Custodial Deaths in India

By Suryansh Beohar


For a very long time, torment and abuse by police officers in detention have been a major concern. Many countries of the world struggle with this problem, which unfortunately also includes India, where the incidence of such instances has risen over time. It is true that cops utilize third-degree procedures to get confessions and statements from suspects. Such tactics frequently result in significant injury, if not death. It is also believed that many of the victims are driven to the edge of stress which often results in them committing suicide due to the trauma and stress they go through while being in custody.

Following the horrific execution of George Floyd in the United States and the detention deaths of Jayaraj and Benix in Tamil Nadu, India, there has been widespread outrage and calls for police reforms and the implementation of proper measures to hold negligent officials accountable. The IPC has a number of remedies that can be used to remedy this problem. The Highest Court has also given orders and instructions to the Union and State governments on a regular basis, urging them to take the situation seriously, carry out measures to reduce occurrences of custodial mortality, and penalize truant and corrupt officials. However, it can clearly be seen by the growing no. of in-custody deaths in India, the efforts have failed. What is even more interesting is that there exists no anti-torture law in our country despite such problems. Such an act is definitely needed right now. 

Custodial Death

“Custodial Death” is a term used to describe death that occurs while the victim is being tried for committing a crime or has already been convicted of one. It might be due to natural causes such as disease, and it might even be caused due to suicide or any kind of physical confrontation among the inmates of the jail, but it has been seen that in the majority of the cases, the main cause is police violence and torture.

This is a contentious and difficult matter. The victims are frequently tortured before they are arrested, i.e., before they are taken into custody, which allows the police officials to give excuses regarding the injuries and deaths, by stating that the injuries occurred prior to the arrest. Allegedly there have been numerous times where fake encounters have been set up to terminate the person in custody.   This is also a type of incarcerated death, which is difficult to verify. The most noteworthy feature is that all evidence and records are kept by the police officials, which leaves very little if any room at all for the evidence outside of the police stations. As a result, detecting custodial violence and the deaths that arise from it is extremely hard. Custodial killings are one of the most heinous types of violations of the human rights of a person. Not only custodial killing is a direct attempt to disrespect and violate human rights and the Indian Constitution, but it also violates Article 21, which is the protection of the right to life and liberty. It is the obligation of the separate states to safeguard the lives of the victims and prisoners. In the detention centers, whether police or judicial, the people despite being accused of any sort of crimes, still possess the human rights given to them by the Indian Constitution, which includes the right to a fair trial, safety, and security. However, law enforcement officials frequently fall short in carrying out their constitutional obligations, and the criminals make a concerted attempt to cover up and shield their wrongdoings once such occurrences occur. The govt. of India also plays a significant part in ensuring the safety of the accused cops.

Custodial deaths in India

As per the “India Annual Report on Torture 2019”, the country has seen a whopping 1,731 fatalities in custody. There were 1,606 persons in court detention and 125 people in the custody of the police officials are among those who passed away. This equates to nearly 5 people dying every day. Electrical shocking of various body parts Electric shock, hammering nails into the body, applying cold power to various body parts, branding with a hot iron, insertion of metal rods into various body parts, stretching the legs apart, and inhumane beatings are among the most commonly used forms of inflicting pain highlighted in the report. These are only a few of the heinous acts that people who pass away in jail are subjected to. 

Recently these heinous crimes took place in the state of Tamil Nadu, where P Jeyaraj (58) and his son Benicks (38) were arrested after reportedly keeping their store open over the permissible hours during the shutdown of the nation as ordered by the govt of India during times of the pandemic. Instantly. they were assaulted on the scene by the police officials and escorted to the police station. After 2 days, both of them perished. The act aroused significant indignation on the social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram to name a few, prompting a criminal probe by the local authorities. The court held that the cops engaged in the case will be prosecuted with murder. The facts of the abuse, when disclosed, rocked the country, and discussions against police brutality and the imprudent actions of the police towards the people in custody grew in popularity as a result. This occurred roughly a month after the brutal killing of George Floyd in The United States of America. George was an African American who was detained for the alleged use of counterfeit notes; which led to numerous policemen arresting him, and one kneeling on the back of his neck, making it hard for him to breathe. He struggled and begged the official to lift his knee, but to no avail. A few minutes later he died from the lack of oxygen. This provoked tremendous, world-record-breaking protests across the United States and around the globe. Another incident took place recently regarding Vikas Dubey’s encounter, Vikas Dubey, a Kanpur-based criminal, was fatally shot in what was an ambuscade as per the police officials present on site. According to a police report, the cars transporting him crashed, and he attempted to flee as well as kill the officers present there. This generated new national disputes over whether the incident was planned or if it was killing in custody.

Laws and Statutes regarding Custodial Deaths in India

The Constitution of India and judicial system have several safeguards and mechanisms to combat custodial deaths and torture:

Article 20(1) states that “No person shall be convicted of any offense except for violation of the law in force at the time of the commission of the act charged as an offense, nor be subjected to a penalty greater than that which might have been inflicted under the law in force at the time of the commission of the offense” As a result, the article forbids the enactment of ex-post-facto criminal statutes, as well as the imposition of any punishment greater than that which may be imposed by the law in effect at the time the offense was committed. In conclusion, the article prevents the formation of a new offense that has retroactive application.

According to Article 20(2) “No person shall be prosecuted and punished for the same offense more than once”

According to Article 20(3) “No person accused of any offense shall be compelled to be a witness against himself” This statute is very critical because it serves as a protection against coercion and torture in attempting to extract evidence from the accused in the case. Surprisingly, under Section 179 of the IPC, every citizen of the country has a legal obligation to tell only the truth on any and every matter to a public official. The accused can also be examined and questioned by any police official under Section 161 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.

However, if the police apply any sort of coercion whether subtle or overt, However, if the police employ any sort of coercion, whether subtle or overt, mental or physical, direct or indirect, yet significant, to extract information from any person, this is referred to as “compelled testimony,” which results in a violation of Article 20. (3). This is how the article’s restrictive scope works, and it serves as a protection for the accused. This topic was brought up in the Nandini Satpathi case.

Section 24 of the Indian Evidence Act (1872) prohibits any police official from inducing, threatening, or promising anything to the accused. The official is also prohibited from compelling the accused from making any sort of statement. Anything confessed by the accused under any threat or inducement shall be held inadmissible under the eyes of the law. Section 163 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 gives the accused the right to not give any confession against the will of the accused since it is commonly established that allowance of such practices to obtain evidence would result in unfair practices being used everywhere by the authorities to obtain a confession of their choice. 

Section 348 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 bans unlawful imprisonment for the purpose of extracting any confession to prove the commission of any offense or misbehavior. Wrongful confinement is a serious offense that involves imprisonment up to 3 years or a fine or both.

Although Article 21 of the Indian Constitution (Right to Life and Personal Liberty) doesn’t directly prohibit custodial torture, its scope is fairly broad. It prohibits the deprivation of the personal liberty of life until they follow the legal process. The right comprises constitutional protection against torture, assault, or harm, and so serves as a deterrent to any kind of unjust violence and torture of the accused in custody. In Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India (1978) the scope and breadth of Article 21 were broadened by the Supreme Court, putting emphasis on the right to live with dignity, as according to the court right to life is not limited to mere “physical existence”.

It was ruled by the Supreme Court in Inderjeet Singh & Ors. vs State 2014 that any punishment which consists of torture is unconstitutional. The mandatory handcuffing of prison inmates was also banned by the Supreme Court in Prem Shankar Shukla vs Delhi Administration 1980 finding the practice to be inhumane and establishing some norms in this respect. 

Conclusion and Opinion

It is quite evident that custodial torture is something that is very often done in police custody and has proven to be a very substantial problem that must be countered. Our country must adopt policies adopted internationally and should adopt similar measures as countries like Norway, Finland, etc. This is crucial in order to usher in a regime of freedom, independence, humanity, and compassion, and hold guilty officials accountable. It is also vital to establish an atmosphere in which the criminal justice system can function without relying on harsh punishments and where community engagement is encouraged.

It is also worth noting that India is one of the few nations that has not ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which is not a good look for India regarding its promises for human rights preservation. India does not have a separate anti-torture statute, therefore ratifying it would need the creation of one. The reason behind the rejected extradition requests of India of its nationals in other nations can be the absence of a proper anti-custodial torture law. This makes the nations think that there is a major risk of human rights violations of the accused in custody. As stated by the apex court, the introduction of such a law would serve the nation’s interest.

Not much can be anticipated to improve the situation unless police officers who are involved in custody fatalities get punishment and are penalization following a thorough judicial investigation. This would also stand out as an example for all the corrupt officials who indulge in such unfair practices. Correct interrogation tactics, along with the application of scientific methods to obtain the truth from suspects, can help to reduce the number of people who die in prison.

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