Cus­to­dial Deaths in In­dia ......................................

In In­dia with Spe­cial Ref­er­ence to Ramku­mar’s Case

Libertatem Magazine - - Content - By Saak­shi Sharma

Apo­lice­man walks into his po­lice sta­tion in a sour mood. He has just had a big quar­rel with his wife back at home, fol­lowed by an an­gry call from his su­pe­rior about some un­fin­ished in­ves­ti­ga­tion that should have been com­pleted yes­ter­day. As soon as he walks in and takes his seat, the subin­spec­tor in­forms him that a sus­pect in cus­tody needs to be ques­tioned about a mur­der that he is al­leged to have com­mit­ted. He has been fur­ther told that the case has gar­nered nation-wide me­dia at­ten­tion and hence, there is great pres­sure on the po­lice to come with a con­vic­tion. With so much go­ing on in his head, he heads off to the in­ter­ro­ga­tion room and when he finds that the sus­pect is un­will­ing to co-op­er­ate, his frus­tra­tion reaches its peak and he takes the in­ter­ro­ga­tion tech­niques over­board, ul­ti­mately re­sult­ing in the death of the sus­pect. Once the po­lice­man re­al­izes what has hap­pened he dresses the scene in such a man­ner that the death looks like a sui­cide and news is leaked to me­dia houses in the morn­ing that the sus­pect com­mit­ted sui­cide in the prison hold­ing due to fear of be­ing sen­tenced. In­stances such as the above are not un­com­mon any­more. Cus­to­dial deaths have be­come a sad re­al­ity in In­dia. The con­cept has ex­isted in In­dia ever since the Bri­tish rule wherein nu­mer­ous pris­on­ers were mer­ci­lessly tor­tured, and while some died as the re­sult of ex­ces­sive tor­ture, oth­ers were pur­pose­fully killed by the war­dens while in cus­tody. There are nu­mer­ous rea­sons for cus­to­dial deaths, es­ca­lated tor­ture lead­ing to ac­ci­den­tal death be­ing one of the most com­mon of them. An­other rea­son for cus­to­dial deaths is that some­times a sus­pect may agree to plead guilty but his state­ment be­fore the mag­is­trate would bring up names of in­flu­en­tial busi­ness­men, politi­cians, sports stars, film ac­tors, or in some cases even po­lice­men them­selves. So, to avoid the pub­lic dis­clo­sure of their il­le­gal ac­tiv­i­ties, such in­flu­en­tial per­son­al­i­ties em­ploy the po­lice­men as their force to neu­tral­ize such threats.

Based on a sur­vey by the In­dian Ex­press, the fol­low­ing are some ran­dom ex­am­ples of deaths in po­lice cus­tody De­vaki, a sweeper, was hauled in and tor­tured to death for her hus­band's con­nec­tion with a banned or­gan­i­sa­tion; Naresh Pan­nika was picked up only for ques­tion­ing;

car­pen­ter Deo­dana was dragged to the po­lice sta­tion be­cause one of his sons, al­legedly in­volved in a lo­cal feud was not at home at the time; Ramesh Kumar, a truck driver, was beaten to death for not al­low­ing a po­lice party to over­take his truck; Gangu was ar­rested and killed, for not re­pay­ing a loan of Rs. 3028 which he had bor­rowed in1978 to in­stall a go­bar gas plant; Ka­mal of Howrah had al­legedly at­tacked a ho­tel with a "rowdy"; Rat­tan Singh of Gu­mana in Haryana had ap­pealed to the vil­lage pan­chayat for help in a feud be­tween him and his sons-in-law and it in turn in­vited the po­lice in­ter­ven­tion; Naresh was try­ing to give up "satta" op­er­a­tions to which he had been in­tro­duced by the po­lice it­self; 19-year-old Shyam­tane was caught watch­ing a scuf­fle in front of his house; 65-year-old Bad­huk Raghavaria was rounded up on the charge of gam­bling; La­toor Singh, a har­i­jan of Ho­dal vil­lage in Haryana, landed in po­lice cus­tody for get­ting into a heated ar­gu­ment with the SDM about the con­struc­tion of a Har­i­jan­chau­pal. And so it goes on. All th­ese peo­ple died in the cus­tody of the po­lice. And not in one case cited above had the po­lice charged the vic­tim and shown him to be ar­rested. Haul­ing in a per­son with­out fil­ing an FIR has be­come a com­mon prac­tice. A for­mal reg­is­tra­tion of the case is done only af­ter the ac­cused has con­fessed to the crime, given what the po­lice con­sider are lib­eral pro­vi­sions of bail and ju­di­cial re­mand.

One of the most re­cent cases in In­dia in which the pre­sump­tion of a cus­to­dial death at the hands of the po­lice over a sui­cide was raised is the sui­cide by P. Ramku­mar, the lone sus­pect in the mur­der of In­fosys Techie Swathi at the Nungam­bakkam Rail­way Sta­tion. The mur­der of the techie had oc­curred in broad day­light on a plat­form of the bustling Nungam­bakkam rail­way sta­tion, in view of the pas­sen­gers await­ing the ar­rival of their trains. The cir­cum­stances of the crime and mys­tery sur­round­ing the mo­tive and the killer looked like it would end when Ramku­mar was ar­rested from his na­tive vil­lage. The ar­rest of the ac­cused was also quite the­atri­cal in that a spe­cial po­lice team sur­rounded his house in the Meenakshipu­ram Vil­lage area and fi­nally nabbed him even as he sup­pos­edly at­tempted to com­mit sui­cide by slit­ting his throat. A con­fes­sional state­ment was also said to have been made by the ac­cused wherein he claimed that he had killed Swathi as she had not re­cip­ro­cated his love for her. It was af­ter this that he was taken into the po­lice cus­tody where the sui­cide oc­curred.

The al­leged sui­cide is said to have been com­mit­ted by the sus­pect by “pulling and bit­ing into a live elec­tric wire” in­side the Puzhal Cen­tral Prison. Ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cial po­lice state­ment, around 4:30 p.m. on the day of the sui­cide, a jail war­den heard an un­usual sound and rushed in its di­rec­tion, only to find Ramku­mar un­con­scious on the floor with a live elec­tric wire in his mouth, near the dis­pen­sary block. The war­den im­me­di­ately switched off the main power, and with the as­sis­tance of oth­ers, rushed him to the prison hos­pi­tal where first aid was ad­min­is­tered to him. Since the sus­pect failed to re­spond to the first aid treat­ment, and his pulse was con­stantly de­clin­ing, the doc­tors re­ferred him to the Roy­apet­tah Hos­pi­tal, where Ramku­mar was ul­ti­mately de­clared dead on ar­rival.

The pub­lic up­roar fol­low­ing the no­ti­fi­ca­tion of the in­ci­dent by the po­lice was sig­nif­i­cant with the rel­a­tives and lawyers of the sus­pect claim­ing foul play on the part of the po­lice­man. The death also re­ceived wide­spread me­dia at­ten­tion with the Tamil me­dia de­bat­ing the in­volve­ment of the po­lice in the death on their news chan­nels. It was also re­ported that an Ad­vo­cate by the name of Shankar Subbu had filed a pe­ti­tion in the Madras High Court seek­ing ju­di­cial in­ter­ven­tion to en­sure that a fair post mortem is con­ducted. He urged that the mat­ter be heard and ruled upon be­fore the po­lice con­clude their for­mal­i­ties. Af­ter the hear­ing of the pe­ti­tion the judge ruled that a post mortem must be con­ducted by a team of four doc­tors and recorded.

On the 19th of Septem­ber the State Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion took suo motu cog­nizance of the in­ci­dent and di­rected the Ad­di­tional Di­rec­tor Gen­eral of Po­lice/ Di­rec­tor In­ves­ti­ga­tion Di­vi­sion of the SHRC to con­duct an en­quiry and sub­mit a com­pre­hen­sive re­port about the in­ci­dent within two weeks. The de­mand for an in­de­pen­dent probe into the case has also been made by sev­eral po­lit­i­cal par­ties, civil rights ac­tivists and le­gal ex­perts. Ramku­mar’s lawyers have made claims that the ini­tial throat slit­ting was also done by the po­lice so as to make him un­able to speak and hence can be framed for the mur­der. They also claimed that he had never had any con­tact with Swathi.

The lat­est up­date in the case is that the au­topsy of Ramku­mar’s body has been con­ducted by a team of five doc­tors, in­clud­ing an ex­pert from AIIMS, and the whole process was video-graphed and mon­i­tored by the mag­is­trate Tamil Selvi, who is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the death. The au­topsy re­port is ex­pected to be sub­mit­ted in a few days which will fur­ther shed light on the ex­act cause of death, and whether it can be ruled as a cus­to­dial death or as a sui­cide.

Even though there have been mul­ti­ple cases re­ported of cus­to­dial vi­o­lence, the case above be­ing tes­ta­ment to the same, they are just the tip of the ice­berg and there are nu­mer­ous other cases of the kind that go un­re­ported ev­ery year due to the sheer clout of the po­lice force as well as the in­flu­en­tial peo­ple pulling their strings. There is also an in­her­ent fear in the vic­tims of cus­to­dial tor­ture as well as the fam­i­lies of the vic­tims of cus­to­dial deaths that if they try to pur­sue such cases, it will only in­crease the or­deal they have al­ready suf­fered and hence they find it eas­ier to just let go of their loss. The need of the hour is thus to in­spire the con­fi­dence of the pub­lic that even the po­lice force will be held ac­count­able for its il­le­gal ac­tions and that they should ap­proach the ju­di­ciary with­out any fear of back­lash from the po­lice for suits ini­ti­ated against them.

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