Every Custodial Death a Reminder of Why India Must Ratify the Convention Against Torture

How can millions of citizens expect compassionate protection from forced migration, exploitation and bondage, when the Government of India hesitates on a basic legislation against daily violence by its own agencies?

In the same week that the world marked International Day in Support of Victims of Torture (June 26), a father-son duo in Tamil Nadu who kept a shop open after COVID-19 curfew hours died in custody, allegedly after being tortured at the hands of the Thoothukudi district police.

According to reports, a baton was inserted into the anus of one man. The Chinese army’s use of iron rods and nail-studded clubs in 2020 will be remembered by a generation. But we will soon forget what happened in Thoothukudi, as if it was a momentary aberration rather than part of systemic police violence in India.

The police in the same district had, on May 22, 2018, shot dead 13 people, who were among a crowd that had demonstrated for 100 days without violence, seeking closure of Vedanta’s highly polluting Sterlite Copper Unit. In two years, no one has been charged, and police impunity seems to continue.

The persistence of inhuman treatment makes it apparent that the India is determined to protect violence by the police. India is one of only five countries that have yet to ratify the 1987 UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT). The others include Sudan, Brunei and Haiti.

Also read: Tamil Nadu: Social Media Outrage, Protests Over Brutal Thoothukudi Custodial Deaths

Just before the 2010 visit to India of US President Barack Obama, the Lok Sabha passed the Prevention of Torture Bill, 2010, as a hesitant and wholly inadequate first step towards India’s UNCAT ratification. Despite the change of government, the lip service has continued. In 2017, when India presented its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to the UN Human Rights Council, no exclusive anti-torture Bill was mentioned, but rather the Law Commission’s ongoing examination of changes to existing criminal laws.

In 2010 itself, a Rajya Sabha multi-party select committee had substantially improved the Lok Sabha’s Bill, but as of 2017, when senior advocate Ashwani Kumar (who chaired the select committee) prayed that the Supreme Court nudge the government to pass the Bill, the court ignored his cause – and the cause of the people of India.

Under the worse-than-colonial Indian State, one-sixth of the world’s population is vulnerable to arbitrary police violence. Not all the one-sixth, however, but more likely the 39% of them that are Dalit, Muslim or Adivasi. A disproportionate 53% of Indian prisoners are from this demography. As a mirror to that, US Blacks were 12% of the adult population but 33% of sentenced prisoners, according to the Pew Research Centre.

‘Dalit Lives Matter’ and other memes to parallel the US ‘Black Lives Matter’ miss the culprit in both democracies: police torture. The distinction is important. In America, the dominant theme has quickly switched to ‘racism’ (whose corrections are, quite rightly, inclusive measures such as seeking greater Black presence in more diverse areas of employment and education). Unfortunately, merely calling out a social issue such as ‘racism’ or ‘casteism’ does not deal with the criminal in the room – the police officer whose violence the state permits. Both social and criminal issues must be dealt with – in distinctively different ways, in India, the US and everywhere.

Also read: Sanjiv Bhatt Case: In 16 Years, Gujarat Saw 180 Custodial Deaths – and Zero Convictions

The Tamil Nadu police has Social Justice and Human Rights Units in every district. They have mobile police squads (to respond to atrocities against SC and ST communities), but the units also hire economists and sociologists. This strange fusion of social justice (for equal access to resources) and human rights (for prevention of violence) is not effective for either. The confusion is not confined to TN. All over India, reservations for vulnerable communities has not prevented the violent ‘reservation’ for them in the institutionalised prison and torture system.

As Anne Gallagher, director-general, Commonwealth Foundation, said at a recent webinar on ‘UNCAT and India: Perspectives on Ratification’, a new standard of relationship between the state and the citizen is required. How can millions of citizens expect compassionate protection from forced migration, exploitation and bondage, when the Government of India hesitates on a basic legislation against daily violence by its own agencies?

Som Thomas is a human rights scholar based in Bengaluru.