Custodial Deaths – UPSC GS2

  • Across India there are as many as five custodial deaths a day.
  • Example : Police violence in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu
  • The CJI has raised concerns of human rights issues in police custody.
  • Ministry of Home Affairs has reported that 348 custodial deaths and 1,189 cases of torture by the police were reported in the last 3 years.
Constitutional Provisions to protect people from custodial torture
Article 20 (3): says that no person “shall be compelled to be a witness against himself”.
Article 21:  Provides protection of life and liberty.
Similar provisions have also been provided in IPC and CrPC to protect individuals but they are not relevant to the present time.
Problems with these provisions:
These provisions do not act as deterrence to police as they are backed by political parties. There have been cases of use of police for political purposes and killing of suspected criminals in encounters.
Systemic failure:
  • The practice of remanding accused persons to further custody (both the police and judicial), has become the norm instead of being an exception.
  • The overworked magistrate, struggling with an ever-increasing number of cases, is very often in a rush to get done with the “remand case”, rather than treat an arrested person with the care and consideration that he/she deserves and is entitled to.
  • Work Culture in Police Forces:
    • In the Indian police force, the lower ranks of police personnel are often verbally abused by their superiors. Many are not considered as individuals, are not shown compassion by the senior ranks, and work in inhuman conditions.
    • Their relationship with their superior officers is stressful and sycophantic. There is no concept of welfare, and this manifests in their improper behaviour with the citizenry.
Culture of Torture:
  • Police torture is endemic and a systemic problem. There is a need for a stringent legal framework that is aligned with and committed to the principles of international law under the UN Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) to which India has been a signatory since 1997. Although India signed the UNCAT in 1997, it is yet to ratify it.
  • The UNCAT aims to prevent torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment around the world.
  • The Supreme Court, through its verdict in the Francis Coralie Mullin v. Union Territory of Delhi (1981) and Sheela Barse v. State of Maharashtra (1987), has condemned cruelty and torture as violative of Article 21 of the Indian constitution.
Lack of police reforms:
  • The issue of police reform ranks very low in the scheme of things for governments. There is continued institutional apathy towards the issue of police reform. There was inordinate delay in implementing guidelines issued through the Prakash Singh case and still, several States remain in contempt of the Supreme Court’s judgment.
Lack of implementation:
  • Constitutional courts have tried to change the reality of police brutality for well over two decades. The judiciary’s approach of simply passing directions and guidelines has not been very effective.
  • Despite criminal laws being struck down as unconstitutional, they continue to be enforced in various parts of the country by local police.
Way forward:
Better implementation:
  • Rather than limiting itself to passing more guidelines, constitutional courts must seriously contend with the concrete cases that come their way and take a hard stand.
  • Passing compensation claims or ensuring timely prosecutions in such cases could help break the sense of impunity. The Courts could also consider sanctions at a larger scale and impose monetary penalties at the district level, to drive home the message that the erring actions of one officer must be seen as a failure of the force itself.
  • Strengthening the magistrate: The ordinary magistrate is the judicial actor wielding real power to realise a substantial change in police practices. It is the local magistrate before whom all arrested and detained persons must be produced within 24 hours, and thus becomes the point of first contact for a citizen with the constitutional rule of law.

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