NEW DELHI—More than 7,000 people died in police and judicial custody over the past four years, shows an analysis of recent replies given by the home ministry in Parliament.
2018-19 saw the highest number of custodial deaths in the past seven years, a closer look at the home ministry’s parliament replies and the annual reports of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) reveals.
The numbers could be even higher, said two people—an expert who has been tracking police reforms policies and one of the six MPs who asked the questions in Parliament—as these only include cases registered by the NHRC and do not take into account those recorded by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
While the NHRC receives complaints and investigates cases independently, NCRB reports include data of custodial deaths from all State Crime Records Bureaux, which source the information from police stations. But since the Narendra Modi government has failed to release NCRB reports after 2016, a move criticised by activists and opposition leaders, data for custodial deaths after that year are not available.
Also, this is only the number of people who died in custody and doesn’t disclose other important details like the cause of death or whether any police or jail officials were held responsible for any of them. But the fact that NHRC found so many cases worth investigating is an indicator of their seriousness.
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The increase in deaths in 2018-19 is particularly alarming. Custodial deaths have occupied headlines over the past month after former IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt was sentenced to life imprisonment in a 1990 case of a death in Jamnagar. In Kerala, the death of a private financier, allegedly after being tortured in police custody, had set off a political storm.
“Every citizen living in the country has rights and protection under the constitution. Extra-constitutional authority has been given to nobody in this country,” Anto Antony, Congress MP from Kerala’s Pathanamthitta, told HuffPost India.
Antony was one of six Lok Sabha MPs who asked questions about the number of custodial deaths reported from across the country during the past three years, during the ongoing Lok Sabha session.
The answer given on Tuesday by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) covered the period from 2016-17 till 2018-19. In February 2019, its reply to a similar question asked in the Rajya Sabha by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Vikas Mahatme gave the numbers from 2015-16 till 2017-18 while the annual reports of the NHRC contain comparable data going back till the year 2012-13.
As per the MHA’s answers, 7,295 people died in custody in the four years from 2015-16 till 2018-19. The highest number of custodial deaths since 2012-13 were recorded in 2018-19—1,933, of which 1,797 were reported in judicial custody and 136 in police custody.
News of custodial deaths is coming from different parts of the country. It is a serious issue… If they want to address it (the issue) genuinely, they should formulate a new law which ensures immediate action against the perpetrators: Anto Antony, Lok Sabha MP, Congress
“News of custodial deaths is coming from different parts of the country. It is a serious issue… If they want to address it (the issue) genuinely, they should formulate a new law which ensures immediate action against the perpetrators,” said Antony.
K Subbarayan, CPI’s MP from Tamil Nadu, who also asked questions on custodial deaths, however, felt that the MHA’s most recent reply didn’t give the complete picture, as they didn’t match the reports he gets about police custodial deaths just in Tamil Nadu.
“It is my opinion that it is definitely not a correct reply. I will collect material from Tamil Nadu and raise a question in Parliament again,” he said.
Activists aren’t impressed either.
Devika Prasad, who co-ordinates the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative’s (CHRI) Police Reforms Programme and has seen the multiple failed attempts to bring in an anti-torture legislation from close quarters, said that the numbers indicate that there are no safeguards in place.
“If safeguards were in place, you would hope that slowly, slowly, cases registered by the National Human Rights Commission would come down. But people are not finding the remedy that they should get right away, so they are having to take recourse to the NHRC,” she said.
The safeguards she mentioned include the following: the District Magistrate/Collector/District Superintendent of Police have to inform the NHRC within 24 hours of a custodial death having taken place. Also, within a week, the post-mortem report and magisterial inquiry reports need to be sent to the NHRC.
“If the number of cases with the NHRC are going up, then the judicial inquiry is not happening as swiftly as it should, action is not being taken as swiftly as it should. The truth is being not found out fast,” she said.
What’s the home ministry saying?
When MPs asked the MHA what it was doing to check custodial deaths, it said that the NHRC has been visiting prisons to monitor the conditions of undertrials and prisoners, and that it has been trying to sensitise officials through workshops and camps.To another question asked by the MPs about whether the government intends to ratify the United Nations Convention against Torture and pass a law against torture, as per the recommendations of the 273rd Report of the Law Commission, the MHA reply said that the report as well as a draft bill has been circulated among state governments and that it has submitted a status report to the Supreme Court.
The ministry also said that the NHRC has recommended disciplinary action against 20 “erring public servants” in the last three years, but added that the Commission doesn’t maintain any record on the convictions of police officials.