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That the police see nothing amiss in violence was once again made clear in reports of the submission made in the Gujarat high court last week by inspector AV Parmar. In an affidavit following a contempt case for flogging three Muslim men accused of stone pelting, Parmar blandly stated, “Giving three to six stick blows on the buttock of applicants… though not proper and acceptable, it would not constitute custodial torture as to punish Respondent No 2 (Parmar) for contempt of court”. The banality of custodial torture could not have had a better witness.
The good news is that the absurdity of the submission found its way to the front pages of all national dailies. On Thursday, October 19, the high court found four policemen guilty of publicly flogging four Muslim men after tying them to a pole at Undhela in the Kheda district last year. The court sentenced Parmar and three of his colleagues to 14 days imprisonment.
Usually, violence comes to public attention only when its outcomes are grotesque disfigurement, maiming or outright fatal.
Police violence, a slap, a kick, a punch in the stomach in the police station or on the street is hardly seen as an infraction of the law but rather as a habit the public must put up with and to which both the administration supervisors and the public are completely inured.
So what is police torture, and is there a legally acceptable version of it?
The United Nations 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 …. when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”
Now, 26 years after it signed the UN Convention against Torture, India as a responsible member of the international comity of nations has still to ratify it. Ratification requires a country’s laws to be amended or newly enacted so as to fall into line with the specific prohibitions and punishments for torture in the UN’s convention and to report back to the UN oversight committee.
Several efforts to bring in anti-torture legislation have sputtered and died against a wall of stiff resistance from law enforcement. Nevertheless, there is no statutory licence to torture – that would be monstrous – and it has been forgotten that even simple assault is forbidden. Whether police or lay person it is for the perpetrator to justify the use of force in very limited circumstances. The use of force has to be ‘reasonable and proportionate’ for instance in circumstances of self-defence. An attack, sudden or pre-meditated, is simply a crime.
Still, it would be fair to say that despite the tut-tutting of senior officers, the everyday occurrence of violence at the hands of the police is the result of the collective blind eye that glances reluctantly sideways only when some ghastly depravity hits the headlines and presses the establishment to take hesitant notice: like the hours of “severe pain and suffering” son and father duo killed in a Tamil Nadu police station in 2020, or the Kanpur man who died soon after leaving a police station in April this year.
Ironically, the frequency of horror reports has also numbed the public into accepting the normalcy of hurt, humiliation and torture at police hands. According to the government’s own data, the number of custodial deaths, the outcome of extreme forms of torture, has risen sharply from 100 in 2020-21 to 175 in 2021-22. And despite the Supreme Court’s orders to install CCTV cameras in 13 places inside every police station only a handful of states/UTs have partially complied. According to Unbias the News, “India recorded over 4,400 custodial deaths between 2020 and 2022. Uttar Pradesh alone accounted for over 21 percent of the deaths, raising questions about the prevalence of gross human rights violations in the country’s most populous state.”
Along with the statistics comes the history of impunity and lack of accountability.
Impunity is built into the system. Illustratively, it’s been seven months since a charge sheet was filed against Tamil Nadu assistant superintendent of police, Balveer Singh for breaking and pulling out the teeth of a suspect in his custody. But government clearance for prosecution remains pending. Violence in law enforcement is not limited to the physical but is inherent in illegal demolitions, unjustified confiscations of equipment and materials, unwarranted entry, and undue detention wherever it is done without proper procedure and respect for the rights of the citizen.
Protection of the police perpetrator is too often a given because of the unconcern and apathy of ineffective institutions like the Police Complaints Authorities, the human rights commissions and ST/SC and women’s commissions dotted around the country: their design and desire to circumscribe their mandated duty to stop the rot. For years too the legislature has avoided enacting a stand-alone law against torture.
Most incomprehensible is the reluctance of the police supervisors themselves to come down heavily and immediately on bad apples within. Unless of course, it is that torture and indeed murder via the so-called ‘encounter’ are indeed not seen as deviance but rather as acceptable tools of the trade.
When faced with accusations of doing too little to weed their garden too many of the leadership who should know better fall back on a battery of hoary old chestnuts: ‘present police are not fallen from heaven but only reflects society’s norms’; ‘change will come only when society itself changes’; ‘the public demands instant results’; ‘orders from above’; and of course, that evergreen –‘police ferocity is a legacy of colonial times’.
Contrary to popular belief though, violent policing has done little to stem crime. Instead, easy resort to violence has perpetuated sloppy investigation. The low conviction rate bears witness that extracted confessions which may or may not be true but are drawn out along with teeth, broken bones and ruptured organs are inevitably reneged at court and the prosecution collapses.
The ill effects of illegality that permeate the uniformed class do not remain within it. However else the public may perceive the force of the uniform commands respect and emulation and so fuels mirror behaviour in society at large. Here too, impunity and frequency flare because the police at best are seen as inept, without moral authority and at worst sadistic and unworthy of trust. The way ahead of changing that image is surely to wean the force away from violence by refusing to tolerate it and punishing swiftly and surely those who indulge in it whether they be many or a just a few. That would be a worthy sacrifice on the altar of justice.
Maja Daruwala is chief editor and Valay Singh is lead, India Justice Report