Police Brutality in India – Dire Need For Reform

The recent incident of police brutality that took place in Tamil Nadu, resulting in the death of two people, P Jeyaraj and his son, J Benkins has picked up steam and has gained the attention of the national media soon after social media collectively stood up against this mournful incident. The father and son duo were arrested by the police for allegedly breaking the Covid-19 lockdown guidelines. They were kept in the police station for the night and were cruelly tortured by the police. They were shifted to a government hospital the next day and died due to the alleged torture in police custody two days later. No FIR has been lodged against the police officers. However, the police department has suspended two senior officers and has also stated that departmental action is being taken against the offenders.

The above incident, though extremely disheartening, is regretfully just another of the many incidences of police brutality that take place in our country every day, but go unnoticed by the public, judiciary, as well as the media. According to a report published by the National Campaign Against Torture (NCAT), the number of deaths of people in custody in the year 2019 is a shocking total of 1,731, or about five people daily.[1]

The reason this number is so high is that the Indian Justice System has accepted the barbaric approach of the police. It is not the case that there are no laws in India to keep a check on the police and to ensure that the police department works for in a civilized manner to protect its citizens, but the fact is that these laws are continuously flouted by the police, and blatantly disregarded time and again by the judiciary. There are laws that require the police to present a search warrant in case of any search or arrests, which are there to ensure that there is good reason to make such arrest or conduct a search. However, an exception is given under Section 165 of CrPC, which is misused time and again by police officers to conduct illegal searches without any warrant issued by the magistrate. Further, any evidence procured through such a search is admissible in the court of law. The law enforcement department, though aware of the consequences of their misconduct and ignorance of the procedure, still do not shy away from breaking protocol because they are aware that the consequences are only there on paper, and are rarely ever executed.

Another malevolent act of the law enforcement department in India is custodial interrogation. Simply speaking, custodial interrogation is just a sophisticated term for torture. In the forefront, the very basis of custodial interrogation violates article 20(3) of the Indian Constitution, which protects citizens against self-incrimination. The sole purpose of this article is the protection of the voluntariness of the person. However, the Supreme Court has held on several occasions that the very foundation of custodial interrogation is coercion, and since coercion and voluntariness cannot co-exist, it is deemed to be unconstitutional as well as illegal. The right to silence has also been protected by section 161(2) of the CrPC, protecting us from being forced to join any investigation against ourselves. However, this tradition of custodial investigation is so deep-rooted that its unconstitutionality has been overlooked time and again, not only by the executive and judiciary bodies of the country but also by the general public. The decision to make an official statement against self should be an autonomous decision of the individual and no force, be it the law enforcement or any other force, should be allowed to interfere with the decision. Sadly, and quite frankly, this principle is neglected and most police investigations are much like any other episode of Crime Patrol.

Moreover, the extent to which custodial interrogation is being misused is horrific. The incident of Jeyaraj and Benkins is an apt example of this. The only charge that the duo faced was alleged violation of Covid-19 lockdown, and such an incident did not call for any requirement of interrogation whatsoever. The statement of the police officers, as well as the CCTV footage, would have been enough to prove if any violation has even taken place. Despite this, the duo was not only taken into custody but also physically tortured throughout the night. Benkins’ acquaintances told the media that they “heard the cries of Jeyaraj and Benkins for hours as the police tortured them through the night.”[2] Abjuring custodial interrogation will improve public safety. It will encourage the police to reject self-incrimination as a tool of investigation and improve their ability to find evidence through modern, scientific, and humane means.

Even when a few of the sickening incidents of police brutality, such as the incident discussed above, do come to the attention of the general public and the national media, they are not dealt in the same way as other criminal acts. In most of cases, no FIR is registered and such matters are resolved through departmental proceedings. Even though these proceedings are established to punish the wrongdoer for his actions, the same only prevail on paper. The reality is often different. First, the process isn’t transparent. The departmental process of disciplinary action against the wrongdoer is not available to the general public easily. Also, only the final verdict of the proceedings is disclosed and the actual proceedings are rarely monitored by officials outside the department. Due to this, any fraudulent conduct by the department, which may be done to save the reputation of the said department, or done by fellow associates to protect the individual from the penalization that he deserves, may go unnoticed and justice may not be served through this process. Also, most of the time, the committee which deals with the acts of the wrongdoers considers the act of the individual as merely a breach of duty, when in fact they are heinous crimes. As a result, the castigation given is also that of a breach of duty, such as suspension or transfer of the individual. For instance, in the case of Jeyaraj, the officers accused of the alleged murder of the father and son duo have been suspended, but no FIR has been lodged and the proceedings conducted are also departmental and not criminal.

There cannot be enough emphasis added to the fact that what happened to Jeyaraj and his son is not an isolated incident. These transgressions by the law enforcement departments have been present since before independence, and need to come to an end. One of the most important steps to be taken to end this brutality is the proper implementation of the procedures and the code of conduct that govern the functioning of the police. Protocols such as search warrants have been well-established on paper only, and there is dying need to implement such laws and protocols to ensure that the police cannot go about flouting their existence.

An efficacious step to instill fear in the minds of officials of the consequences of their actions would be to completely do away with departmental inquiries and actions. Instead, all such crimes should be dealt with by the judicial bodies and the offenders should be treated at par with other offenders. However, this step is not feasible as the Indian Judicial System is already overburdened. So, an alternative is a transparency. Each and every proceeding and departmental inquiry against incidences of police brutality should be made accessible to the public. This will ensure that the offender is being prosecuted properly as any manipulation of any facts to save the image of the police department or the offender can be easily checked and reported.

There is also a need to change our mentality. No law, no solution will work unless the mindset of the citizens changes. The problem with our mindset is that often we do not want justice, we want revenge. We often think of criminal law as akin to a school teacher managing a classroom. No questions, no trial, straight to the cane. There was visible celebration throughout the country when four people, accused of rape were encountered by the police in 2019. When questions were raised by a few people regarding the legitimacy of the reasons for encounter, the response that came from the general public was that “they deserved it”. Although the crime that they committed was heinous, justice wasn’t delivered. We, as responsible citizens of the country, need to stop celebrating and promoting such incidents, as acceptance of these events lead to incidents similar to the Jeyaraj death case.

India is in dire need of an Anti-Torture Law. Our country is the world’s biggest democracy, and the fact that it does not have any law which punishes the law enforcement department, which is one of the biggest executive bodies of the country, for its felonious actions is quite reprehensible. It is very important that the police be punished for its wrongdoings so that the public can regain the confidence it has lost in them, and the democracy of the country, which is at risk due to the actions of a few bad people, can be saved.

[1] India: Annual Report on Torture 2019, http://www.uncat.org/press-release/press-release-india-records-daily-five-deaths-in-custody-uttar-pradesh-tops-deaths-in-police-custody-during-2019/ (as accessed on July 3, 2020)

[2] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/tamil-nadu-custodial-deaths-all-you-need-to-know/articleshow/76707406.cms (as accessed on July 2, 2020)

This article has been authored by Kabir Dhamija of the 2nd-year student at Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Patiala, Punjab

Also Read: How to make a complaint against the Police Officer?

Law Corner