One of the regular complaints against the Indian police forces relates to the use of third-degree methods and brutality against suspects and under-trials for eliciting information and confessions. They often result in grievous injuries being inflicted on suspects and sometimes resulting in their death. A recent NHRC (National Human Rights Commission) report shows that the number of custodial deaths almost doubled between 2000 and 2004 despite strictures by the judiciary and the apex human rights body. The Supreme Court rightly believes that deaths in police custody are the worst crimes in a civilized society as they offend the basic human right to life and liberty enshrined in the Constitution.
According to the latest NHRC Annual Report, Uttar Pradesh tops the list. Out of 277 custodial deaths in the state, 18 were in police custody, while 259 died in judicial lock-ups. Bihar, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh follow UP in sharing this dubious distinction. Punjab ranks fifth in terms of custodial deaths (106 in 2005-06, out of which 100 were in judicial custody). Overall, there were 1,591 deaths of inmates in judicial custody, while 139 died in police lock-ups.
Many inquiries and investigations have revealed that a large number of such deaths are not reported as they are explained away as either suicides or encounter deaths. The use of force and third-degree methods forces suspects and under-trials very often to confess to crimes they had never committed, thereby making a mockery of the law and justice system. Thus, violence-induced confessions often turn innocents into guilty criminals.
Although, India has signed the International Convention against Torture, it has refused to ratify it on the grounds that there are enough laws and safeguards against police torture. While different mechanisms do exist to check the use of brutal force and illegal methods, they have not succeeded in practice. No procedure exists for holding independent inquiries into custodial deaths. In the absence of a clear provision in the Cr.PC mandating a magisterial (executive) inquiry whenever a custodial death occurs, this is left to direction by the Human Rights Commission, although it is possible for executive magistrates to take the initiative in this matter. There is also no specialized forum where detainees can seek redress, apart from pursuing the complex and dilatory procedures established by law. That is why an urgent need has been felt to grant independent powers to the NHRC and CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) for investigating cases of blatant use of force by the police to extract confessions and those resulting in death in police/judicial custody.
It has also long been felt that the arresting and investigating agencies should be separated. There is always a temptation to inquire and investigate an offence to vindicate the police stand for arresting people in the first instance. There are no checks and balances operative on the police during the investigation to ensure that the investigation is truthful and proper.
To deter further misuse of police powers and use of third-degree methods resulting in custodial deaths, the Law Commission has recommended that such deaths be deemed murders; thereafter, suitable legal proceedings and action could be initiated against those involved, with the burden of disproving such murders shifting to the police. The guilty should not feel that no disciplinary action will be taken against them and that any inquiry initiated against them will be swept under the carpet. Guilty policemen are often not booked as no witnesses can be found, which needs to guarded against by giving protection to whistle-blowers. The Jivan Reddy Commission, investigating cases of police torture in Punjab some years ago, had recommended payment of compensation to the victims and recovering it from the guilty police and jail personnel. However, nothing substantive has come out of these recommendations.
Nevertheless, genuine concern for human rights of the prisoners should keep us mindful that our obsession with rules and procedures does not result in criminals escaping justice. Often it has been noticed that even though the criminals are known, the provisions of the Indian Evidence Act and other requirements of law allow them to escape the proverbial long arm of the law. This bespeaks the urgent need for police and judicial reforms to ensure that investigations and legal cases are conducted with greater alacrity, integrity and professionalism.
There is fair unanimity that the police, being the custodians of law and justice in the country, are expected to be responsible and not abuse their powers vis-a-vis suspects and under-trials. Police personnel, including both senior officials and the rank-and-file, need proper reorientation and training to handle such cases with care, without compromising the basic human rights of citizens.
Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Government of India