Data from the NCRB reports indicates that there has been no conviction of Police Personnel for Human Rights Violations since 2018. Data also indicates that while the number of cases registered with NHRC in respect of deaths in police and judicial custody has increased, the number of cases in which monetary relief is recommended by NHRC has decreased.
The recent death of MD Khadeer Khan from Telangana allegedly due to the police torture in custody has again put the spotlight on the custodial torture and police highhandedness. Custodial tortures and deaths destroy the very fabric of democracy and violate the basic rights of the citizens. Despite adequate checks and balances, the cases of custodial tortures and deaths have not been reduced.
Simply put, custodial death refers to any death of a person while they are in the care of the police or the judicial system. This severe type of human rights violation affects people everywhere, regardless of their gender or age. However, there is a strong bias towards poor and marginalized sections that is well reflected in the profile of victims of custodial tortures. In India, this has escalated into a very severe and concerning issue. In today’s story, we look at some data on custodial violence in India.
Custodial deaths remain higher despite serious measures.
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) collates data from the states and Union Territories on deaths in police custody. It includes the death of persons in remand as well as the death of persons who are not on remand. The data from 2012 indicates that though there is a decline in the number of deaths in police custody, this decline is not substantial. The highest number of deaths was recorded in 2013 with 118 deaths followed by 109 in 2012 and 100 in 2017. The year 2021 recorded eighty-eight deaths in police custody.
The data also throws up some interesting trends in custodial deaths. On average, more than 60% of the deaths in police custody are of persons who are not on remand. It indicates the severity of torture unleashed on individuals not on remand. Further, six deaths in 2021 are directly due to the injuries sustained during police custody due to physical assault by police, rising from one death in 2020.
No policemen convicted for custodial deaths from 2018.
Custodial deaths represent a system of oppression and authority. It is the worst form of police excess. It is said that the prudent exercise of power by police is not just knowing the extent of the power but also its limits. However, despite the checks and balances, when the custodian of the law themselves become law-breakers and there is no punishment for their wrong-doings, there is minimal hope for common citizens in the policing system.
The data on the number of cases against police personnel for human rights violations indicates that there is a very poor conviction rate. In fact, in 2017, three police personnel were convicted and from 2018 to 2021, no policeman was convicted for human rights violation. This abysmal conviction rate represents the lack of accountability in the system for such violence.
Role of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC)
According to the Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution, “Police” and “Public Order” are State subjects. It is the duty of the concerned State Government to ensure that human rights are protected. Nonetheless, the Central Government periodically issues warnings and has also passed the Protection of Human Rights Act (PHR), 1993, which mandates the establishment of the NHRC and State Human Rights Commissions to investigate claims of violations of human rights by public servants. When the NHRC receives complaints alleging abuses of human rights, the Commission responds in accordance with the guidelines established by the 1993 Protection of Human Rights Act.
Highest number of cases registered at NHRC about death in custody in 2021-22
As indicated earlier, NHRC has the statutory power to initiate proceedings either Suo motu or through the complaints it receives. The details of cases reported in respect of custodial deaths indicate that the highest number of cases regarding death in police custody as well as judicial custody were registered in 2021-22. This is the highest since 2013-14. A total of 1235 cases against deaths in police custody and 15,458 cases against deaths in judicial custody are reported by NHRC from 2013-14 to 2021-22. Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, and Uttar Pradesh are among the top states in which a higher number of cases about deaths in custody are registered with NHRC.
Decline in the monetary compensation from 2017-18
In addition to the receiving complaints on custodial crimes, the NHRC also awards monetary compensation as per the section 18 of the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993. Data from 2016-17 to 2021-22 indicates that monetary compensation was recommended in 1184 custodial death cases accounting for Rs. 28.47 crores. The number of custodial death cases in which monetary compensation was recommended was highest during 2017-18, thereafter which it declined consistently till 2021-22. However, the compliance of these orders is exceptionally low. For example, from 01 April 2019 to 31 March 2020, an amount of Rs.12.32 crores were recommended in 437 cases. However, only in 113 cases, the compliance reports were received.
No recommendations from NHRC on prosecution of erring public officers
In addition to the recommendations of monetary relief for victims, the NHRC also recommends disciplinary action against erring public servants. However, the compliance of action is dependent on the respective authorities and their rules and procedures.
In cases of custodial deaths, the commission recommended initiating disciplinary action in 21 cases from 2016-17 to 2021-22, while no recommendation for prosecution was made by the commission during the same period. Despite receiving such high number of cases on custodial deaths, the reason for such low numbers of disciplinary actions recommended is not known.
Half-hearted measures by Governments to eradicate custodial deaths.
India signed the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (commonly called UN Convention against Torture) on 14 October 1997; however, it has not yet been ratified. The Law Commission was entrusted to examine the issue of ratification in 2017. Accordingly the 273rd Law Commission Report on ‘Implementation of ‘United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment’ through Legislation’ was prepared and submitted.
Among other recommendations, the Law commission provided for stringent punishments for use of torture. In addition, it recommended that any injury sustained in police custody shall be presumed to be inflicted by the police and the burden of proof shall lie with the police. Further, the commission rejected the argument of sovereign immunity and held that citizens are entitled to have fundamental rights such as Right to Life and Personal Liberty.
Despite such recommendations, no action has been initiated on this front, and torture in police custody continues as indicated by the numbers. In fact, Prof. Jinee Lokaneeta argues that there is a silent acceptance of torture in the society and torture has become a ‘public secret’. It is high time that the state becomes proactive in eradicating the menace of custodial torture.