By Vijay Darda | 29-06-2020
Our Constitution gives us the right to live with dignity and there is absolutely no place for torture in it
The recent custodial death of a father-son duo in Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu which has sparked a countrywide outrage, has made everyone ponder over the failure to wipe out the stigma of custodial torture which is among the worst crimes in a civilized society. P Jayaraj and his son J Bennix were picked up by the police for keeping their shop open even after 7 pm in violation of coronavirus prohibitory orders. Both father and son were subjected to torture and inhuman treatment in custody. They were thrashed so severely that their clothes were soaked in blood and when new clothes were brought from home, they too turned bloody soon after. The unspeakable torture continued unabated for two days till the duo died in custody.
Although action has been taken against some policemen in this case, the moot question is why torture, and cruel and inhuman treatment continue in police custody? No matter how stringent action is taken now, those unlucky souls will not come back! And this is not an isolated case. In India, the stories of torture and cruelty keep popping up repeatedly on the grounds of religion, caste and what have you.
Many instances of death in custody make a spine-chilling story. The country has still not forgotten the Bhagalpur incident wherein the police had blinded 31 undertrials by pouring acid into their eyes. Article 21 of the Constitution gives us the right to live with dignity. Even those who are in custody or in jail on some charges have this right. Many years back, Justice V R Krishna Iyer had reminded us through his judgments that basic human rights of someone who commits a serious crime, remain intact even inside jail. This concept is enshrined in our Constitution too. Some people, especially agencies, argue that if the accused is not sternly dealt with, he is unlikely to tell the truth. People also buy this argument without application of mind. The reality is that agencies have many ways by which they can find out the truth. Custodial torture is the cruelest and inhuman method of getting the accused to confess and should be outlawed. Yet, for want of any robust debate and legislative action, custodial torture and deaths continue unabated.
Though latest figures of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) are not available, old figures show that between 2001 and 2013, 1,275 people died in police custody. That means 98 people died in custody every year. But this figure is far from the truth. The National Human Rights Commission says that between 2001 and 2010, 12,727 people died in jail or judicial custody. Experts believe that 10 to 15 custodial deaths occur every day in India. I would like to mention the D K Basu case in which the Supreme Court issued many guidelines but they too were given the go-bye.
These instances signal that our attitude towards human rights leaves a lot to be desired. The World Conference on Human Rights was held in Vienna in June 1993. The declaration was signed by 176 countries of the world. India was also one of the signatories. But despite numerous national and international opinions recommending its ratification, our country has not taken this crucial step so far. You will be surprised to know that even a country like Pakistan has enacted a law against torture but we have not done it yet. Since we have not enacted the anti-torture law, we are not even a member of the UN Human Rights Committee. To become its member, the country has to enact a law to ensure that there will be no torture of the accused at all and humanitarianism will govern every aspect of life.
Cases of custodial torture and absence of a law to deal with various aspects of custodial torture is a ground often used by Indian fugitives living abroad against their extradition to India. You must have seen that all those who have fled the country, be it Nirav Modi or Vijay Mallya charged with economic offences or Nadeem accused in the Mumbai serial bomb blasts case or anyone else, took refuge in London. They told their host country that they feared inhuman torture if extradited because India does not have a law to prevent custodial torture and the condition in the jails is abysmal. The fugitives have used this argument often to their advantage, evading extradition to their homeland and thus, they continue to live abroad with impunity.
During the British era, the jails were the chambers of torture, but even today the situation has not changed much. The prisons are badly overcrowded and lodge prisoners several times beyond their capacity. Nehruji once said that we should visit our prison to see the actual condition. The condition of prisons in the developed countries of the world is said to be good, but they too are no less notorious in the treatment meted out to the prisoners. During George Bush’s regime, Guantanamo Bay detention camp established on an island near Cuba, had been turned into a torture island where the Iraqis were subjected to inhuman treatment and unspeakable torture. The inhuman practice drew fierce criticism from every part of the world for its violation of human rights. The Americans also strongly raised their voice against the Bush administration. We have witnessed the dangerous form of torture in the era of Taliban and Islamic State.
As far as the enactment of a strong law on human rights is concerned, Dr Manmohan Singh had categorically stated in 2010 that the law must be enacted because we have to bear the brunt of the review that takes place at the international level every year. Our attorney general represents India in that review and every time we end up saying that we are working in this direction. The question is why the law has not been enacted since 2010?
The Cabinet decided to enact the law in 2010 itself. The Select Committee of the Rajya Sabha had also taken a decision in this regard but the priority at that time was the Right to Food Bill and therefore, it was passed first. I was in the Parliament at that time. You may remember that between 2010 and 2012, there were many disruptions in the Parliament due to which that Bill could not be passed. At that time, Kamal Nath was the minister for parliamentary affairs and had put the Human Rights Law Bill on priority too but all was lost in the pandemonium in the House!
If we adopt stringent laws on human rights, custodial torture can be prevented effectively. In the absence of a law, we are unable to stop custodial torture. You will be surprised to know that of every 100 custodial deaths, only 34 policemen are booked and chargesheeted and only 12 per cent of them are convicted. I do not say that all the cops facing charges are guilty but if they are innocent, who is to be blamed for the custodial deaths? We must have an effective and foolproof system that we do not feel embarrassed and guilty in front of the world.
Torture is a crime against humanity, “a wound in the soul”. Therefore, India needs to stand with the rest of the world in having an effective law against torture. It will vindicate the promise of our dignitarian Constitution.
India is looked upon as a country with great democratic values. On one hand, we venerate the apostles of non-violence and peace like Mahavir, Buddha and Gandhi, and on the other, our record of human rights violation and torture is not so good. The situation has come to such a pass that every year our attorney general has to stand in the dock before the UN Human Rights Commissioner. You will be surprised to know that the government has not enacted a law on human rights in our country yet.