CUSTODIAL DEATHS IN INDIA
Author: Sradha Santhanu
Universally, life is deemed to be the most priceless entity one may ever come across. The protection of life and everything that allows it to sustain freely and harmoniously is the aim of almost every law created and enforced around the world. This is precisely it is extremely sad and ironic that one of the bodies entrusted with the duty to protect lives is now a body that endangers it – The Law Enforcement.
The story of Jeyaraj and his son, Fenix rattled the country as a whole just a little over a year ago. The very fact that they were in custody for two days for merely keeping their store open for 2 hours past the curfew in itself was enough to prove that the policemen were ruthless. However, the incidents that perspired within those days and the slow, brutal and painful murder of the two gentlemen proved them to be truly cruel and inhumane. It was one of the biggest examples of having criminals within the agency of crime control.
Unfortunately, the story of Jeyaraj and Fenix is not an isolated incident. In the year 2019 alone, there has been a total of 1,723 reported cases of custodial deaths in India.1 A major share of this has been attributed to suicides, although families of the deceased have claimed otherwise. Roughly 93.2% of these deaths were in judicial custody while the remaining took place in police custody, as was the case with Jeyaraj and Bennix.2
A more recent incident of custodial death in India that gained the attention of the general public is the death of Father Stan Swamy. Father Stan Swamy was an 84-year-old political activist who was arrested under the provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act [UAPA]. While in prison, he suffered terribly on the account of having Parkinson’s disease, being infected with Covid-19, and the general treatment offered to him. Having committed no crime, he attempted to gain bail several times, but these attempts were halted by the NIA. On July 3, 2021, he was pronounced dead in a charitable hospital as a result of cardiac arrest.3
One of the most important fundamental rights granted to us by the Indian constitution as citizens of this country is the Protection of the Right to Life. This is embedded in the constitution through Article 21. Custodial deaths caused as a result of brutality by law enforcement officers are a direct infringement of this right. This stands true no matter how heinous the crime committed by the victim may be. Even in the case where a person has committed a heinous crime, it is not up to police or any other unauthorized body of law enforcement to decide whether they must live. Courts and the due process of law are authorized to allocate punishments and such decisions must be left to them.
The policemen involved in the murder of Jeyaraj and Bennix were eventually taken into custody. However, this took place only after increasing uproar from various social media platforms. This begs the question – If there was no aggressive reaction from the general public, would these police officers be arrested? Accountability and consequences for the actions of the perpetrators should not just be a result of public unrest and protests. It must be the natural course of action. The failure of the legal system is evident here.
Data released by the National Human Rights Council in the month of August, 2020 revealed that nearly 5 custodial deaths took place every day for the last ten years. What is furthermore shocking is that despite the rising number of custodial deaths occurring in India, the convictions rates are stagnant.
Another prominent and perhaps overlooked factor influencing the low conviction rates is the fear of police and other executive agencies. Many people, especially families of the victims of such custodial deaths tend to not report the incident to a body of higher authority fearing the after-effects that are driven by revenge and anger they might have to handle, along with the loss of a loved one. It is important that such vulnerable members of society are given the right amount of protection to ensure their safety and security.
Moving forward, one of the few possible steps to take to avoid such atrocious behaviour is re-evaluating the training given to police officers and other officers in charge of prisoners. While being strong and strict is necessary, it is equally, if not more, important to make sure they are treated like human beings and with the respect they deserve. This does not mean that they need to be coddled. It merely means that every right given to them by the Indian Constitution must be protected at all times, even if they are serving well-deserved time in jail. References:
, Article by Karan S. Thukral ‘When Savior becomes the abuser’ (9 July 2021) (Livelaw.in)
 Article by Dhamini Ratnam ‘The Life and Death of Father Stan Swamy’ (12 July 2021) (Hindustantimes.in)
Edited by Naga Om Siva Shridik , Junior editor, Lawgic Stratum.