In contemporary 21st century india, which prides itself on being the world’s most populous democracy governed by the rule of law, a dangerous new epidemic of police torture and custodial deaths is running riot. On March 21, Rizwan Asad, a young principal of a government school in Awantipora near Srinagar, was reportedly tortured to death by the police. A day earlier, a Delhi court sentenced five Uttar Pradesh police personnel to ten years rigorous imprisonment each, for torturing a man to death in Noida’s Sector 20 police station in 2006. On March 6, two Muslim youth, arrested by the police in Dumra, Bihar on suspicion of theft, were reportedly tortured to death in police custody. Their families presented photographs and videos of the victims’ bodies bearing marks of brutal torture, including nails hammered into them. Under public pressure, an FIR has been filed against eight unidentified police officers.
It’s an open secret of Indian society that custodial torture of suspects, especially if they are from the lower strata of society, is routine and the establishment and educated middle class are content to turn a blind eye to this pervasive practice. Against the backdrop of the law’s agonising delays there’s virtual consensus within the establishment and feeble-minded middle class that custodial torture is a legitimate option to short-circuit the procedural delays of the country’s obsolete legal system.
But even as India’s rapidly lumpenising establishment and effete middle class are content to turn a blind eye towards the increasing to criminalisation of country’s police and law enforcement personnel, human rights organisations are raising the volume of their protests against custodial torture and abuse of millions of Indian citizens routinely rounded up as suspects in criminal cases. According to human rights activists Maja Daruwala and Devika Prasad, “last year, there were 144 deaths in police custody and about 40 percent of the complaints received every year by NHRC (National Human Rights Commission) are against the police — mainly for custodial violence” (The Hindu, March 21). Moreover in a 114-page report titled Bound by Brotherhood: India’s Failure to End Killings in Police Custody (2016), the New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch says 591 people died in police custody in India between 2010-2015. “Instead of holding police responsible to account, authorities have stalled reforms needed to build a more rights-respecting force,” says the report.
Incremental criminalisation of the country’s police needs urgent remedial action. Blueprints for police reforms are readily available in the form of comprehensive reports of the Justice V.S. Malimath (2003) and Justice J.S Verma (2013) committees.
India’s tragedy is that amoral politicians in all political parties prefer the status quo which permits them to use the publicly-funded police forces of the Central and state governments as their private militias, to provide them protection and settle scores with their opponents. Meanwhile the country’s compromised intelligentsia and educated middle class are silent spectators.