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To End Custody Deaths, SC Seeks Murder Cases Against Errant Cops 

The Supreme Court has woken up to the use of brutal interrogation methods by the police, writes Rakesh Bhatnagar

Updated
India
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It is an uphill task for the police in India to restore the eroded faith of people in them. The police is often described as “trigger happy” too, and there are reasons why such adjectives stick to them in view of the increasing cases of custodial violence in which at least 446 innocent persons were tortured to death in different parts of the country and as many as 1,456 people suffered gruesome torture between 2012 and 2014.

It has shaken the Supreme Court which has directed all the state governments to break the inertia and set up human rights commissions to take the accused cops to task. Accordingly, the culprits would face criminal trial under Section 302 (murder) or causing grievous hurt and unlawful detention, separately.

Terming custodial torture as a “naked violation of human dignity” that “destroys” a victim’s self-esteem, the apex court early last week held this form of inhuman treatment as a “calculated assault on human dignity.”

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The Supreme Court has woken up to the use of brutal interrogation methods by the police, writes Rakesh Bhatnagar
A policeman walks inside the Tihar jail in New Delhi, March 11, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

Previous Directive

The significant verdict is an offshoot of a batch of writ petitions alleging police torture in violation of a slew of directives passed by a Supreme Court bench of Justices Kuldip Singh and A S Anand on December 18, 1996.

There’s no dispute that police and other investigating agencies are empowered to interrogate an accused or a suspect who doesn’t enjoy immunity from questioning, but the manner of quizzing “must be just and fair.” A crime suspect may be interrogated and subjected to sustained and “scientific interrogation” as provided in law, but no such suspect can be tortured or subjected to third degree methods or “eliminated with a view to eliciting information.”

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State Rights’ Panels

“State terrorism is no answer to combat terrorism. It may only provide legitimacy to terrorism, which is bad for the state and the community and above all for the rule of law,” Justices T S Thakur and R Banumathi said while directing state governments to set up human rights commissions and comply with the landmark directives passed by the court about 30 years ago.

The rash of custodial violence also enraged Rajya Sabha MP (BJP) N K Singh. Last year when the Congress-led UPA was on its last legs, Singh raised a worrisome query: whether the government had exact information about the number of persons who die in police custody every day; and whether on an average 18 lakh people in India are victims of police torture and violence every year.

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The Supreme Court has woken up to the use of brutal interrogation methods by the police, writes Rakesh Bhatnagar
Police detain supporters of Godman Rampal in Hisar, Haryana, November 18, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

Ignorant Centre

The government didn’t deny the gravity of custodial violence in a country which claims to bow to the rule of law. But it quoted the data given by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). It was surprising that the then Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde showed ignorance about the report but attributed unspecified number of custodial deaths and torture to “natural deaths, deaths due to illness and suicides in lockup etc.”

In other words, Shinde said innocent people locked up in different police stations across the country either suffered “torture” or “died” due to such circumstances for which poor police was not responsible.

However, the NHRC report placed in the Upper House by Shinde spilled the beans. It was unambiguous in giving year-wise break up of custodial torture, deaths due to police torture, unlawful detention (3,863) and illegal arrests (2,562) during 2012 and 2014. The data also confirms the allegation of increasing police excesses in the country.

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The Supreme Court has woken up to the use of brutal interrogation methods by the police, writes Rakesh Bhatnagar
Police escorts men accused of a gang rape in Noida, August 31, 2013, (Photo: Reuters)

Registering Murder Cases

Taking a serious view of the pathetic state of human rights which have been reduced to mockery by a sizeable section of hurry-to-bury cops, the apex court directed registration of murder case or murder without a motive to kill a suspect in custody against all cops involved in the heinous crime.

To check the brutal use of power against innocent people brought to a police station, it is mandatory for police stations and prisons to install CCTV cameras. Judges wonder why appropriate proceedings can’t be initiated in cases where enquiry establishes culpability of those police officials in whose custody a victim dies or suffers any injuries or torture. “The law should take its course and those responsible duly and appropriately proceeded against,” the judges ordered.

Though the directions were passed by the Supreme Court on July 24, 2015, cases of gross violation of human rights came up before the NHRC on July 29 and 30. It has initiated action against some cops in Rajasthan for raping a woman and a senior superintendent of police in Bijnore has been asked to explain his conduct for assaulting several handicapped persons.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist)

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