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There are good reasons to probe the police custody death of a 22-year-old man at Kasganj near Agra, given the surfeit of suspicious circumstances. Police claimed the postmortem report confirmed suicide by hanging. So, we are to believe a 5’6’’ man hanged himself from a 3-ft-high water tap. The victim’s family has alleged signs of torture and questioned why he wasn’t produced before a magistrate. News reports also indicate considerable pressure on them. An independent probe is needed urgently to salvage evidence.
Police brutality is an all-India affair. Going by NCRB data, 2019 saw 53 people dying in custody before they were remanded by a magistrate and 32 deaths of remanded persons. Not surprisingly, 33 of these 85 deaths were blamed on suicide, 36 as deaths due to illness, 14 were classified as accidents and pre-arrest injuries, and just two cases were reported as deaths due to custodial violence. NHRC, which acts as a watchdog in custodial death cases, however had registered 117 cases of police custody deaths that year.
Because police anywhere is unlikely to take cognisance of custodial tortures, the Criminal Procedure Code was amended in 2005 to mandate a judicial magistrate inquiry. The magistrate is even empowered to forward the body to a civil surgeon or a qualified medical expert for further examination. NHRC guidelines lay out detailed instructions for magistrates on how their inquiry must proceed and also mandate videographing of the post-mortem with the doctor narrating prima facie observations of injuries on the body. Rarely are these steps followed.
In the Tuticorin custodial deaths of a father and son last year, the Madras high court ordered an inquiry by a judicial magistrate, who later complained of police intimidation. In the Kasganj case, the Allahabad HC must ensure that the law as prescribed by CrPC and NHRC guidelines are followed to preserve evidence. India as a society seems as inured to police violence as it is to potholes. This is a worrying facet in a democracy, and only strong judicial action can make police and people take notice.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.