Sunday, May 25, 2008

Lethal Custodians

Arun Shourie

Things work at two levels in India, that of paper and that of fact. On paper, for instance, we have section 167 of the Indian Penal Code under which a public servant is to be hauled up for preparing a false document; we have section 192 of the same code under which the punishment for fabricating evidence that leads to conviction for murder is the same as for murder itself; indeed, on paper, we have the entire Criminal Procedure Code which provides safeguard after safeguard for the accused. On paper we have sections 25 to 27 of the Indian Evidence Act which state that no confession made to a police officer shall be used as proof against a person unless it has been made in the immediate presence of a magistrate. On paper we have Article 20(3) of the Constitution which decrees that no one can be compelled to testify against himself.

And if you read commentaries on these sections and Articles or the judgements in which they figure, you will find them becoming more and more liberal, more and more esoteric with each passing year.

That is what is on paper. In practice we have the police lockup. With the help of some of our correspondents, I have surveyed 45 police custody deaths that occurred during the last year in seven states and Delhi. Several states-even UP, and Bihar -- could not be covered for reasons to which I shall return in a moment. Even so the patterns are so uniform one death to another, from one state to another, that generalisations are possible.

First, the victims are invariably poor. You can decide for yourself whether this is so because the well-to-do do not commit crime in India; or, if they do, because they are not hauled in; or, if they are hauled in, because they are not interrogated vigorously (and in that too whether that is so because they confess more readily or because the police feel that vigour in such cases is liable to become public knowledge); or, finally, if they too are questioned just as vigorously as the poor, it is just that they are a hardier lot and can survive torture more cheerfully. In any event, the custody -- literally, the "guardianship", "care", "safe-keeping" of the police is fatal only for the poor.

Second, several of them seem to have been hauled in on no charge at all. Latoor Singh, a well respected Harijan of Hodal, the last Haryana township on the Delhi-Agra road, landed in police custody because he got into a heated argument with the SDM about the construction of a Harijan chaupal. Next, the police said, his body was found in a well. Outraged, the people gheraoed the police station. Police opened fire, killing two. Gangu, a Bawaria of villace Dehina in Mahendragarh district in Haryana was picked up, not because hee was wanted in a crime, but because the police could not locate the Bawaria they were looking for and thought that the Bawaria, sitting then at the village bus stand, must know where the other fellow is. That was on November 1, 1979. By November 5 he was dead. (His wife Misarli, who used to take him food every day, and was told on November 5 that Gangu had died, filed a private complaint, and sent letters to the Prime Minister, Home Minister etc., the usual lot. On January 23, two days before her complaint was to come up for hearing, a police party came to her house, dragged her out and shot her at point blank range). And so on.

Hauling a person in without "arresting" him and without registering a charge has become common practice in states such as Punjab and Haryana. The man is formally "arrested" and charges are registered only later when he has confessed to the crime under the customary methods. If he does not confess or if, through the thrashing, the police get convinced that he is indeed the wrong man or that he has learnt the lesson they wanted to teach him, he is let off with the warning that should he talk... Both Punjab and Haryana have institutionalised the more productive methods of interrogation by establishing a separate Criminal Interrogation Agency, an outfit of dregs specially skilled in the swadeshi methods of brutality.

Third, in the case of persons who were formally arrested and in whose case we have been able to obtain information about the charge, in the overwhelming number of cases the alleged crimes were puny -- theft (a goat in one case, copper wire in another), the casual complaint of another that the victim had occupied his land, ticket-less travel (believe it or not). In four cases the charge was serious: interrogation in relation to a murder in two cases, attempt to murder in one and murder in the fourth. But remember these are deaths in police custody. That means that in none of the cases was the guilt of anyone of them established, In each case the matter was still being investigated. Indeed, the hauling in of three of these four victims was the first step in the investigation.

Fourth, in seven of the 45 cases the bodies were so badly mauled, the evidence of external and internal injuries was so considerable that even the authorities had to eventually register cases of murder against policemen. Five were reported as having died from natural causes ("snake-bite", "heart failure on way to the hospital", "suddenly took ill", etc.) Five were said to have died for mysterious reasons (e.g., "found dead in lock-up"). All the others are said to have committed suicide.

Now, there are a few things to note about these accounts of suicide. If the police are to be believed, suicides almost invariably come in three forms -- the Victim jumps into a well, the victim jumps in front of a running bus (in Haryana the victims are, as in the case of the 59-year-old Rattan Singh of village Gumana, considerate enough to dive between the front and rear wheels of speeding buses so as to spare the drivers the liability that would be theirs if the victims were crushed by the front wheels of the vehicles) and third, the victim hangs himself by his lungi or his belt (the last in his lockup or, as in a case reported from Tamil Nadu, in the open courtyard of the police station).

Quite apart from the fact that even terminal patients, even those facing execution, do not commit suicide as readily as these victims accused of theft etc. seem to do, many of the police accounts of suicide are idiotic. Latoor Singh, to whose case I alluded earlier, is said to have committed suicide by jumping into a well when he went unescorted to ease himself in the fields. Now, why did he go unescorted into the fields when the police station itself has a lavatory which detainees use all the time? The police in Delhi cantonment started calling Emmanuel in to question him about a girl who had disappeared. They terrorised him into believing that he would be held responsible for her murder. Each time he was beaten severely and told to return the following evening. This went on every single day, every single day from March 27 to April 10, in this the capital of India. On April 11 he presented himself as usual at the police station. That evening he was found lying on a road, badgered and unconscious. He was rushed to one hospital and then to the other. But he died without regaining consciousness. The police version: suicide by taking poison. What about the beatings from March 27 to April 10? Why was his body bruised and badgered if all that had happened was that he had taken poison? And so on. (The girl Emmanuel was said to have murdered or kidnapped has since turned up).

So improbable are the accounts of suicide that in five of the cases in which the enraged people obtained new post mortems, deaths that had earlier been reported to have been by suicide were eventually proved to have been caused by external and internal injuries.

Next, what action was taken in the case of the deaths? In the seven cases where, under intense pressure from the public, murder was eventually proven, policemen have been suspended and murder charges have been framed against them. (As all the deaths occurred within the last year, one would not expect any conviction and none indeed has come). The customary procedure, however, is to assert first that no action is required as the case is obviously one of suicide or of death from natural causes; next, if public pressure is intense, to transfer a few policemen; if that too does not assuage public outrage, to suspend a policeman or two and then reinstate them (most often in another police station) after few months. In Gangu's case in Haryana, for instance, the inspector in charge of the CIA cell has been transferred to Chandigarh. In Emmanuel's case in Delhi, the sub-inspector and constable who were initially suspended in April have been reinstated and transferred to another police station within Delhi.

So much for the patterns in death. Now for five general points First, in no state are deaths in police custody examined systematically, not by the government, not by any civil rights organisation, not by the press. In no state is even information about them collected in a systematic manner. In each case, inquiries about the death are looked upon by the police and the civil administration as illegitimate encroachements into their private preserves. And this is why in spite of our efforts we could obtain little information about U.P. and Bihar.

Second, in each instance where an inquiry was ordered, it had to be wrested after intense pressure by the people.

Third, remember that even when torture does not result in death, its effects can be lethal. Three months ago in Delhi the local police successfully got two young boys to confess that they had murdered a third boy only to have the latter turn up soon after the case of murder was formally registered against the first two. (Contrast the formal provisions of section 192 of the IPC I cited earlier with the fact that all that has happened to the Station House Officer and two sub-inspectors who had shown such exemplary efficiency in proving murder is that they have been transferred to a neighbouring police station).

Fourth, contrast the helplessness of these victims and of those who subsequently take up their cause with the effectiveness with which the well-heeled and the influential are able to use the same sections of the Codes, of the Evidence Act and the same Article 20 of the Constitution to stall proceedings against themselves for decades.

Finally, note the strength of the police (which functions in these matters as quite the most effective trade union) and note its causes -- the almost total absence of civil rights organizations and the inability of the people to sustain their anger. How else would the police get away by merely transferring the guilty or reinstating them after a month or two?

How would you want me to end this survey -- with the plea that the formal provisions of law should be adhered to, with the plea to the police to be humane, with the plea to the public to keep their anger from subsiding with such unvarying certainty, with the plea that we build up strong civil rights organizations, with the plea that the press do its job better? Choose the one you think will bear fruit.

Indian Express
August 11, 1980

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