Custodial Deaths 'Due to Natural Causes’ – a Trump Card for Masking What Really Happens?

The truth about the circumstances of custodial deaths is the first step towards any conception of justice and restoration of dignity and an imperative for a State based on popular consent.

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On February 15, Jishan, a Muslim undertrial in Delhi’s Tihar Jail, was found dead in judicial custody with visible external and internal injuries. Yet his death was categorised as “due to natural causes”.

An urgent re-examination of this category of “natural causes” is required, given how often it is used to explain deaths in police custody, and in this case, judicial custody. The 2021 National Crimes Research Bureau report on prison statistics notes that the number of deaths in jails in 2020 were 1,887, out of which 1,642 were classified as “natural deaths” and 189 due to “unnatural causes”.

With natural deaths, 1,542 were reportedly due to illness, reflecting the highest category of deaths in judicial custody. The least number of “unnatural deaths” were explained by a category called “deaths due to negligence/excesses by jail personnel”.

What lies behind these statistics is best exhibited by a new fact-finding report on Jishan’s death by the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) that has once again drawn our attention to the lack of transparency and inadequate practices of accountability for custodial deaths. Furthermore, the Madras high court in 2020 had issued a slew of directions for the conduct of inquiry in custodial death cases, saying that post-mortem reports are crucial for “posthumous justice” in order to retain state legitimacy. It had further said that medical professionals and forensic experts are essential actors in ensuring justice for custodial violence. The top court’s judgment came after the intervention of civil liberty groups such as Peoples Watch that have done path-breaking work on anti-torture campaigns.

The high court order read: “The foundations of any democratic government rest on popular acceptance. Though the State primarily functions through its coercive apparatus, its actions must be perceived as proper by the people. What the government does must inspire the confidence of the people. Every time a custodial death occurs, the legitimacy of the State suffers a big dent. That can be set right only by ensuring transparent investigation. A dead person is equally entitled to justice. I would call it posthumous justice.”

Also read: Chennai Custody Death: Post-Mortem Reveals 13 Wounds; Cops Accused of Covering up ‘SC Status’

The Jishan death case

Nineteen years old, Jishan was picked up by a constable in November 2021 in relation to theft of cigarette packets from a shop. Between November and late January, the family met Jishan several times in Tihar jail and he seemed to be in good health. However, the family suddenly got a call in February saying that he was hospitalised, and found his dead body at the hospital.

While the official reason for his death was claimed to be “chest pain, low platelet count and brain haemorrhage”, thereby constituting a death due to ‘natural cause’, the PUDR report explicitly reveals why such an explanation may be inadequate. After a post-mortem examination was conducted at the hospital, the family during the Muslim burial rituals found extensive external bruises and injuries and possible internal injuries.

However, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) as well as the police took note of the matter only when the family and neighbours protested vocally after they discovered injuries on the body, and a civil rights group, Jan Hastakshep, conducted a press conference on the issue. Such negligence was caused despite numerous Supreme Court and NHRC guidelines requiring proactive steps in cases of custodial death.

Additionally, while all the required legal steps were ostensibly taken, it’s unclear if Jishan was taken to the hospital on time, and the cause behind the internal and external injuries leading to his death.

A mandatory inquest had also been undertaken under the supervision of the judicial magistrate in Tis Hazari and the post-mortem examination was conducted in February. However, while the post-mortem report did mention some of the external injuries on the face, chest and shoulder, it didn’t mention the other injuries reported by the family. Furthermore, as the PUDR report notes, “Strangely, the post-mortem report draws no inference after recording all these injuries.” And while some internal injuries are mentioned, the main cause of death is determined as “intra cerebral haemorrhage” which it says occurs in cases of low platelet count. It, essentially, considers Jishan’s death as one “due to natural causes”.

Even though the jail authorities primarily submitted that “low platelet count” and Jishan’s “drug habits” led to his death, during a hospital visit, Jishan gave two different reasons for his injuries, one of a fall and the other of being beaten in jail.

Also read: Poor Medical Care for Prisoners Explains Why Number of Custodial Deaths Is Only Rising

While it is unclear whether he might have been beaten by inmates or officials, it points to a lack of protection from the custodial/jail authorities and raises questions about whether a delay in medical help contributed to his death. If such questions remain unanswered, then the category of “natural causes” just becomes another way of masking what really happened in Jishan’s case.

The fact that ultimately the person dies due to a physiological impact on the body helps hide the exact circumstances that precede the death. The PUDR report demands an independent and fair investigation into the death of Jishan and notes that technical fixes such as implementation of the apex court’s orders on CCTV may be inadequate in the absence of independent monitoring.

Civil society groups such as Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and CEHAT have also created uniform guidelines for doctors conducting post-mortem and medical examinations in custody to recognise their important role in documenting injuries that may indicate some correspondence to torture or ill treatment in custody.

Recent initiatives recall the significance of professional and informed post-mortem reports created by independent medical professionals as crucial to ensuring posthumous justice. As medical ethics activist and scholar, Amar Jesani, has long pointed out, doctors have an ethical role to play in all aspects of the criminal justice system. Yet the doctors in Jishan’s case have failed to perform that role of specifying possible inferences from the injuries.

The truth about the circumstances of Jishan’s death is the first step towards any conception of justice and restoration of dignity and an imperative for a State based on popular consent.

Jinee Lokaneeta teaches political science at Drew University, New Jersey. She is the author of: The Truth Machines: Policing, Violence, and Scientific Interrogations in India (University of Michigan Press, Orient Blackswan, 2020).