The spate of encounters in recent months in Uttar Pradesh has drawn the ire of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The NHRC has stated that the police were misusing their power in the light of “an undeclared endorsement given by the higher-ups”. In the past 10 months since the Yogi Adityanath government took office, 34 alleged criminals were gunned down in 1,142 encounters. Sixteen of these encounters took place in two days last week. Opposition parties have claimed that the UP police is targeting people in false encounters.
Elsewhere in Kerala, a young man, Sreejith, sat on hunger strike in Thiruvananthapuram for 782 days demanding a CBI probe into death of his brother, Sreejeev. He called off his strike on January 31 after the CBI investigation started. Sreejeev, taken into custody on May 19, 2014, on charges of stealing a mobile phone, had died in a hospital two days after his arrest. While the police claim that the accused consumed poison in his cell, Sreejith maintains that the police foisted a false case on his brother and arrested him for being in relationship with a girl related to a policeman.
As many as 591 custodial deaths were recorded across India between 2010 and 2015, according to data released by the National Crime Record Bureau. While 118 custodial deaths were registered in 2013, a slight decline was noticed in the subsequent years — the numbers fell to 93 and 97 in 2014 and 2015 respectively. The death toll in custody in 2016 was 92. Cases were registered against 24 police personnel in 25 of these cases for alleged custodial death. The NCRB data may not be complete since there could be several custodial deaths that go unreported. It is the concerted effort of relatives or friends of the deceased that ends up in a case being registered against the policemen. The poor would rather not challenge the policemen lest the fate of the dead person befall them.
Custodial deaths largely occur due to torture by third degree methods. Police personnel resort to third degree methods to draw confessions from the accused in the shortest possible time. Little thought is given to the consequences of the torture causing death. Interrogation is a highly skilled form of investigation and most policemen are not, despite the training, equipped to carry it out deftly. In their eagerness to get quick results, they resort to unlawful methods. The lack of patience and technical skills drive them to adopt crude methods. That erring policemen go scot-free in most cases spur others to ignore the due process. The proclivity of superior officers and even politicians to shield them prevents action against them. The directives and guidelines issued by the Supreme Court and the NHRC on these issues are rarely followed.
If stringent and timely action is not taken against delinquent policemen, custodial deaths are bound to become more frequent. The responsibility devolves on senior police officers, who need to devise methods to monitor the number of suspects in each police station and the reasons for their detention. Any detention or arrest should be promptly reported to district superintendents, who should, thereafter, ensure that SC and NHRC guidelines are strictly adhered to. Why limit action to junior policemen if senior officials are found negligent in enforcing rules and regulations? The superintendents of police need to be sent to prison if they have connived with erring policemen in causing deaths.
The natural propensity of the state police to defend its own personnel when custodial deaths are investigated makes it necessary for outside agencies to be involved in probes. The CBI is most often the preferred choice for a judicious and impartial investigation. In the Kotkhai (Himachal Pradesh) rape and murder case in July last year, the CBI was brought in after a public uproar over the gang-rape and killing of a teenaged student. One of six accused had also died in mysterious circumstances while in police custody. The CBI probe led to the arrest of the inspector general of police, Z H Zaidi, who was heading the special investigation team, and seven other policemen in August for their suspected role in the custodial death and in November, Shimla superintendent of police D W Negi was arrested.
It is important that fake encounters and custodial deaths are probed impartially, and if necessary by outside agencies, so that the message goes out to the police that the rule of law can’t be compromised.
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