â he says. âThey know how to make you feel hurt and anxious.â Mishram was hung upside down between a tyre and his feet were caned for an hour. They made him believe his wife and mother were being raped in the next room. For hours he heard screams as the policemen laughed. A fellow inmate told him his wife had been raped and killed, and her body chopped and dumped. âI wanted to kill myself. Thankfully, I saw my wife in the court the next day.â Mishram spent three months in jail before being bailed. In 2012, he was acquitted of all charges. He has filed a petition against his tormentors.
Does Indian law allow torture? Actually, no. Activist Arun Ferreira, who spent four years in Nagpur prison until January 2012 and was charged under the Unlawful Activity Prevention Act (UAPA), witnessed many fellow inmates suffer torture. âEven solitary confinement is illegal but every prison in India has cells for solitary confinement,â he says. âThe State uses torture as a weapon. It is systemic for a reason.â He points to the hypocrisy of the State in an anti-torture Bill that the government rushed through Lok Sabha in 2008 and that, activists found, actually exempted torture in some cases.
‘At the 2008 UN Human Rights Convention, many countries asked India why it still hadnât ratified the convention on prevention of torture. Then India had said it would legislate a domestic law. Five years later, thereâs no law yetâ
Vrinda Grover Human Rights Lawyer