Recently, the Supreme Court (in Paramvir Singh Saini v. Baljit Singh) ordered for the installation – within six months – of CCTVs in every police station. This has been hailed as a much-awaited reform. However, the euphoria is slated to be short-lived as enough loopholes are still left in the system, which unethical police officials can exploit, to continue their nefarious practices.
Supreme Court’s Desire To Prevent Custodial Torture
As evident from its observations in the 18th paragraph of the judgment, the Supreme Court’s primary concern was “force being used at police stations resulting in serious injury and/or custodial deaths”.
The Supreme Court has ordered that all states and union territories (UTs) should install CCTVs, complete with night vision and audio recording, in all police stations.
The places covered must include entry and exit points, all lock-ups, corridors, lobby/reception area, washrooms/toilets, etc. SHOs are to be responsible for the ‘working, maintenance and recording of CCTVs’.
The footage is required to be stored for 18 months, and victims of custodial torture would have right to such footage through the Human Rights Courts.
The central government should ensure that such CCTV cameras are installed at all offices of central government agencies, also where interrogation of persons takes place. This includes offices of the CBI, NIA, ED, NCB, DRI, and SFIO, etc.
What SC Order Doesn’t Account For: Much Torture Occurs OUTSIDE Police Stations
The Supreme Court order, though a welcome and laudable step, presumes that all police brutality, crimes like rape and other human rights violations take place inside police stations only.
It is not so. The reality is different.
A great deal of custodial torture, particularly of suspects accused of terrorism, takes place in secret locations. Generally maintained by intelligence wings/agencies, they are known as Safe Houses. Since intelligence wings/agencies are usually involved in terror-related cases, suspects are taken there.
The police show ‘formal arrests’ days later, and until such time, they remain in illegal detention and subjected to torture.
Maurif Qamar and Irshad Ali, for example, were arrested in 2006 on terror charges. They were finally acquitted after an 11-year long trial during which the matter reached the Supreme Court also. In this case, the CBI had concluded in its closure report that they were ‘informers’ of the Intelligence Bureau and the Delhi Police Special Cell who had been falsely implicated. They were kept in illegal custody for nearly two months.
Intelligence agencies of the world maintain Safe Houses from Secret Service Funds, and not from regular budgetary allocation subjected to audit.
As such, at least in India, their existence is not officially recognised. During militancy in Punjab, the media had spoken of blatant abuse of the Secret Service Funds running into crores.
However, elsewhere in the world, where the level of hypocrisy in governance is much lower, they do admit their existence. In the US, for example, the now declassified Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Detention and Interrogation Program, admits tortures in Safe Houses. CIA’s Safe Houses and ‘Black Sites’ in Thailand have been exposed by the BBC and The New York Times.
All such ‘unofficial’ places of interrogation and torture are not police stations, and shall escape the CCTVs ordered by the Supreme Court.
Camps of Paramilitary Forces & Army Aren’t Covered Under SC Order
The Supreme Court order does not cover the paramilitary forces and the army. In most of the insurgency-affected areas of the country including Kashmir, the states of the northeast, and Naxal-infested areas, paramilitary forces and the army have been deployed almost permanently in the aid of the state police.
During the ‘90s in Kashmir, the BSF’s interrogation centre, nicknamed Papa-II in Srinagar, was notorious for illegal detentions and tortures.
The army and the paramilitary forces were widely accused of tortures in Kashmir in the international media. The Indian media has also reported on torture centres in Srinagar called Cargo, Hari Niwas and Papa-II.
The point being made is that they are not police stations. As such, they would escape the SC order.
If the police find it difficult to torture people in police stations or keep them in illegal custody, they can very well take them to camps of ‘friendly’ paramilitary forces.
They might not decline the requests as friendliness is emphasised in the name of ‘synergy’ that is expected amongst the army/paramilitary forces and the state police for prolonged deployments.
In the case of Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association, the Supreme Court had in 2016 commented that “… normalcy not being restored cannot be a fig leaf for prolonged, permanent deployment of the armed forces, as it would mock at our democratic process and would be a travesty of jurisdiction…” conferred by law.
Most Custodial Deaths Take Place In Judicial Custody
Many people failed to notice that of the total 1,697 custodial deaths admitted by the MHA between 1 April 2019, and 31 March 2020, 1,584 had taken place in judicial custody and 113 in police custody.
Judicial custody means in jails. This means that people do get tortured more frequently in jails than in police stations. However, the SC order has not covered the jails either.
Other Ways In Which The Police Can Sidestep New SC Order
Even during the days of militancy in Punjab, the police had devised a simple way to keep people in illegal detention and torture them there. One was to proclaim that a militant had escaped from police custody. After that, he could be kept in illegal custody somewhere for as long as they wished.
There is every reason to suspect that crooked cops would shift their nefarious activities to places other than police stations, whether they are Safe Houses, farmhouses of ‘rich friends of the police’, or simply some remote and isolated place.
Cops Torture Not Just For Quick Results & Confessions
There is a popular myth that police are not trained enough in modern interrogation techniques and the use of forensic science to gather evidence to prove the guilt of the accused during trial, and hence they use third-degree torture to extract a confession from the accused.
Fact is that, there is an overpowering desire to garner undue praise from a drooling media for having cracked a complicated case in no time — never mind that most of the terror-related cases subsequently collapse in courts, albeit after several years.
By that time, everybody forgets the excitement over ‘immediate arrests’ and sensational ‘recoveries’. This includes the most notorious of them all, the Akshardham attack case.
In claiming credit for the work of their subordinates, senior officers are too happy to garner TV time and speak in terms of ‘we’. It follows that they are equally responsible for the terrible violations of procedures and human rights both. In a catena of judgments – including Dalbir Singh vs State of UP & Ors (2009) and Prithipal Singh etc. vs State of Punjab & Anr. etc. (2011) – the Supreme Court had squarely condemned it.
Fact is, most of the time they resort to torture for psychological reasons.
CCTVs In Police Stations: Problems In Rigorous Implementation
The Supreme Court order’s rigorous implementation is likely to be fraught with difficulties. CCTVs for security purposes on vital installations also, are known to malfunction, maintenance being a major issue.
Except in major towns, it is difficult to find such companies for Annual Maintenance Contract, who would be so prompt as to despatch a service engineer within hours.
Alternatively, the police might have to train some of their own people. However, making them legally accountable for failures would be unfair.
Serious legal problems would arise if police were to claim CCTV malfunction particularly when some incident of custodial torture takes place.
Expectation Vs Reality
The root cause of the deviant behaviour of the police is attitudinal.
Installation of CCTVs in police stations might not result in a paradigm shift as far as attitudes are concerned.
After all, there was little change in the police behaviour and their illegal practices in spite of more than two decades of the celebrated judgment in the case of D. K. Basu.
The order of the Supreme Court has raised the expectations of the people; however, reality might not turn out to be as rosy.
(Dr. N.C. Asthana, a retired IPS officer, has been DGP Kerala and a long-time ADG CRPF and BSF. He tweets @NcAsthana. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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