Custodial Deaths in Punjab 1997-2001

In India where rule of law is inherent in each and every action and right to life and liberty is prized fundamental right adorning highest place amongst all important fundamental rights, instances of torture and using third degree methods upon suspects during illegal detention and police remand casts a slur on the very system of administration. Human rights takes a back seat in this depressing scenario. Use of excessive force and exceeding lawful authority by the police, resulting in death in custody, have become quite common. If torture of a suspect during police custody is inhuman, causing death by beating in police custody is even more inhuman. Custodial death is perhaps one of the worst crimes in a civilized society governed by the Rule of Law. It is indeed a matter of great concern for every human being. Thinking of the pain and trauma that a victim suffers due to torture, the protection of his life and liberty from such inhuman treatment becomes the most sacred duty of every authority who cares for human rights. In custodial crimes, not only the infliction of body pain is worrisome, but also the trauma and mental agony which a person undergoes within the four walls of police station or lock-up. Whether it is third degree torture or death in police custody, the extent of annoyance caused to the humanity is beyond the purview of law. Repeated incidents of Custody deaths in the country have not only shaken the people’s conscience, forcing them to take to the street against the inhuman torture techniques adopted by the police, but has also highlighted the hostile attitude of law enforcing agencies in containing such heinous crime against the humanity. The sad part of the story is that the force which is supposed to protect the life and liberty of the citizen when behaves inhumanly and perpetrate crime it brings to fore the most crude form of violence against the whole humanity. It undoubtedly, encourages lawlessness and breeds contempt for law. The rights inherent in Article 21 and 22(I) of the Constitution of India require to be zealously and scrupulously protected.

Custodial violence including torture, death and staged encounter, strikes a blow at the Rule of Law, which demands that the powers of the executive should not only be derived from law but also that the same should be limited by law. In spite of clear prohibition in law from subjecting third degree torture upon any person, Supreme Court and various High Courts and even the National Human Rights Commission and State Human Rights Commissions across the country are over flooded with complaints of custodial torture and deaths in police custody or fake encounters. According to a statement placed in the Lok Sabha in 2000, more than seven hundred and ninety persons lost their lives in police custody in the country in the past. Unofficial figures even go up to five figures. Showing deep concern over the increasing tendency among the police officials in subjecting third degree torture upon the suspect resulting in the custodial death of the suspect and the suppression of such occurrences by the erring cops, the National Human Rights Commission issued strict directions to all the State governments and Union territories in 1993 as under:-

“In view of the rising number of incidents of custodial deaths and custodial rapes and reported attempts to suppress or present a different picture of these incidents with the lapse of time, the commission directs to all the District Magistrates and Superintendents of Police of every district in the country that they should report to the Secretary General of the National Human Rights Commission about such incidents within 24 hours of such occurrence or of these officers having come to know about such incidents. Failure to report promptly would give rise to presumption that there was an attempt to suppress the incident.”

In the forgotten corners of dusty police stations, lathi and roller continue to make harsh contact with flesh and bone. So secretly is this done, so discreetly, that the democratic nation which houses these modest citadels of terror can continue to believe that it is indeed a democracy. If you have ever been tortured by the Police, the term “torture” is enough to make your backbone straight for the trauma of such inhuman act leave a trail of mental disorders throughout the lifetime. Experience shows that worst violations of human rights take place during the course of investigation. The police with a view to secure evidence or confession, often resort to third degree methods including torture and adopts techniques of screening arrest by either not recording the arrest or describing the deprivation of liberty merely as a prolonged interrogation. Their acts of commission, corruption and barbaric methods of torture, kidnapping and ransom, fake encounters, eliminations and custodial deaths etc. put to shame any civilized society. When corruption and greed intermingle in such a state of affairs, many of the actions of the men in uniform take the form of contract killing, extortion etc.

Police is no doubt, under a legal duty and has legitimate right to arrest a criminal and to interrogate him during the investigation of an offence but the law does not permit use of third degree methods or torture of accused in custody during interrogation and investigation with a view to solve the crime. End cannot justify the means. By torturing a person and using third degree methods, the police would be accomplishing behind the closed doors what the demand of our legal order forbid. No society can permit it. The action of the State, however, must be “right, just and fair”. Using any form of torture for extracting any kind of information would neither be “right, nor just nor fair” and therefore, would be impermissible, being offensive of Article 21.

The third report of the National Police Commission in India released in 1996, expressed deep concern at the increasing incidents of custodial violence and deaths in lock-up. It took serious note of the demoralizing effect which custodial torture was creating on the society as a whole. It held that “the Protection of the individual from oppression and abuse by the police and other enforcing officers is indeed a major interest in a free society; but so is the effective prosecution of crime, an interest which at times seems to be forgotten. The quality of a nation’s civilization can be largely measured by the methods it uses in the enforcement of criminal law.” The Magna Carta of human rights, as it is known, ‘The Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, which marked the emergence of a worldwide trend of Protection and guarantee of certain basic human rights, stipulates in Article 5 that ” No one shall be subjected to torture, or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Article 1 of the ‘Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading treatment or punishment’, defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed or intimidated or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or that person acting in official capacity.”

The Article 4 of the Convention says, “each state party shall ensure that all acts of torture are declared as offence under its Criminal Law. ”

The apex court as also various High Courts of the country have always shed light to dispel the darkness of inhuman and brutal torture techniques which amounts to an attack on the fundamental right to life and liberty of the victim.

Justice S. Mohan of Supreme Court of India speaking for the bench in the case of “Arvinder S. Bagga Vs. State of U.P.” aptly observed, “Torture is not merely physical, there may be mental torture and psychological torture calculated to create fright and submission to the demands or commands. When the threats proceed from a person in authority and that too by a police officer, the mental torture caused by it is even more grave.”

Justice Kuldip Singh and Justice Dr. A.S. Anand, the pillars of Human Rights movement in India observed in the landmark Judgment on Custodial crimes, titled “D.K.Basu Vs. State of West Bengal that “Custodial violence, including torture and death in the lock ups, strikes a blow at the Rule of Law, which demands that the powers of the executive should not only be derived from law but also that the same should be limited by law. Custodial Violence is a matter of concern. It is aggravated by the fact that it is committed by persons who are supposed to be the protectors of the citizens. It is committed under the shield of uniform and authority in the four walls of a police station or lock-up, the victim being totally helpless. The Protection of an individual from torture and abuse by the police and other law enforcing officers is a matter of deep concern in a free society. “Torture ” of a human being by another human being is essentially an instrument to impose the will of the “strong” over the “Weak” by suffering. The word “torture” today has become synonymous with the darker side of human civilization. It is a calculated assault on human dignity and whenever human dignity is wounded, civilization takes a step backward-flag of humanity must on each such occasion fly half-mast. In all custodial crimes what is of real concern is not only infliction of body pain but also the mental agony which a person undergoes within the four walls of police station or lock-up. Whether it is physical assault or rape in police custody, the extent of trauma, person experiences is beyond the purview of law.” He further observed in another judgment on human rights dealing with the effect of torture in the mind of common citizen, titled ” State of M.P. Vs. Shayamsunder Trivedi and others” and held that “tortures in police custody, which of late are on the increase, receive encouragement by this type of an unrealistic approach of the courts because it reinforces the belief in the mind of the police that no harm would come to them, if an odd prisoner dies in the lock-up, because there would hardly be any evidence available to the prosecution to directly implicate them within the torture. Torture in custody flouts the basic rights of the citizens recognized by the Indian Constitution and is an affront to human dignity. Police excesses and the mal-treatment of detainees /under trial prisoners or suspects tarnishes the image of any civilized nation and encourages the men in “Khaki” to consider themselves to be above the law and sometimes even to become law unto themselves.”

Historian Badriana P. Bartow also explained the trauma of torture in his own words, “Torture is a wound in the soul so painful that sometimes you can almost touch it, but it is also so intangible that there is no way to heal it. Torture is anguish squeezing in your chest, cold as ice and heavy as a stone paralyzing as sleep and dark as the abyss. Torture is despair and fear and rage and hate. It is a desire to kill and destroy including yourself. ”

The temple of Justice, as he is known, Mr. Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer the then Chief Justice of Supreme Court, dwelled in detail the evil of torture in a case titled ” Raghubir Singh Vs. State of Haryana” and observed, “we are really pained to note that such things should happen in a country which is still governed by the Rule of Law. We cannot but express our strong displeasure and disapproval of the conduct of the concerned police officers. We are deeply disturbed by the diabolical recurrence of police torture resulting in terrible scare in the minds of common citizens that they are under a new peril which the guardians of the law gore human rights to death. The vulnerability of human rights assumes a traumatic, torture some poignancy when the violent violation is perpetrated by the police arm of the State whose function is to protect the citizen and not to commit gruesome offences against them as has happened in this case. Police lock-up if reports in newspapers have a streak of credence, are becoming more and more awesome cells. This development is disastrous to our human rights awareness and humanist constitutional order.”

In an attempt to weed out the evil of torture from the Police Stations, Punjab & Haryana High Court in a Public Interest Litigation, titled, “Dr. Vineeta Gupta and another Versus State of Punjab & others” reported in Judicial Reports (Criminal) 1998 Page 561 held that no instruments of torture would be kept in any Police Station in Punjab, Haryana and Union Territory of Chandigarh and no person would be subjected to torture in Police Custody.

Dr. Martin Luther King (Jr.) in a letter to his country men once wrote, “Injustice anywhere is threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of density. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

It is a matter of common knowledge that when a complaint is made against torture, death or injury in police custody, it is difficult to secure evidence against the policemen responsible for resorting to third degree methods since they are in charge of police stations easily manipulate the record and tamper with the evidence. The courts and the judges, if we may say so with respect, exhibit a total lack of sensitivity and a “could not careless” attitude in appreciating the evidence on the record and thereby condoning the barbaric third degree methods which are still being used, at every police station, despite being illegal. They must bring a change in their attitude particularly in cases involving custodial crimes and should exhibit more sensitivity and a realistic rather than a narrow technical approach, while dealing with such cases, so that as far as possible within their powers, the guilty must not escape and that the victim of the crime has the satisfaction that ultimately the majesty of law has prevailed. Otherwise, the victim becomes frustrated and contempt for law develops.

Figures shows that incidents of custodial violence and abuse of power by the police have been largely reported in the states where militancy and insurgent activities are at its peak. For example, Punjab and Kashmir tops the list of States where thousands of innocent people have been killed in fake encounters and summary executions. In Punjab, during the period 1988-1995, thousands of people were killed by the Punjab police in fake encounters, custodial deaths and summary executions. The situation is no better even today. The Police has become man-eater and resorting to extra-judicial methods is their favourite sport. There is an un-declared war against human rights by the police force. Innocent people are daily done to death in a very cruel manner which cannot be described in words. Even the women and children are not spared. The victim is tied upside down with pressure put on his head from below, heavy iron roller applied on his sensitive parts. Petrol is put on private and sensitive parts. He is mercilessly beaten with wooden stick and iron rod. The legs are torn apart at 180 degree and then pressure is put on the thighs. The nails are pulled and salt is put on the injuries. Electric shocks are given in the private parts viz.. penis and testicles. They are more brutally tortured and even killed publicly by the devils in khaki. Still every justice loving person in the country turns a blind eye to these gory details of police excesses when reported in the newspapers quite often.

Many politicians or police authorities says that the State of Punjab is now a peaceful state and the period of turbulence has gone for the good. Rule of law has been restored and human rights of the people are most respected. But the figures disclaim this theory. More than seventy five reported custodial deaths in four years and a thousand reported incidents of tortures of innocent people in police custody, casts a slur on the law enforcing machinery in the State. It will be our endeavour through this book to explore as to how far the State government and its law enforcing agencies have been sensitive to the human rights issues and respected the fundamental right to life and liberty of its subjects. Here is a fact finding report by the organisation which needs pointing attention of every justice loving person.

The tall claims of the Punjab government of restoration of rule of law have proved a farce with custodial crime becoming an order of the day. Policemen still consider themselves above the law. They have no fear of law or the Court. They know that they will be exonerated in the name of national security or maintenance of law and order. Their mindset is the same as it was during the earlier days of State terrorism. Their actions are the same. Rather, their authority has become more powerful with no action against their illegal actions. Under these circumstances, it would be foolish to claim of situation being under control. Even after four years of the so-called popular rule in the State, the situation has not changed a wee bit. The number of deaths have certainly gone down, but the killer instinct of a rowdy and inhuman policeman is still the same in the flesh and blood of the policemen. When more than seventy people have lost their lives in Police custody since the Akali government came into power, it would be a great folly to call it a State ruled by law. While the government is under bounden duty to protect the life and liberty of every citizen, loss of even a single life in Police Custody, must bring the head of every responsible officer bow down in shame. The moot reality is that the situation has been so badly mis-handled that it has become critical and every peace loving citizen is feeling insecure and prone to police brutality. Is it not a failure of the government where the police force has turned man-eater and the courts and the elected representatives of the people have closed its eyes and ears? The answer to all these questions is emphatically “betrayal of the oath”.

It is a shocking state of affairs in Punjab. Not only the government has failed to check its brutal force, the judiciary and the human rights agencies have also miserably failed to show its presence. It seems to be a matter of the past now that a judge is moved on reading the heart rending news of torture death in the morning day newspaper and takes suo-moto cognizance of the matter. Today the judges also do not feel concerned on learning that innocent people are being killed like animals in fake encounters, summary executions etc. One wonders if they would feel disturbed on seeing and hearing the wails of torture victims in the Police stations in Punjab. Every Court granting police remand of a suspect fully knows that the suspect will be given inhuman third degree treatment. It is their folly to believe that only third degree treatment could extract the truth from the suspect. It is no secret that the first thing a policeman does with the suspect in police remand is to give good bashing and then tell his fault. The title page of this book showing the policemen trying to put a shikanja ( knot with a rope) on a suspect, clearly exhibits the mindset of the police force in the state even today. Hats off to Mr. Amrik Saggu, Press photographer of “Daily Jagran”, Jalandhar for shooting such a secret incident.

The deep study of the pattern and modus operandi of the policemen in killing suspects in police custody vert recently have led us to hold without any iota of doubt that whosoever is taken into custody by the police is sure to loose his life, lest he is too hard to bear the police torture, no matter, whether he is innocent or too poor to bribe the policemen.

Punjab Police, notorious for its fake encounters, custodial deaths and other heinous crimes, received a blow, when the encounter theory of killing a youth, Kashmir Singh of Pandori Rukman in Hoshiarpur district on 14th March, 1997 came out to be a false one. Even the Sessions Court, Hoshiarpur held the said incident to be a cold blooded murder of an innocent youth by the policemen and convicted the police party. He sentenced all the guilty police personnel to life imprisonment for the offence of murder. A compensation of Rupees five lacs was also awarded by the National Human Rights Commission to the next of kin of the deceased. Similarly, the tale of torture method described by Sapinder Singh, the brother of a victim of Police torture, Devinder Singh alias Bhola, a youth of village Hassanpur in Ropar district who was tortured to death on September 18, 1999 shook the conscience of every justice loving person with grief. According to the eye-witnesses who were also tortured during illegal custody, the victim was tied upside down with pressure put on his head from below, heavy iron roller was applied on his sensitive parts. Petrol was put on his private and sensitive parts. He was mercilessly beaten with wooden stick and iron rod. His legs were torn apart at 180 degree and then pressure was put on the thighs. The nails were pulled and salt put on the injuries. Electric shocks were given in the private parts viz.. penis and testicles. Not bearing the inhuman torture, the victim succumbed to his injuries then and there. The accused policemen who were arrested and brought to trial, have recently been sentenced to life imprisonment for the custodial death. Many victims of police brutality have even gone un-noticed. What was the fault of Iqbal Singh of Jaitu in Faridkot when he was picked up by the Muktsar police on January 5,2001 and was so badly tortured that he died in the lock-up? But the police is so hardened liar that it claimed that the victim had committed suicide by hanging himself in the bathroom of the lock-up. Similar story was cooked up by the Police in the case of Surinder Pal who died in Police Station Dasuya in District Hoshiarpur on 7th January, 2001. The same day Avtar Singh, a youth of Ludhiana was shot dead by a militant turned Police Inspector Gurmeet Singh Pinky in Ludhiana because he objected to their drinking session at a public place. Is the life of these victims so valueless that the State government or the Police authorities could not afford to pay ex-gratia compensation to the next of the kin of the deceased killed by the Policemen? The tragedy does not end here. Exactly a month later in 2001, Jaspal Singh, a 17 year old Dalit youth of Village Saheri in District Ropar fell to the torture methods of Punjab police and died in Police Station Morinda on 7th February, 2001. To add insult to the injury, every organ of administration including the civil and police administration in the district tried their level best to save their policemen who were responsible for the tragic death. The courts also showed little concern at this dastardly act. Another dalit youth, Madan Lal of Kapurthala was tortured to death in Police Station Kapurthala on 15th February, 2001.

One thing quite similar in all these incidents was that the police authorities and district administration failed to take necessary action against the guilty persons and even left no stone unturned to save the erring policemen. No action was taken against any of the guilty policemen, unless the masses came to the street and protested by laying road blockades, dharnas and even gheraoed the police station. In other words, the public outcries and street protests played an important role for forcing the authorities to take strict action against the erring cops.

One thing noticed in the case of prison death being quite common was that in every case, the jail authorities cook up the theory of the victim committing suicide in a fit of depression. It is not amazing that in about twenty five cases of prison deaths reported to the Punjab State Human Rights Commission; almost all the cases have the same theory of suicide either by hanging or consuming some poisonous substance in the cell. Still, the Commission failed in its duty to take such liar jail authorities who not only killed the prisoners, but also attempted to conceal the truth from the Commission. Although compensations have been awarded to the next of kin of the victims, no criminal proceedings have been initiated nor any jail official arrested or tried for murder, who was found prima facie guilty of negligence in performing his duty which resulted in the death of the prisoner.

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