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. ‚ÄúThe police gave him electric shocks and injected acid and petrol in his body,‚ÄĚ says his brother- in-law, Sunul Kumar. ‚ÄúThey forced him to sit on an electric heater that burnt his body horribly.‚ÄĚ 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 ‚ÄĒ even if illegal ‚ÄĒ 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.¬†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. ‚ÄúThere are very few countries in the world where torture is as systematic and endemic as in India,‚ÄĚ says New Delhi based campaigner Suhas Chakma. Rights activist Teesta Setalvad of Mumbai agrees: ‚ÄúTorture is not the exception, but the norm in jails as well as prisons across India.‚ÄĚ
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.
‚ÄúI have seen people beaten until they collapsed. I heard a prisoner was beaten until he died,‚ÄĚ says Binayak Sen, a rights campaigner in Chhattisgarh, who spent two years in prison and was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2010 for sedition. ‚ÄúThere is no question of natural justice. It is done with impunity. This is the everyday reality of torture in Indian jails.‚ÄĚ 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 India‚Äôs law enforcement, and the judiciary turns a blind eye. ‚ÄúWe 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,‚ÄĚ says Supreme Court lawyer Vrinda Grover, a long-time campaigner against torture. ‚ÄúIt does not necessarily lead to effective prosecution of the perpetrators of torture.‚ÄĚ
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 city‚Äôs 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.
Kumar‚Äôs 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. ‚ÄúHe passes stool through a pipe and can‚Äôt walk to the toilet,‚ÄĚ says Kumar‚Äôs uncle, Dhiraj Singh. ‚ÄúWhat do you do when the guardians of law commit such a crime?‚ÄĚ After newspapers wrote of the torture, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar ordered the SP transferred out. ‚ÄúAll the policemen involved in the case, including the SP, have been transferred,‚ÄĚ says Sheikhpura‚Äôs new SP, Meenu Kumari. ‚ÄúI cannot comment further.‚ÄĚ
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 India‚Äôs most populous state. Recurrent bombings, supposedly by homegrown Islamic fundamentalists, and a Maoist rebellion in the state‚Äôs 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. ‚ÄúEvery morning and evening, we were hung upside down and our feet, ankles and back caned,‚ÄĚ Nanaji Chambrupadha Bapra, 28, told this reporter on a visit to his village. ‚ÄúAfter four days, the police stopped the torture but still won‚Äôt release us,‚ÄĚ adds Shatrugan Rajnaitham, 18. The men were instead charged with waging war against the State. They were bailed after three months.
‚ÄúThere is no evidence against them but they were picked up because it was convenient,‚ÄĚ says their lawyer, Jagdish Mishram. And fruitful. ‚ÄúWhen they caned the soles, the pain shot up here,‚ÄĚ says Naresh Sank Kujuri, 26, pointing at his head. ‚ÄúThree days later, I told them I had planted the bomb.‚ÄĚ 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. ‚ÄúNone of the men were tortured,‚ÄĚ Gadchiroli SP Suvez Haque told TEHELKA. ‚ÄúWe arrested them on the basis of evidence.‚ÄĚ
Kujuri‚Äôs 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.
‚ÄúThey break you down scientifically when they want a confession,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúThey know how to make you feel hurt and anxious.‚ÄĚ 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. ‚ÄúI wanted to kill myself. Thankfully, I saw my wife in the court the next day.‚ÄĚ 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. ‚ÄúEven solitary confinement is illegal but every prison in India has cells for solitary confinement,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúThe State uses torture as a weapon. It is systemic for a reason.‚ÄĚ 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 hadn‚Äôt ratified the convention on prevention of torture. Then India had said it would legislate a domestic law. Five years later, there‚Äôs no law yet‚Äô
Vrinda Grover Human Rights Lawyer
‘Doctors ought to provide relief and recourse but medical services available to prisoners are inadequate. The medical staff treats them with disdain. By and large, doctors reinforce the messages imposed by jail authorities‚Äô
Binayak Sen Pediatrician and Public Health Specialist
‘Torture needs to be defined under the IPC. An amendment is pending in Parliament and that needs to be enacted. There is a proper definition of torture that is universally accepted, and it should be brought in as an offence‚Äô
Teesta Setalvad Civil rights activist
‘The worst thing is that courts don‚Äôt take notice of complaints. When undertrials are presented before them, they invariably complain about custodial torture. Courts brush aside these claims. They don‚Äôt pay any heed to such grievances‚Äô
SR Darapuri Former IG, Uttar Pradesh
Former Indian Police Service officer-turned-activist, SR Darapuri of Lucknow, has a rare insider‚Äôs perspective on torture. ‚ÄúThe worst thing is that the courts do not take notice of the complaints. When these victims appear before the courts, invariably they make these complaints and the courts just brush them aside. Our whole system is infested.‚ÄĚ As for the courts, although they have begun to take greater cognisance of torture by police and prison staff, they are still far from being in an overdrive to end the practice. A public lawsuit against custodial torture filed by lawyers Rebecca Gonsalves and Vijay Hiremath is gathering dust at the Bombay High Court since 2003. Over six years ago, the Supreme Court directed all states to set up a Security Commission as a watchdog for law enforcement to free it of political control. That is yet to happen.
‚ÄúWe must recognise that our criminal justice system has all but collapsed,‚ÄĚ says the petitioner in that case, former Uttar Pradesh Director-General of Police Prakash Singh. ‚ÄúEven simple cases take three to five years.‚ÄĚ Then, the society expects quick results. ‚ÄúDecent people have asked me why don‚Äôt we just take out criminals and terrorists. Torture is easy closure because they know justice won‚Äôt be delivered otherwise.‚ÄĚ
Singh says reforms alone would make the police democratic and accountable and not dance to political masters. But says Supreme Court lawyer Grover: ‚ÄúMore than reforms, we need accountability. The police have an institutional bias against minorities, the Dalits, the poor and the women. And the political class uses the desensitised police to push its agenda.‚ÄĚ Mumbai lawyer Yug Mohit Chowdhry, who has represented several victims of custodial torture, says the police are understaffed, under-equipped, underpaid and stretched. ‚ÄúThey have to manage everything from law and order to domestic disputes,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúWhen we make them work like animals, they behave like animals.‚ÄĚ
Actually, animals behave better.
When Naushad Sheikh, 45, accused of being a thief, died in custody in Navi Mumbai on 16 March, police said he had banged his head on an iron grill. The autopsy showed wounds across the body. A co-accused told the Maharashtra Police Criminal Investigation Department (CID) that Sheikh was subjected to ‚Äúbhajirao‚ÄĚ, a severe lashing with police uniform belts whose buckles caused deep wounds on his head. The co-accused also said Sheikh was hung upside down and beaten with a cricket bat.
‚ÄúCustodial death is inhuman. Nobody should be subjected to torture,‚ÄĚ Additional Commissioner of Police Qaiser Khalid told TEHELKA. ‚ÄúLet us wait for the CID findings.‚ÄĚ But will a probe be impartial? Not in the experience of the family of Rafiq Sheikh, 35, a cosmetic company executive in Mumbai, who was arrested on 28 November 2012 in a fake currency racket. When his brother, Majhal, went to meet him on 2 December, Sheikh was dead. ‚ÄúThe deepest wounds were on his legs. The soles of his feet had blackened from the beating,‚ÄĚ says Majhal. ‚ÄúI want those cops to pay for what they did.‚ÄĚ
In this case, too, a co-accused testified that policemen belted and caned Sheikh for hours. A judge of the Bombay High Court noted that the wounds appeared inflicted by others. When Sheikh‚Äôs family filed a criminal case, the police assigned the probe to a CID team that includes an officer who was himself once charged with the killing of an accused named Khwaja Younus in January 2003. Now Assistant Commissioner of Police, Praful Bhosale was known as an ‚Äúencounter specialist‚ÄĚ, who had killed 74 alleged criminals. Bhosale was suspended for four years and reinstated in 2010.
On 15 April 2011, police in the northeastern state of Tripura arrested Harak Chandra Chakma, a 32-year-old tribal, for taking part in a tribal celebration. He claimed the police attacked him with a blunt object. Photographs showed injuries on his thighs, back and below the knees. He was hospitalised for 10 days. Four days after the torture, the Asian Indigenous and Tribal People‚Äôs Network, an NGO, moved the NHRC. An inquiry proved Chakma‚Äôs torture by the police. What happened then to the guilty? One of the three named in the report was suspended. No action was taken against the others.
A hair-raising account of torture has come from a Bengaluru journalist, Muthi-ur- Rahman Siddique, who was released in February after being in prison for six months allegedly for a terror plot. In all, there were 14 accused in the case. ‚ÄúOne was beaten, hung upside down, and had petrol poured into his private parts,‚ÄĚ Siddique told TEHELKA. Another accused, Obaid-ur-Rehman of Hyderabad, had his finger broken. ‚ÄúMost were given electric shocks on their genitals.‚ÄĚ The police deny the allegations.
Justice typically eludes victims of torture for decades. In 1989, a domestic worker named Sarfaraz went to the police in Navi Mumbai to report that his wife had hanged herself and died. Instead, the police accused him of being responsible for his wife‚Äôs death. They allegedly called his mother to the police station, stripped both of them, and forced them into sexual positions. ‚ÄúAfter some time, a constable took me into a room where my mother was being held,‚ÄĚ reads Sarfaraz‚Äô shocking statement to the court. ‚ÄúShe was in the nude. I was forced to strip naked even as I begged them to let us go. An inspector took me to my mother and put my hands on her breasts. After making her lie down on a bench, he asked one of the constables to shake my penis. They tied me up and beat me again. I was untied after a point and they pushed me on my mother. The inspector was forcing my chest to her breasts and my penis into her private parts. The inspector kept shouting ‚Äėrape her‚Äô the whole time.‚ÄĚ It is a narrative that Sarfaraz reproduces with a kind of clarity as though it happened yesterday. He was then paraded naked in his neighbourhood. After he was acquitted in 1991 of trumped up charges, he filed cases against the three policemen who were instrumental in making him suffer. It was only last year that the case was finally taken up by a fast-track court.
Policemen long enjoyed impunity from prosecution because the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), a set of rules coded in 1973 to administer criminal jurisprudence, stipulates that officials cannot be prosecuted for acts committed in the discharge of their duties. The Indian Penal Code of 1860 had allowed sentences of up to seven years for a range of acts that can be considered as torture. But to prosecute cops under these laws has traditionally been next to impossible. Few victims are forensically examined. A lack of a witness protection mechanism deters the victims from taking on the guilty. Compensation is yet not a fundamental right. The courts have taken a minimalistic view on claims for compensation from acts of torture. As such, awards vary across India.
In 2005, an amendment to the CrPC mandated a judicial probe on the death or disappearance of a person or rape of a woman in custody. But it has hardly lessened the use of torture. Deaths from torture are almost always passed off as suicides. ‚ÄúWhat led them to the extreme act and how they commit suicide with strange objects like shoe laces, blankets, jeans, etc are (questions) never answered,‚ÄĚ says a report by Asian Centre for Human Rights, an NGO that activist Chakma heads. ‚ÄúHow the victims had access to the means like poisons, drugs, electric cables, etc in custody remain(s) unknown.‚ÄĚ Many victims, who are healthy prior to their arrest, develop medical complications once in custody. ‚ÄúThey are subjected to torture and murdered. With the acquiescence of the medical fraternity, the police are able to describe the death as medical complications.‚ÄĚ
Internationally, it is becoming hard for India to escape censure. As early as 1997, the UN Human Rights Committee voiced anguish over the extensive use of torture by India‚Äôs law enforcement agencies. The Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2007 and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2008 expressed serious concern over the impunity that India afforded to its men in uniform who tortured citizens in custody. In March, Henri Tiphagne, a leading global activist from the Geneva-based World Organisation Against Torture, joined a public hearing against torture at Madurai city in Tamil Nadu. ‚ÄúTorture is inflicted not only on the accused but also on petitioners and complainants,‚ÄĚ he told the gathering. Of course, the government has long turned a deaf ear to domestic and international voices against the culture of torture. And unless it is shaken out of its complacence, tens of thousands more will continue to be brutalised by the men in uniform.
With inputs from Virendra Nath Bhatt, Nupur Sonar, Imran Khan and Ratnadip Choudhury