Mahatma Gandhi in his journal Harijan once wrote- “The police of my conception will be servants, not masters of the people. The police force will have some kind of arms, but they will be rarely used, if at all. In fact, the police men will be reformers. Their police work will be confined primarily to robbers and dacoits.”
Gandhiji saw police as a tool to forge solidaritybased relations in his social project. The men who would enter the ranks of police will be believers in nonviolence. The malfeasance on the part of Thoothukudi police, which took place in Tamil Nadu draws a sharp contrast between the role that was envisaged and what was witnessed on the unfateful night of 19th June, 2020 . All the more baffling is the timing of it when there is a global outrage against the law enforcement agencies in general, following the death of George Floyd in the United States of America.
The Toothukudi atrocity led to the death of the father-son duo in the custody. The policemen who have the moral and legal duty to observe the rule of law strayed from performing that duty. If we try to create an imagery through the lens of Mahatma Gandhi’s eyes, we would fail because our vision will get clogged up by the filth from abuse of power and a blatant neglect to the rule of law.
The alleged charge of lockdown violation would have attracted a maximum of three months imprisonment if they were proven guilty. The policemen were clearly hoodwinked into thinking they were super cops from a cop-centric blockbuster for it was so easy for them to strip away their moral accretions.
They violated the basic fundamental right, Article 21 of Indian Constitution that, inter alia, guarantees protection from police atrocities under the ambit of right to life and personal liberty. The Supreme court in Kharak Singh v. State of held that ‘life’ meant something more than mere animal existence. In the Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India expanded its interpretation to rule that living is not merely restricted to physical existence but it also included within its ambit the right to live with human dignity. Thus, there is no dearth of precedents to understand what is a dignified life and what threatens it.
Torture is one such element that threatens a dignified living. The apex court in D.K. Basu v. State of West Bengal has prescribed guidelines to prevent any kind of violation of rights of prisoners. Any form of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment during the investigation, interrogation or otherwise is in violation of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
Despite such precedents, custodial violence in India is a reality we should not shy away from. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data pegs custodial deaths at 1,727 between 2001 and 2018. However, a paltry 26 policemen were convicted of custodial violence. The situation seems grimmer in the states of Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Maharastra where there is nil conviction despite more than 100 deaths.
Another very marked evidence of the lackadaisical approach towards custodial violence and human rights in general, is the weak functioning of National Human Rights Commission. It remains a “toothless tiger” with role being limited to providing compensation to victims.
These are tell-tale signs of the dilution of ethos of human rights and justice. Keeping this article an easy read by not making it stolidly fact-laden, we would like to categorically state that police barbarity is becoming a new normal in India. The men who were tasked to serve, rescue and protect the common man and his rights are now perplexing him from inside.
Having said that, it is pertinent to discuss how this new normal has emerged which shows our tryst with non-violence as a hypocritic observance only. India is yet to have an anti-torture legislation that could criminalize custodial violence. We signed the UN Convention against Torture in 1997, but have not ratified it yet. Thus, the government is not obligated to fulfill the commitments under the convention as of now.
What this means for the citizenry in India is that it cannot sue a police officer for any wrongdoing and such a prerogative rest only with the government. Taking cognizance of this loophole, the Supreme Court in Prakash Singh v Union of India, directed the states to constitute independent complaint authority to inquire into the cases of police misconduct. But, a study by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) shows that only 12 states had constituted a Police Complaints Authority (PCA) in accordance with the directive even after a decade. Moreover, not even a single state complies with the court’s directions with regards the composition, selection process and functioning of the PCAs which was the most perturbing revelation for us.
It must be categorically stated that the death of the duo is a ruthless exhibition of abuse of power and there ought to be no excuse for the perpetrators. But, we must also ask ourselves whether it will be enough to set things right. This incident is also a wake-up call for our law makers to devise a robust framework to counter the evil of custodial violence.
To begin with, India should ratify the UN convention against torture. The need for obtaining sanction under Section 197 of the Code of Criminal Procedure before pursuing charges against police misconduct should be done away with.
The magistrate in the Toothukudi case sanctioned the remand of Jayaraj and Bennix without checking on injuries and bleeding. Such incidents of judicial impropriety should not go unpunished. Judicial magistrates are the first line of protection from rogue police and thus, have immense responsibility in deliverance of justice.
It goes without saying that human rights framework in our country needs an overhaul. This argument gains more credence when it is seen in the light of enactment of the Protection of Human Rights Act (1993) and the dip in the incidents of custodial violence thereafter, reflecting a negative correlation between the two. Moreover, it is high time to consider the recommendations of the NHRC on police reforms which include, inter alia, the constitution of a Police Security and Integrity Commission (PSIC) to lay down a concrete set of service guidelines for the police.
In addition to these, Law Commission in its 198th and 273rd report has iterated that there is an urgent need to strengthen the witness protection regime to protect the victims and witnesses of custodial killings.
Apart from these institutional measures, ethical luminaries make a case for reforming the behavioural aspects too. A report by Common Cause and CSDSLokniti shows that 12 per cent of the police personnel never receive human rights training. Also, the methods adopted by policemen that are against the ethos of Article 21, ignorance of rules, unnecessary arrests etc. reflect that the Code of Conduct for the police has failed to improve policing on the ground. So, there is a need to sensitize the lower-rung policemen and imbibe the values of public service in them. A landmark DK Basu judgment comes to our mind in which the apex court issued directions to increase transparency and due diligence while making arrests.
The modernisation of police is long overdue. CAG has highlighted the issue of underutlisation of funds allocated under the Modernisation of Police Forces (MPS) Scheme. The fund can be put to use to bring interventions like body cameras, CCTVs, narcoanalysis etc. These tools and techniques would go a long way towards striking a balance that sufficiently assuages skepticism about the negative role of the police without compromising the powers they need to carry out their duties.
Lastly, the culture of impunity needs to go. The policemen involved in the incident must realize the gravity of their sins. Strict punishment and remorse is the only way forward for them. If those involved go scot-free again, a dangerous precedent will be set.
To sum up, the police is an extended arm of the state. As such, the aim of the police must align with that of state: governance and service. The Leviathan state is an outdated concept in the age of human rights and should not come back again. Constant police harassment of people will leave the victims and lay public alike in a constant state of fear. In addition to the Tamil Nadu incident, there have been a few incidents of display of high handedness by the police in recent times during the anti-CAA protests and otherwise in the lockdown too. In the long term, increased frequency of such altercations between the police and lay populace may give rise to retributive violence that will be detrimental for the society based on peace and order.
“Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it,” wrote the great French philosopher, Simone Weil. He could not have been more correct. Any kind of overreaction is to be avoided at this time. The need of the hour is to act before the evil of custodial violence becomes banal in India. But, instead of reacting to this unfortunate incident by blaming the police as a failed institution in entirety as has been the trend on the social media these days, we must focus on bridging the trust deficit. The police have been on the war-footing in tackling the Corona-induced crisis and we must also be thankful to them for their efforts.
Pratiksha Priyadarsini is a final year law student at Bharati Vidyapeeth Deemed University, Pune. A rank holder, Nyayshastram National Article Writing Competition. Shubham Satyam is B.Tech, Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT), he had cleared SSC CGL 2017 in his first attempt. Currently he is preparing for Civil Services Examination.