Deaths in Police Custody

A policeman walks into a pan shop and makes some purchases. The, shopkeeper takes the note and gives back the balance in small change. The policeman objects to being given so many loose coins. A quarrel follows. A few minutes later the panwalla finds himself in the interrogation cell of a nearby police station. And some hours later, he is dead.

Such instances are no longer uncommon. Deaths in police custody are usually the result of torture to extort information or to teach the person concerned a lesson. Torture was not just resorted to in the Emergency, though it did acquire alarming proportions during that period. The horrifying cases of Rajan, an engineering student of Kerala, or actress Snehlata Reddy whose brutal and inhuman treatment led to a fatal heart attack, are illustrative.

Nor are deaths at the hands of the police restricted to 'encounters' where Naxalites have been riddled with police bullets. Numerous inquiries into this phenomenon have established that the police found it easy to liquidate the Naxalites and publicise them as encounters. Notable among them was the Tarkunde Committee which examined 77 Naxalite deaths in police encounters in Andhra Pradesh during the Emergency and concluded that at least 19 of these cases were cold blooded murders. Though 1970-71 was the worst period for these encounters, it first became a live issue when the Organisation for Protection of Democratic Rights in Andhra Pradesh submitted a memorandum to the President of India demanding an inquiry into the death of 135 persons allegedly killed in police encounters. In 1973 an Amnesty International report on Abolition of Torture had made a special mention of it: "The pattern that emerges is that although incidents of police and prison warden brutality continue to occur, the worst period was in 1970-71 when the threat from Naxalites was judged to be the greatest."

It was also during this period that torture skills were perfected. A senior official from a "superpower inte-lligence force" was reportedly called to train policemen here in the latest methods of torture. And to keep our police up to date, we have even acquired latest torture equipment.

Custody deaths are not limited to the killing of dacoits or hardened criminals as certain police officials would like to make out. Even if they were hardened criminals, does the police force have the right to take it upon itself to personally mete out brutal punishment, ignoring with impunity every criminal law in the country?

The most gruesome of these killings was of dacoit queen Hasena Begum. Inquiries revealed that she was gunned down after she had surrendered to the police and was taken into custody. She was pregnant at the time but the police paraded her naked corpse through the village as a lesson for others. This is not the only case of its kind. The U.P. police proudly claim to have liquidated 983 "notorious" dacoits during 1980 and 440 of them during the first quarter of this year. Often innocent villagers are the victims.

There is yet another reason why some suspects are liquidated. Were they to remain alive and be produced before a magistrate, they might divulge the complicity in crime of persons considered respectable by society. These include politicians, businessmen, and even policemen. In fact, the former two often "employ" the police to get rid of persons interfering in their corrupt activities.

Understandably then, in most lockup deaths that have surfaced the victims are the socio-economically disadvantaged, their defenselessness a factor that goes against them. As noted in the Indian Express survey of 45 deaths in seven states in 1980 (see Arun Shourie's article and the case studies below), not one victim was reported to have been a hardened criminal. Most were charged with puny offences like theft; sometimes they were even picked up for talking to a policeman in a tone he did not like or for refusing to give him the right of way. Basing ourselves on the Indian Express survey and press clippings for 1980-81, we give below some random examples of deaths in police custody.

Devaki, a sweeper, was hauled in and tortured to death for her husband's connection with a banned organisation; Naresh Pannika was picked up only for questioning; carpenter Deodana was dragged to the police station because one of his sons, allegedly involved in a local feud was not at home at the time; Ramesh Kumar, a truck driver, was beaten to death for not allowing a police party to overtake his truck; Gangu was arrested and killed, for not repaying a loan of Rs. 3028 which he had borrowed in1978 to install a gobar gas plant; Kamal of Howrah had allegedly attacked a hotel with a "rowdy"; Rattan Singh of Gumana in Haryana had appealed to the village panchayat for help in a feud between him and his sons-in-law and it in turn invited the police intervention; Naresh was trying to give up "satta" operations to which he had been introduced by the police itself; 19-year-old Shyam Tane was caught watching a scuffle in front of his house; 65-year-old BadhukRaghavaria was rounded up on the charge of gambling; Latoor Singh, a harijan of Hodal village in Haryana, landed in police custody for getting into a heated argument with the SDM about the construction of a Harijan chaupal. And so it goes on. All these people died in the custody of the police. And not in one case cited above had the police charged the victim and shown him to be arrested. Hauling in a person without filing an FIR has become a common practice. A formal registration of the case is done only after the accused has confessed to the crime, given what the police consider are liberal provisions of bail and judicial remand.

Police Fabrications
Most of the information that has surfaced has been due to the vigilance and efforts of the Press and Civil Rights Organizations. The police are always tightlipped. In fact, the police authorities in Punjab and Haryana refused to give any details on the deaths in custody during a survey conducted last year, as they did not recognise any such happening in the previous year.

"The police who have to supply an official report to the Home Ministry annually does have a record of deaths in police custody," revealed a retired senior police officer in Delhi. But getting these documents is next to impossible. That is why it is difficult to get reliable statistics on deaths in police custody. Justice Sharma Sarkar Commission was set up to investigate the number and frequency of lockup deaths. Though the report was submitted to the Government in 1976, because of the Emergency censorship it never saw the light of day.

Recently a PUCL commit tee reported a number of such deaths in the Nellai district of Andhra Pradesh. In one case Poolpadii, who was wanted in a case of theft, was apprehended in October last year. The police killed him brutally. The story they put out was that while being taken to the station he tried to escape and was shot.

In another case of Seevaliperi Pandi, who was allegedly shot dead by the police on the hillside of Vallanad, the usual fabricated story was floated of a criminal having been killed by other hired criminals. In yet another case, Rajmohan was subjected to inhuman torture by the Ku1asekarapattinam police. While he was standing near the judicial second class magistrate's court in Tiruchendur, he was arrested by the police without a warrant, taken to Kulasekarapattinam after being paraded through the streets handcuffed. He was installed in the lockup on the afternoon of August 18, 1981. There he was believed to have been tortured and finally shot dead in the middle of the night. What was the story circulated by the police on this occasion? That a mob attacked the police station to secure Rajmohan's release and the police had to open fire to contain them, in which Rajmohan died.

These cases have inflamed several civil rights organizations who have protested at the barbaric action of the police. An inquiry has been ordered into the incidents but, as usual, it is being conducted by local officials.

Underlying all these incidents is the all-too-familiar refrain of the police to explain away deaths in lockups. "Fired at while trying to escape." "Other criminals fired at him." "A mob attacked the police station." "We had to fire in self defence." "He committed suicide". They have perfected the technique of exploiting the loopholes in the law. One oft-employed ploy is to rough up" the suspect before arresting him. This can take the form of a beating with a lathi or a nailed boot in a secluded place. It is then convenient for them to put out the story that the suspect was injured because he resisted arrest. In many cases they "arm" the victim with an instrument they claim he used against them.

Interrogation Chambers
Attack by a mob has also become a common and favourite trick of the trade. The scene is carefully set up to round up a man. When the police picks up their prey in a public place, a number of plainclothesmen officially posted in the crowd attack him. The crowd gets the impression that it was the public ire let loose on the offender. Another common procedure is to take the accused to the police station, then straight to the interrogation chamber, a dark cell in an isolated corner away from the prying eyes of even co-prisoners. Only after the torture treatment is meted out, is the case logged in the police diary. The police station has to maintain an hourly diary of what is termed as the logging procedure in which any injuries on the person arrested and the time of his arrest are to be entered. As they do logging after the "interrogation chamber treatment", the police can say in all honesty, that the suspect sustained the injuries after his arrest!

After an arrest is made and the person produced before a judicial magistrate within 24 hours, the police can ask to detain him longer for interrogation. And this is the crucial period for extorting information.

Normally the third degree methods now used for interrogation, revealed a DIG, are those that are not likely to leave telltale marks. If they do, they disappear in the 14 days between a person's arrest and judicial remand if he lives. They include beating the suspect on the soles of his feet with rubber truncheons; hitting his knees, elbows, buttocks, ankles, palms, in fact any part of the body that is sensitive but will show no marks; stringing the prisoner from metal hooks fixed on to the roof by his thumb; squeezing the testicles till the person faints; applying anything sweet on his rectum on which ants are made to crawl; and passing electric current into the person's ears, hands or soles.

Institutionalised Torture
Torture has even been institutionalised in Punjab and Haryana in the form of the Criminal Interrogation Agencies (CIA). The major difference is that the CIA men excel in methods of interrogation and not investi-gation. A CIA squad, very much part of the district police force, is headed by an officer of inspector rank. Normally, it has no powers of arrest as the cases are registered and dealt with by the police stations. The CIA activities acquire a little legitimacy in stray, blind cases which are transferred to it after the staff at the police station has failed. Usually 90 per cent of the suspects in these two states are produced for remand more than two days after their 'arrest', normally made by the CIA which is under no police station's jurisdiction. More often than not the CIA man arrests anyone on the faintest of suspicion and tries to extort a confession. The 'arrest' of course is not on the record and if the victim dies during interrogation, the agency denies ever having seen him. If he confesses or helps the interrogators recover anything connected with the crime, he is transferred to a proper Police Station and formally arrested. If he refuses to crack or looks innocent after some rounds of torture, he is just let off, often at night, and told to be wise enough not to complain to anyone.

On November 3, 1979, the CIA staff of Haryana police arrested Gangu, a Bawaria of village Dehina in Mahendragarli district. Two days later he died in their custody. A cursory, non-committal autopsy was conducted in Narnaul. But later an autopsy at Rohtak Medical College established it as a case of death due to torture.

Gangu's wife, Misarli, filed a private complaint against the policemen and later the police registered a case of murder against the two constables allegedly responsible for the death. But the inspector-in-charge of the CIA staff, Kehar Singh, was let off and banished from the scene by being transferred to Chandigarh on deputation with the Union Territory Police force. Misarli was later shot dead, allegedly by the Delhi police, at her village on June 23, 1980, two day before her private complaint was to come up for hearing.

"Once a man is behind bars, he is at the mercy of the police," admitted a former DIG of Delhi police. "Thanks to the advantage they have in using their own doctor and hospital, they can account for any 'suspicious' deaths in a very satisfactory manner". In these cases the post mortem is always done in a police hospital and carried out by a police surgeon. He is also the Coroner's surgeon and, what must not be forgotten, a government employee. The Coroner's Court relies on the official records for evidence at the inquest and of course on interested parties, if there are any. Since hardly anyone even questions the cause of a custody death, the official evidence is normally accepted as final. Members of the public are usually wary of getting involved because the person concerned is a suspected criminal. If the relatives inquire into the cause of the death, they too are often threatened with dire consequences, as happened with Gasigu's wife Misarli.

What is the Remedy?
There is no doubt that, on the whole, the police manages to silen9e those who could raise dust unless a determined and organized effort is made. The cases that have surfaced, therefore, represent only the tip of the iceberg.

A retired senior police official, who preferred not to be named, told the Bulletin that though efforts of civil rights organizations could at least reduce such horrendous instances, he saw no way of eliminating them. The police is, after all, governed by the leadership within its ranks and, more important, of the present system. The blame, therefore, cannot be laid solely at the door of the individual policeman. After all, he said, the police does what the managers of the system want it to do.

As a police officer and he was known for a certain humanity as well as efficiency he himself, he said, would have asked his subordinates to take a calculated risk in situations where the accused was a murderer, a rapist or a hardened criminal. Since the judicial process is dilatory, he went on, in bumping off such a person, the police would be eliminating a "nuisance" to society and was also likely to gain public sympathy in the process. One had, after all, to see how the powerful in society behaved with those who are helpless. Why take only the police to task? What about Harijan burning dowry deaths?

His posers can be countered with other counter posers: Is the 700,000 number police force in this country, maintained at considerable cost to the taxpayer, not meant to protect the helpless? Are they meant to be the custodians of law and order or its flouters? Are we unfair in expecting more from them than we do from the criminals in society who either burn Harijans or their brides for a few pieces of silver?

As far as killing of "non-criminals" in custody is concerned, this police officer blamed police training for these "lapses". There is no system of regular investigation "investigation with patience" has become a thing of the past. "We have reached a stage of instant coffee and instant investigation."

N. S. Saksena, member of the Police Commission that has submitted all its reports which are now gathering dust, was more explicit when he said that tortures and deaths in police custody will continue "as long as our policemen are told to forget scientific methods of investigation and resort to third degree methods".

Meanwhile, show quick results, catch a person even if he is the wrong one, beat him up and make him confess. Too bad if in the process he dies. Most of these deaths never come to light anyway. Even if some do, they can be hushed up. If they are not hushed up, only a departmental inquiry is likely to be ordered. And senior police officials are only too conscious of the image" of their department. If a judicial inquiry is ordered, the completion of the inquiry will anyway take a long time. We all know only too well the fate of these inquiries.

The trouble is that action has not. been taken against most policemen responsible for these deaths. Only a few have been transferred or suspended. In the absence of any accountability, it is hardly surprising that the police inspector, also drunk with power, even goes to the extent of beating a person or shooting him to death merely because his ego has been hurt.

Home | Index