No end to India's police torture death toll

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Mohd Umar, suspected of rape and murder, was taken to the Haldi police station in Uttar Pradesh in March 2010. On the night of his arrest at around 5.30am, police claim Umar tried to commit suicide by hanging himself with a towel. Barely alive he was rushed to hospital, where he died.

According to a recent report from the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), four people die every day in Indian police cells. Over 90 percent of those who die have been tortured. In Umar’s case the magisterial report found that his death was due to police torture. Two main officers of the Haldi police station were accused of tampering with documents in an attempt to make Umar’s death look like suicide.

Banning torture
"The Indian government has shown no commitment to addressing the issue of custodial torture,” says, Suhas Chakma, director of the ACHR. “They’re afraid that by implementing laws against torture, they’ll have to start prosecuting their own police officers and start paying large compensations to the victims.”

India is still not part of the UN Human Rights committee, and has failed to introduce the Prevention of Torture Bill in parliament. This bill would show the UN that the government is committed to change. But banning torture from Indian police departments has not been high on the government’s to-do list.

Poorly trained
Unable to cope with the responsibility of bringing justice, many Indian policemen resort to the use of physical violence. Police brutality has become the norm in Indian departments, it appears from the ACHR report. Beating, blackmail and using electric shocks have all become accepted methods of questioning. 

“Most Indian policemen lack the skills to find convincing evidence after a crime is committed. The conviction rate in incredibly low in India and most of the convictions are based on forced confessions,” Says Meenakshi Ganguly, head of Human Rights Watch India.

Between 2001 and 2010, 14,000 people died in police custody. Though most of these deaths were due to the effects of torture, bad hygiene was a factor in some cases as well.  And ACHR chief Suhas Chakma thinks this figure is only the tip of the iceberg.

“This is only the number of deaths reported to the National Human Rights Watch, were we get our numbers from. The armed forces are not obligated to report what happens in their holding cells.  I believe this number is only 50% percent of the actual incidents that occur,” says Suhas Chakma.

There is a second reason why the numbers given by the NHRC are skewed, according the ACHR report. Many of the deaths that happen in police custody are written off as accidental deaths, suicides or natural deaths.  Post mortem investigation often refutes these police claims.

A vision of reform
Since 1978 various committees have been set up to reform a police system that dates back to British rule. But to date not a single suggestion they have made has been implemented by the Indian government. The lack of legislation has allowed the Indian Police system to deteriorate over the years.

The committees have pointed out obvious flaws. Police are underpaid, there is a lack of strong leadership and little accountability for officers that go astray.  Another major cause of concern is the strong influence politicians have on the police departments. This makes reforming the system especially difficult.

“The committees have advised a reform that would decrease the political influence. The Supreme Court has even ratified it, in the Prakash Singh Judgement, but the implementation of this report has been pathetic,” Says Navaz Kotwal, who works for the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative on a police reform programme aimed at increasing police accountability.

The Kerala police department is one that Navaz Kotwal is working closely with. Guided by Director General of Police Jacob Punnoos, it sets a standard for other departments, says Kotwal.

“DGP Punnoos has managed to involve the community and work together with them. The department is open to feedback by organizations like mine. We’re really happy to see how willing they are to become more transparent”

But Kotwal realizes to that much of this change is led by the vision of one man, Jacob Punnoos, who is due to retire shortly. She can only hope his successor is equally dedicated to the cause.