Custodial Deaths in India with special reference to Ramkumar’s case

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A policeman walks into his police station in a sour mood. He has just had a big quarrel with his wife back at home, followed by an angry call from his superior about some unfinished investigation that should have been completed yesterday. As soon as he walks in and takes his seat, the sub-inspector informs him that a suspect in custody needs to be questioned about a murder that he is alleged to have committed. He has been further told that the case has garnered nation-wide media attention and hence, there is great pressure on the police to come with a conviction. With so much going on in his head, he heads off to the interrogation room and when he finds that the suspect is unwilling to co-operate, his frustration reaches its peak and he takes the interrogation techniques overboard, ultimately resulting in the death of the suspect. Once the policeman realizes what has happened he dresses the scene in such a manner that the death looks like a suicide and news is leaked to media houses in the morning that the suspect committed suicide in the prison holding due to fear of being sentenced.

Instances such as the above are not uncommon anymore. Custodial deaths have become a sad reality in India. The concept has existed in India ever since the British rule wherein numerous prisoners were mercilessly tortured, and while some died as the result of excessive torture, others were purposefully killed by the wardens while in custody. There are numerous reasons for custodial deaths, escalated torture leading to accidental death being one of the most common of them. Another reason for custodial deaths is that sometimes a suspect may agree to plead guilty but his statement before the magistrate would bring up names of influential businessmen, politicians, sports stars, film actors, or in some cases even policemen themselves. So, to avoid the public disclosure of their illegal activities, such influential personalities employ the policemen as their force to neutralize such threats.

Based on a survey by the Indian Express, the following are some random examples of deaths in police custody – Devaki, a sweeper, was hauled in and tortured to death for her husband’s connection with a banned organisation; Naresh Pannika was picked up only for questioning; carpenter Deodana was dragged to the police station because one of his sons, allegedly involved in a local feud was not at home at the time; Ramesh Kumar, a truck driver, was beaten to death for not allowing a police party to overtake his truck; Gangu was arrested and killed, for not repaying a loan of Rs. 3028 which he had borrowed in1978 to install a gobar gas plant; Kamal of Howrah had allegedly attacked a hotel with a “rowdy”; Rattan Singh of Gumana in Haryana had appealed to the village panchayat for help in a feud between him and his sons-in-law and it in turn invited the police intervention; Naresh was trying to give up “satta” operations to which he had been introduced by the police itself; 19-year-old ShyamTane was caught watching a scuffle in front of his house; 65-year-old Badhuk Raghavaria was rounded up on the charge of gambling; Latoor Singh, a harijan of Hodal village in Haryana, landed in police custody for getting into a heated argument with the SDM about the construction of a Harijanchaupal. And so it goes on. All these people died in the custody of the police. And not in one case cited above had the police charged the victim and shown him to be arrested. Hauling in a person without filing an FIR has become a common practice. A formal registration of the case is done only after the accused has confessed to the crime, given what the police consider are liberal provisions of bail and judicial remand.

One of the most recent cases in India in which the presumption of a custodial death at the hands of the police over a suicide was raised is the suicide by P. Ramkumar, the lone suspect in the murder of Infosys Techie Swathi at the Nungambakkam Railway Station. The murder of the techie had occurred in broad daylight on a platform of the bustling Nungambakkam railway station, in view of the passengers awaiting the arrival of their trains. The circumstances of the crime and mystery surrounding the motive and the killer looked like it would end when Ramkumar was arrested from his native village. The arrest of the accused was also quite theatrical in that a special police team surrounded his house in the Meenakshipuram Village area and finally nabbed him even as he supposedly attempted to commit suicide by slitting his throat. A confessional statement was also said to have been made by the accused wherein he claimed that he had killed Swathi as she had not reciprocated his love for her. It was after this that he was taken into the police custody where the suicide occurred.

The alleged suicide is said to have been committed by the suspect by “pulling and biting into a live electric wire” inside the Puzhal Central Prison. According to the official police statement, around 4:30 p.m. on the day of the suicide, a jail warden heard an unusual sound and rushed in its direction, only to find Ramkumar unconscious on the floor with a live electric wire in his mouth, near the dispensary block. The warden immediately switched off the main power, and with the assistance of others, rushed him to the prison hospital where first aid was administered to him. Since the suspect failed to respond to the first aid treatment, and his pulse was constantly declining, the doctors referred him to the Royapettah Hospital, where Ramkumar was ultimately declared dead on arrival.

The public uproar following the notification of the incident by the police was significant with the relatives and lawyers of the suspect claiming foul play on the part of the policeman. The death also received widespread media attention with the Tamil media debating the involvement of the police in the death on their news channels. It was also reported that an Advocate by the name of Shankar Subbu had filed a petition in the Madras High Court seeking judicial intervention to ensure that a fair post mortem is conducted. He urged that the matter be heard and ruled upon before the police conclude their formalities. After the hearing of the petition the judge ruled that a post mortem must be conducted by a team of four doctors and recorded.

On the 19th of September the State Human Rights Commission took suo motu cognizance of the incident and directed the Additional Director General of Police/ Director Investigation Division of the SHRC to conduct an enquiry and submit a comprehensive report about the incident within two weeks. The demand for an independent probe into the case has also been made by several political parties, civil rights activists and legal experts. Ramkumar’s lawyers have made claims that the initial throat slitting was also done by the police so as to make him unable to speak and hence can be framed for the murder. They also claimed that he had never had any contact with Swathi.

The latest update in the case is that the autopsy of Ramkumar’s body has been conducted by a team of five doctors, including an expert from AIIMS, and the whole process was video-graphed and monitored by the magistrate Tamil Selvi, who is investigating the death. The autopsy report is expected to be submitted in a few days which will further shed light on the exact cause of death, and whether it can be ruled as a custodial death or as a suicide.

Even though there have been multiple cases reported of custodial violence, the case above being testament to the same, they are just the tip of the iceberg and there are numerous other cases of the kind that go unreported every year due to the sheer clout of the police force as well as the influential people pulling their strings. There is also an inherent fear in the victims of custodial torture as well as the families of the victims of custodial deaths that if they try to pursue such cases, it will only increase the ordeal they have already suffered and hence they find it easier to just let go of their loss. The need of the hour is thus to inspire the confidence of the public that even the police force will be held accountable for its illegal actions and that they should approach the judiciary without any fear of backlash from the police for suits initiated against them.

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