While the rest of the world is no stranger to torture by state agencies, India has the dubious distinction of sticking out as a sore thumb in the comity of nations. Along with half-a-dozen tiny nations such as Comoros and Guinea-Bissau, India is the only big country that has failed to ratify the UN convention against torture, despite signing it, says Tehelka.com.
The scourge of torture by police and prison officials is routine, random and vicious across India, say rights activists. According to the Indian National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), over 14,000 people have died in police custody and in prisons in the decade ending 2010. This translates to a rate of more than four deaths a day. Often, it is perpetrated on those caught on trivial charges.
In the past three years, the NHRC has recorded 417 deaths in police custody and 4,285 deaths in judicial custody. Apart from 1,899 cases of “sexual harassment and torture” in police custody, NHRC has also recorded 75 cases of alleged rape by policemen in the last three years.
“There are very few countries in the world where torture is as systematic and endemic as in India,” says New Delhi based campaigner Suhash Chakma. Rights activist Teesta Setalvad of Mumbai agrees: “Torture is not the exception, but the norm in jails as well as prisons across India.”
On 14 May, police rounded up four men in Etah district of Uttar Pradesh, 260 kilometres west of the state capital, Lucknow, in connection with a month-old case of murder. Three days later, one of them, a 33-year-old farmer named Balbir Singh, lay dead in a hospital in Lucknow.
“The police gave him electric shocks and injected acid and petrol in his body,” says his brother- in-law, Sunul Kumar. “They forced him to sit on an electric heater that burnt his body horribly.” According to Kumar, Singh told him before dying that the police wanted him to confess his involvement in the murder.
So critical was his condition that Singh was moved to three hospitals in as many cities before he died. He named the policemen who tortured him in a dying declaration before a magistrate. The police were forced to register a case of murder.
Five lowly policemen were suspended. No arrests are yet made.
On 18 May, Khalid Mujahid, 32, fell dead on his way back to a prison in Lucknow from a court in Faizabad. His death has generated unusual focus and political attention on the issue of police torture and custodial deaths.
For the most part though, police torture hardly ever features as a red-button issue for Indians.
An attempt to legislate to outlaw torture went into deep freeze in 2010 after rights campaigners pointed out howlers in the draft Bill and a parliamentary committee began to sift through it.
As a result, an architecture of torture dominates India’s law enforcement, and the judiciary turns a blind eye. “We have seen the courts demand action against the police, but in most cases, torture invokes only a verbal outrage on the part of the judiciary,” says Supreme Court lawyer Vrinda Grover, a long-time campaigner against torture. “It does not necessarily lead to effective prosecution of the perpetrators of torture.”
Activists reckon that most custodial deaths emanate from torture, though, of course, officials always deny that. Most deaths are written off as suicides; very many are put down to illnesses and diseases. And the number of those who survive is exponentially larger and highly underreported. For most victims, torture begins a never-ending nightmare.
Experts said there is a common perception that torture is the only — even if illegal — way of extracting crucial information from deadly terror suspects or mafia gangsters. But, torture almost never yields accurate information. In fact, it is a security hazard as victims often confess in utter desperation to crimes they have not committed, while the real perpetrators roam free.