Ode to lost humanity
UP, MP, Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu – the scenario is the same. Under-custody people are rampantly killing themselves, we’re told. This is today’s crude joke
A few weeks back, Altaf, a 22-year-old boy, allegedly abducted a minor girl, promising to marry her. With this intent, he reportedly asked the girl to reach Agra with his friend, where he would join them shortly. He never did. Why? It was perhaps because Altaf was picked up by the police on a complaint by the girl's family the next day. A day later, he was dead. How? Well, he apparently took a fancy to a deadly plastic tooti (tap) a few feet above the floor in the washroom of the police station where he was being interrogated. We are told he hung himself from this tap.
Altaf is neither alone nor a phenomenon. He was not a freak either, even though he managed this remarkable feat without a garrote, guillotine or noose. He succeeded in killing himself with the drawstring of the hoodie in his jacket. Numbers released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reveal rather shockingly that 1,888 people have died in judicial or police custody in India over the last 20 years. Mind you, these are officially released numbers. We can only attempt to guess what the real numbers are.
Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu head this gory list. And now, Gujarat is mustering strength too, says the NCRB, with Year 2020 alone seeing the state notching up a chilling score of 15 custodial deaths, out of a total of 76 across the country. Clearly, as a nation, we are marching on strong and relentless in this latest killing spree, spewing officially-sanctioned anger against the lesser privileged. "If thou shalt not bow to my insistence on a confession, I will fix you" – this seems to be the new creed and, clearly, wrath follows.
What are the numbers?
They are rather chilling, and here they are. We have already spoken about the 1,888 death toll. Here's some more. At the time of these deaths, as many as 703 were under police remand, according to the NCRB data. Additionally, there were 1,185 deaths that happened during questioning in police stations across the country, even before any court remanded the accused. Frighteningly and obviously, there are other forces at play.
The official reasons given for these custodial deaths, or under-interrogation deaths, are as blasé as they are revealing – 'illness, stroke, natural death during hospitalization because of prior disease, or due to natural causes and/or age'. That's what the authorities hand out to us. These chilling and heartless explanations prompted the Hon'ble Supreme Court to describe India's custodial deaths as "one of the worst crimes in a civilized society governed by the rule of law". Despite this, our country's custodial death march continues unabated.
In 2019, the number of people dying in custody every day jumped – and this includes judicial and police custody – according to a report by the National Campaign Against Torture. As per a 2020 report by the same organization, Uttar Pradesh recorded the highest number of deaths in police custody among all Indian states.
Going back to Altaf, his family initially alleged that he had been killed and demanded an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation. Subsequently, though, Chand Miyan, Altaf's father, was reported to have written a letter absolving the Uttar Pradesh Police of any blame. Just days later, he claimed that the police had made him sign a letter without showing him the contents. He claimed that he was illiterate and did not know what he was signing. "I put my thumbprint on a paper because the Circle Officer (CO) insisted," he said. "I want justice." The plot thickens.
This despite SC orders…
A year back, my Editor asked me to write a story on this miasma, exposing the abject apathy of the authorities and baring the truth behind this shamelessness – less than human, canine, even simian. I did. Today, despite repeated interventions and reprimands by the Hon'ble Supreme Court, there is no change. No one really cares, though, except to offer lip service.
Here's a recap of how we lost the plot. In late November last year, the Supreme Court ruled that every police station and investigation agency across the country, including the Central Bureau of Investigation, the National Investigation Agency and the Enforcement Directorate, must install CCTV cameras with night vision and audio recording. The apex court directed that all states would compulsorily have to install cameras with audio at all police stations, and that every bout of interrogation should be formally recorded.
The SC further said these security cameras should cover interrogation rooms, lock-ups and entries and exits in the premises. "These agencies carry out interrogation in their office(s), so CCTVs shall be installed where such interrogation and holding of the accused takes place in the same manner as it would in a police station," the order said. "Cameras must be installed at entry and exit points, lock-ups, corridors, lobbies, reception area, rooms of the Sub-Inspector and Inspector and outside washrooms."
CCTV cameras with recording facilities should be installed at the offices of the Narcotics Control Bureau, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence and the Serious Fraud Investigation Office, and all recordings should be retained for 18 months for evidence (purposes), the SC said. An independent panel can ask for the recordings to monitor any human rights violations. Finally, all were asked to file an action plan with timelines to comply with the order within six weeks. This was in keeping with Article 21 of the Indian Constitution – the Fundamental Right to Protection of Life and Personal Liberty.
While the Hon'ble Supreme Court gave a notice of six weeks, we are today again debating the same issue a year later. This is an extreme mockery of the highest court in the land, particularly because a similar order was passed in 2018 – three-and-a-half years back. In 2018, after the SC heard a case of custodial torture in Punjab, it noted that there were no security cameras installed to ascertain what really transpired inside the interrogation room. Angrily, the SC observed: "Nothing substantial has been done (even) after the Supreme Court passed orders."
The atrocities continue unabated. Lack of police reforms, absence of laws to check custodial torture and inadequate grievance mechanisms are the reasons why this torture and death continues. The Supreme Court order in November 2020 came just months after the CBI admitted that a man and his son who died after their arrest for violating the COVID-19 lockdown were tortured by policemen at Sathankulam in Tamil Nadu, primarily because the police personnel "wanted to teach them a lesson". There were nationwide calls for justice after Jeyaraj (59 years) and his son Benniks (31 years) were thrashed till they died. And in a macabre twist of fate, all audio and video details of their ordeal were erased.
Religious groups across the country welcomed the SC order to digitally record arrests and interrogation, saying this would be a first step to safeguard human rights. On December 2, 2020, the SC again insisted that all investigating agencies with the power to arrest citizens install cameras and recording equipment in their offices. A Christian preacher and lawyer from South India welcomed the order, saying it would "check human rights violations".
But the order is still being flouted, 42 months later.
Other gory issues
A few days after you read this column will come the first anniversary of the farmers' protest on Delhi's borders. What has changed in a year? Not much, except for the weather, which is again turning cold, as it was then these lakhs of people first descended on the Capital's peripheries, seeking a repeal of the farm laws and insisting on Minimum Support Price (MSP) for their produce.
It is the children of these farmers who man our international borders, especially those that we share with China and Pakistan. But leave alone providing them with any succor, we now have alleged instances of farmers being mowed down by thundering SUVs driven by booing drivers, the big-shots inside firing their licensed guns to convey their message of unabashed nonchalance and inherited supremacy.
Ironically, even that incident in Lakhimpur Kheri is being probed only after the Supreme Court intervened and conveyed its complete mistrust in any investigation by local state police forces. We seem to have fallen into a trap craftily set up of state-centric messianic powers, those who believe that they are above the law and scoff at any directions or orders by any institution. The hole that these people are digging is getting rather deep, so deep that we now face the risk of our collective conscience, basic decency and countenance falling into it, never to be recovered. This is a wake-up call.
The writer is a communications consultant and a clinical analyst. firstname.lastname@example.org. Views expressed are personal.