CJI’s remarks should expedite steps to stop custodial torture
As India enters the 75th year of Independence next week, it’s unfortunate that doubts still linger over the country’s ability to protect basic human rights and ensure access to justice for all. In a speech on Sunday, Chief Justice of India (CJI) N V Ramana noted that the vulnerable population continued to live outside the system of justice. He further said that “the threat to human rights and bodily integrity is the highest in police stations” and that custodial torture and police atrocities still prevail despite Constitutional guarantees. This is a sad commentary on the way the police and justice system works in India. The CJI’s remarks come just over a month after a fruit stall owner died allegedly because of brutal thrashing by a special sub-inspector of the Tamil Nadu police. Earlier this month, Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai informed the Lok Sabha that 348 custodial deaths and 1,189 cases of torture by the police were reported across the country in the last three years. It’s obvious that many other cases have gone unreported.
To be fair, the government seems to have woken up to the problem and is willing to make the necessary changes in relevant laws. Union Home Minister Amit Shah, for instance, recently said that the days of third-degree torture are over. He also noted that the government would make significant changes in the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the Indian Evidence Act, and the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) to make it relevant for present times. The statement should be welcomed and the government would do well to make the relevant changes in a timely manner. However, it must be recognised that changes in law would only be a beginning. The existing laws also protect people from custodial torture. Article 20 (3) of the Constitution, for instance, says that no person “shall be compelled to be a witness against himself”. Further, Article 21 provides protection of life and liberty. The Supreme Court has said that torture in custody violates the right to life. There are also provisions in the IPC and CrPC to protect individuals.
But these provisions have not really deterred the police. In fact, police in several states have adopted the strategy of killing suspected criminals in encounters with active support from the political leadership. Thus, only legal changes would not be enough and more will need to be done to not only improve the way police departments work, but also to ensure speedy delivery of justice. A lot has been said about police reforms in the past, but not much has changed on the ground. One of the biggest reasons for this is that the present system suits all political parties in power in the states as it allows them to use the police for political purposes. The aggressive use of sedition and terror laws against critics is a case in point. Therefore, to ensure protection of life and liberty, and speedy delivery of justice, India will need large-scale reforms. The government will need to ensure that police departments are adequately manned and equipped with modern techniques of investigation. They should be able to work without political interference. Capacity also needs to be built in the judicial system. Timely decisions in courts will themselves work as checks on the police and reduce the incentive for political interference. To be sure, reforming the system would not be easy, but this is a good time to make a fresh beginning.