Custodial Deaths in India Are a Cold-Blooded Play of Power and Class

Custodial deaths cannot be viewed in isolation. When law enforcement agencies become perpetrators of violence, it becomes an ominous case of abuse of authority.

In Vetrimaaran’s Visaranai, four Tamil migrant workers are picked up, beaten and tortured by police in Guntur for a crime they did not commit to close a high-profile case, looming under pressure from the high-ups. Isn’t this how most cases get closed in our country?

The film is a powerful, uncompromising take on the disturbing reality of police brutality, power politics, and caste and religion-based discrimination. The film is based on an autobiographical novel Lock Up by M. Chandrakumar, a Tamil auto-rickshaw driver, who along with his friends was picked up and tortured by police for a crime he did not commit and survived to tell the story. Visaranai was also selected as India’s official entry to the Oscars in 2016. 

On June 19, P. Jeyaraj (58), and his son Bennix (38), were arrested for allegedly violating the lockdown rules of the state by keeping their store open past the allowed hours in Tamil Nadu. Two days later, they died of police brutality. The growing outrage on social media over the deaths of Jeyaraj and Fenix put a massive spotlight on custodial deaths. Citing the injuries on their bodies and the judicial magistrate’s report, the Madras high court gave the green signal to an investigation against the police officers who were involved. So far, a murder case has been registered and five policemen have been arrested.

File photo of J Beniks and his father Jayaraj. Photo: PTI

Disturbing scenario

A recent report by a rights body against custodial torture across the world reveals a disturbing scenario in India – 1,731 people died in custody in 2019, mostly from vulnerable communities, Dalits and Muslims. Of this, 1,606 people died in judicial custody and 125 people in police custody. The report also highlights some of the most horrifying but commonly used torture methods. This depicts the real picture of a widespread, gruesome practice prevalent across the country; deaths that only count as numbers and justice that is denied forever due to power politics. 

In April 2019, Nabbir, a prisoner in Tihar Jail complained that the superintendent forcibly burned the symbol ‘Om’ on his back. In September 2019, in Darrang district in Assam, pregnant Minuwara Begum (28) was picked up by police in a kidnapping case and she was kicked in her belly. She lost her child due to miscarriage as a consequence of the ruthless treatment by the police. In September 2019, Diwakar Kumar (30) was tortured at Mufassil police station in Samastipur, Bihar.

Also Read: What Public Reactions to Police Brutality in the US and India Say

Custodial deaths cannot be and must not be viewed in isolation. When law enforcement agencies become perpetrators of violence, it becomes an ominous case of abuse of authority and discrimination against caste and religious minorities under the privilege of impunity – all backed by a silent state.

Police brutality is, undeniably, actively practiced as part of routine procedure to extract confessions from suspects and many a time, to manipulate the truth. According to data provided by the National Crime Records Bureau, about 100 people died in police custody in 2017 but there were no convictions. A Human Rights Watch report released in 2016 probed custodial deaths, arrest procedures, victim’s family accounts, and impunity of the police which conveniently misreports custodial deaths as suicides, or deaths due to illness or natural causes.

A hypocritical silence 

After the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in the US, there have been resilient protests around the world, paving a crucial way towards condemning police brutality and rightfully demanding a humane police force. I find it difficult to appreciate prominent voices of India condemning the brutality and injustices against Blacks in the US but remaining silent on the brutality and injustices against Dalits, Muslims and the poor in their own country. The problematic attitude of the affluent and with class privilege has normalised acts of police brutality and encouraged a culture of impunity. 

Protesters march at a rally against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Houston, Texas, US June 2, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Callaghan O’Hare

As a citizen belonging to a religious minority in India, the fear is so deeply entrenched that when Safoora Zargar was arrested, like many, I too feared for her and her baby. Because, undeniably, police brutality has been used as a weapon to bury the truth and dissent. 

Policemen being convicted for custodial deaths is a very rare headline. The increasing number of custodial deaths but zero convictions present an urgent narrative demanding meticulous examination of systemic flaws rooted in a culture of impunity, corruption, discrimination, eroding justice system and power play compounding to violation of human rights. If this is how it is, we need to question the very fundamental values of our system that endanger the lives of the most vulnerable – Muslims, Dalits, tribals and women. We need some dire measures to be implemented. 

First, end impunity of police so that the ones responsible are convicted. The fragile relationship between the state and public is largely dependent on the fundamental respect of human rights. The Supreme Court’s 2006 order on setting a police complaints authority will give freedom to every citizen to file a complaint against policemen for any act of misconduct. Except for a few states, this order has been gathering dust in cupboards.

Also Read: No State Fully Complied With SC Directives on Police Reforms, Finds Study 

Second, there is need for structural reforms like rebuilding the foundational training programmes for the police force, focusing on human rights, dismantling the established mindset of discrimination leading to hate crimes inside the prisons and building a regular process of scrutiny to ensure that law and safety of individuals are abided by. 

Third, every country and every state deserves a police force that respects human rights and does not toy with the lives of its citizens. If people don’t feel safe around the police, what is the point of having them? How many of us have felt reluctant to approach a policeman in our times of need? How many of us have felt that sudden moment of perplexity on seeing a policeman in the vicinity?

In the world’s biggest democracy, it is ironic to see the police force, which is meant to be a law enforcement agency, become a perpetrator of violence and murder the lives of many with the state as an accomplice. It is crucial to mention that India has yet to ratify the 1987 United Nations Convention against Torture. The government’s silence on (the many) custodial deaths is testimony to its thick as thieves affair with the institutions of justice and law. 

Arsheen Kaur is a writer and development communications specialist based out of Delhi and Toronto. She is a film studies and English literature graduate from Jamia Millia Islamia. She tweets @arsheenhere.