PUCL Bulletin, Oct 1981

Lock-ups or Slaughter Houses?

By N. K. Singh


On June 16 this year, Sitaram, 25, brought to a police station in Madhya Pradesh for "questioning" in connection with a case of pick-pocketing, commit-ted "suicide" by jumping into a nearby well. As no one turned up to claim his body, the police burnt it after a hurried postmortem.

It would have probably gone unnoticed in an obscure village but Guna, where the incident took place, is a district headquarters. Tongues Were soon wagging and an opposition political leader alleged foul play. Local newspapers carried the allegation that Sitaram was probably tortured to death and then thrown into the well.

The district administration ordered a magisterial in-quiry into the death and suspended a head constable and a constable for "negligence". Inquiries revealed that Sitaram was not a Pickpocket, but a textile worker of Indore.

This was the seventh death in police custody this year in Madhya Pradesh.

Police lockups all over Madhya Pradesh seem to be part-time slaughter houses. On an average, one person dies in police custody every month in the state. That has at least been the record during the
Last three years.

The deaths are said to be the result of primitive, third-degree methods adopted by police to extract "confessions" from suspects. The over-worked cop, hard-pressed for time, frequently takes recourse to torture as a shortcut. Often an accused is beaten up just "to teach him a lesson", the usual police method of administering justice.

Sometimes the blow hits a tender spot, proves too much for the anemic, emaciated body, and the vic-tim dies. As a top officer of Madhya Pradesh Police Headquarters at Bhopal explained with dry humour, ''We don't teach anatomy to our constables.''

The startling number of lockup deaths in Madhya Pradesh, one-third of whose population consists of tribals and untouchables, was first revealed by Indian Express early last year. Since then the state has kept its dubious record of a death a month in its lockups.

Politicians nourishing the establishment do not bother about the problem because it concerns the poor, who have no voice in the body politic. Of the victims, at least half were tribals living in obscure jungles, whose life-or death-matters little to the "civilised" world.

Madhya Pradesh lockups choose their victims by class: not a single middle or upper class person had died in police custody so far.

Far from being major or habitual offender most of the victims had been picked up on flimsy or minor
charges like loitering, drunken behaviour, pick-pocket-ing or petty thefts. Many were not formally arrested but summoned to the police station for interrogation and kept there in illegal confinement.

The number of people who select police lock-ups as their favorite place to commit "suicides" is also hor-rifying. In twenty per cent cases, the police claimed, the victims had taken their own life. Sometimes they hanged themselves in the security of lockups- grotesque methods such as cutting one's throat was witnessed only once-but more often they jump into the nearest well, drowning all evidences with them. That a man accused of theft, punishable with imprison-ment would commit suicide is simply ludicrous.

In many cases postmortem reports, the only evi-dence of police brutality and crime, are far from fair. The reason is simple. Most deaths take place in small towns or villages where the thanedar, the police- station-in-charge, is a law unto himself and the doctors cannot afford to displease him. There is also a ten-dency among top police officers to shield their "men".

A typical instance is a case study of Seronj, a rural police station in Madhya Pradesh. Last year seven cases, four of them for rape and murder, had been registered at Seronj police station against policemen.

In only two cases the accused were tried in the court of law. In all the other cases, including one murder and two rape cases, police could not find "sufficient evidence" to proceed further and the charges were dropped. At least in one case in which police dropped the charges, the investigations were conducted by a subordinate of the policeman against whom allega-tions were made!

Under law, the government has to order a magis-terial inquiry into every case of death in police custody. They are generally a farce. The magistrate has to depend upon the police machinery for collecting evi-dence against policemen. The inquiry normally takes a long time, more than a year in most of the cases, and often the reports are far from fair. Frequently the magistrate inquiring into the case and the police officer charged with violating the law are good friends-a common thing in a small town.

The death of a tribal in an "encounter" with the police in Jhabua district, a tribal belt, in 1978 is a typical ex-ample of police criminality and farcical inquiries that are normally made. Police prosecution of the dead man's brother on charge of theft and assaulting public servants backfired in court. The judge said that not only was the theft charge cooked up but the encounter story also appeared fake. The innocent tribal was killed by the trigger-happy police for nothing. A high-level inquiry later conducted by a senior civil servant exposed the magisterial inquiry into the "encounter", which had corroborated the police ver-sion. The civil servant advised criminal proceeding against the Deputy Superintendent of Police and other officers involved in the alleged murder.

The report was submitted in October, 1979. The "guilty" police officer was given a promotion soon after that.

The absence of a civil liberty movement coupled with the passivity of people in the state-the level of political consciousness is very low in Madhya Pradesh-had made things easier for unscrupulous policemen. Political activists raise their voice now and then but their vision is too narrow-most of the time it is aimed at embarrassing the party in power--for them to go far.

Madhya Pradesh is so notorious for its "criminals in uniform" that not long ago an Inspector General of Police had issued a confidential circular asking his sub-ordinates not to commit rapes "during. State Assembly session" for it gave a bad name to the force. And irritated by the opposition tirade against custodial rape, a former Chief Minister of the state proclaimed in the assembly, "To rape is a human weakness".

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