Listen to this article:
New Delhi: Hot on the heels of his comments in open court questioning the rationale for the country to hold on to the colonial-era sedition law 75 years after independence, Chief Justice N.V. Ramana on Sunday hit out at another manifestation of the abuse of authority in India: custodial torture.
“The threat to human rights and bodily integrity are the highest in police stations,” he said in brief remarks at an event organised by the National Legal Services Authority of India (NALSA). “Custodial torture and other police atrocities are problems which still prevail in our society.”
According to data shared by Union minister of state for home affairs Nityanand Rai in parliament last week, the official count for the number of persons tortured in detention between 2017 and 2019 was 1,189 others while 348 individuals were killed in police encounters.
Most experts believe this data on custodial torture is an undercount. According to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), as many as 1,723 persons died in judicial custody and police custody across India in 2019 alone. “These included 1,606 deaths in judicial custody and 117 deaths in police custody, i.e. an average of five deaths daily,” the National Campaign Against Torture has noted.
While safeguards do exist, the chief justice pointed out, they are not enough to make sure people in police stations do not have their rights violated. “In spite of constitutional declarations and guarantees, lack of effective legal representation at the police stations is a huge detriment to arrested/detained persons. The decisions taken in these early hours will later determine the ability of the accused to defend himself,” he said.
The issue, according to him, is the basic inequality in India when it comes to accessing justice. “If we want to remain as a society governed by the rule of law, it is imperative for us to bridge the gap of accessibility to justice between the highly privileged and the most vulnerable.”
“For all times to come, we must remember that, the realities of socio-economic diversity which prevail in our nation, cannot ever be a reason for denial of rights. Let our past not determine our future. Let us dream of a future based on legal mobility, a future where equality is a reality,” he continued. “That is why the project ‘Access to Justice; is an unending mission.”
This mission, he continued, is integral if the judiciary indeed wants to serve all sections of Indians, and provide them with the same securities. “If, as an institution, the judiciary wants to garner the faith of the citizens, we have to make everyone feel assured that we exist for them. For the longest time, the vulnerable population has lived outside the system of justice. The prevailing obstacles like lengthy, painstaking and expensive formal justice processes add to the woes of realising the goals of ‘Access to Justice’. As an institution, the toughest challenge before us is to break these barriers first…”
CJI Ramana also pointed out that this goal cannot merely be seen as aspirational – it requires working actively with various wings of the government.
Another need, he continued, was to make sure everyone is aware of their legal and constitutional rights, especially while they interact with the police. In addition to that, police officers need to be provided proper sensitisation training to ensure they are not prone to committing excesses. “To keep police excesses in check, dissemination of information about the constitutional right to legal aid and availability of free legal aid services is necessary. The installation of display boards and outdoor hoardings in every police station/prison is a step in this direction. However, NALSA must also actively carry out nationwide sensitisation of police officers,” CJI Ramana said.
The media too should play a part in this mission, the chief justice continued. I have an appeal to make to the media as well. It is the mass media which has the unparalleled capacity to spread the message of service. You are also stakeholders in this important mission.”
Justice U.U. Lalit, who serves as the executive chairman of NALSA, also spoke at the event and highlight the need to spread awareness on the legal aid system. According to him, law colleges should play a role in this. “We are impressing upon Bar Councils and law colleges and they must adopt one or two talukas around them, so that students can be given practical training to be part of large contingent of para-volunteers. They will impress on people about their rights of legal aid,” Justice Lalit said.