In a rather concerning update, the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) annual Crime in India (CII) data suggests that there have been 1888 custodial deaths across the country in the last 20 years. Reports from 2001 to 2020 show that there have been 892 cases registered against police personnel, and 358 policemen have been charge-sheeted. However, only 26 police personnel have been convicted during the last two decades.
The eerie data comes in the wake of the custodial death of Altaf in Uttar Pradesh’s Kasganj last week. The 22-year-old had been detained in connection with the missing case of a minor girl, who has since been located. Five police personnel were suspended from the Kasganj Police Station. They have claimed that the youth hanged himself with the drawstring from his jacket’s hood, tying it to a water pipe that is just a couple of feet above the ground.
The NCRB data has revealed that there have been 76 custodial deaths across the country in 2020. While Gujarat is at the top of the list with 15 such deaths, other states in the list are Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and West Bengal. However, no police official was convicted in any of these cases last year. The data has also stated that the maximum number of 11 convictions was reported in 2016, when seven policemen in Uttar Pradesh and four in Madhya Pradesh were convicted.
The NCRB, which has been releasing data on custodial deaths since 2017, further mentioned that over the last four years, cases have been filed against 96 police personnel in connection with deaths in custody. The NCRB record, which is compiled with information from states and union territories, divides ‘deaths in police custody/lockup’ into two categories viz. persons not on remand and persons in remand. ‘Persons not on remand’ applies for the people who had been arrested and will be produced before the court, and ‘persons in remand’ are those in police or judicial remand. According to the record, there have been 1185 deaths in the ‘persons not on remand’ category, and 703 deaths in the ‘persons in remand’ category in the last two decades.
Noting that “flaws in the working of the police have to be acknowledged and rectified”, retired IPS officer Prakash Singh, who has served as DGP in Uttar Pradesh and Assam, said, “Policemen don’t investigate these cases properly. They try to defend their colleagues, which is definitely wrong. When a man has died in custody, the person responsible should be held accountable and the police must ensure that he is duly punished.”
Though Singh acknowledged the fact that 1888 custodial deaths is rather a small number considering the population of the country, he mentioned, “But what is important is that policemen use third-degree methods, inflict injuries on a person in custody. It’s a wrong practice. Policemen need to be sensitised and educated, and told that they should rely on scientific methods of investigation and a proper interrogation technique.”
Senior Programme Officer of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), Raja Bagga, further sought for information on the status of the pending cases on police officials. “Given the lengthy duration of criminal trials, convictions of police personnel after multiple years will not be reported by the NCRB’s CII data. If the NCRB also included information on the status of pending cases against police personnel, irrespective of the year of the police custody death, it would reflect a truer picture on the level of accountability in custodial death cases,” noted Bagga.
Last week, 22 year-old Altaf, who was detained in connection with the missing case of a minor Hindu girl, was found dead at the Kasganj police station. According to the police, the labourer from Nagla Syed of Kasganj was detained based on a complaint from the girl’s family who accused him of kidnapping. In their defense, the police have presented a written statement from Altaf’s family stating that he suffered from depression. Police have also claimed that the autopsy report has too confirmed death by hanging.
“Altaf was brought in for questioning in connection with a kidnapping case. During interrogation, he excused himself to use the toilet. When he did not return for a while, we checked and he was found sprawled, with his neck tied to the tap. He was breathing when we rushed him to the nearest medical centre, but he could not make it,” said Kasganj Superintendent of Police Botre Rohan Pramod.
While Altaf’s father Chand Mian primarily said that his son could never commit suicide and accused the police of killing Altaf, he later took back his words stating that he was angry at the moment and said, “I spoke to doctors, police, and came to know Altaf died by suicide. Police took him to hospital as well. I am satisfied with the police action.”
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A case like Altaf’s, however, is not a new occurrence in Uttar Pradesh. During 2020-21, UP recorded one of the highest numbers of custodial deaths in the country. Eight cases were registered in connection with deaths in police custody and 443 deaths were registered in judicial custody. However, ironically, the state government stays confident that the law-and-order situation in UP is at its best in the present day. Additional chief secretary (Home) Awanish K. Awasthi recently said, “The crime rate has come down drastically in Uttar Pradesh. There is no danga (riots) in our state now as this government has a zero-tolerance policy against such elements.”