In an attempt to prevent custodial torture, India’s Supreme Court has ordered the central and state governments to install closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras in police stations and prisons across the country. While this is a step in the right direction, a more comprehensive approach is needed to halt this practice.

custodial torture

Torture is endemic in India. According to the Asian Centre for Human Rights’ report ‘Torture in India 2011’, between 2001 and 2010, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) recorded a total of 14,231 deaths in custody in India; 1504 in police custody and 12,727 in judicial custody. This translates to a rate of over four deaths from custodial torture per day.

The NHRC figures are a conservative estimate, as it is only those torture cases that are reported to it that get recorded. In most instances of torture, victims are reluctant to take their complaints against the police or prison authorities to the human rights watchdog. Besides, the NHRC figures include only those cases of torture that culminated in death. Importantly, it does not include custodial torture cases from India’s conflict zones.

Torture to elicit information in the course of interrogation and to wring out confessions is common in India. Police officials often justify it as necessary to ‘crack’ ‘hardened criminals’ and terrorists. Rarely do authorities admit that death in custody was due to torture; in most instances, the death is attributed to suicide.

Although India signed the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1997, it is yet to ratify it. Besides, India does not have standalone legislation on torture. In 2010, the government introduced the Prevention of Torture Bill, which made torture by officials a crime punishable with a jail term of up to ten years. Strongly criticized by human rights and civil society activists for defining torture very narrowly, the bill went into cold storage and remains there to date.

While India’s parliament is yet to act to prevent torture, the judiciary has been more proactive on the matter. Various court rulings have mandated that victims of torture be compensated. In 1997, the Supreme Court laid out comprehensive guidelines to be followed by police during arrest, detention and interrogation of any person. These were aimed at reducing the possibility of torture in custody. Courts have also repeatedly ruled that torture violates the constitutional right to life and that the state is obliged to prevent it.

Last year, the Bombay High Court, while observing that custodial torture in the state of Maharashtra was “alarming,” ordered installation of CCTV cameras in police stations across the state. The recent Supreme Court order takes this order further by calling for their installation across the country.

While CCTVs could play an important role in recording torture in police stations and prisons, its use in preventing torture is limited. CCTVs can record only what is in the camera’s line of vision. What if torture happens outside its reach?

Preventing torture requires a multi-pronged approach. This will require enactment of legislation that explicitly criminalizes and punishes custodial torture.  Pulling out from deep-freeze the severely flawed 2010 bill will not do.

Besides, police and jail authorities require training on more humane interrogation methods. Importantly, a culture that rejects all forms of torture needs to be fostered not just among police and prison authorities but among the public too.

However, India’s legislators continue to embrace torture. New laws that indirectly legitimize torture are in the pipeline. Like the draconian Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) and thePrevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), the Gujarat Control of Terrorism and Organised Crime (GCTOC) Bill, 2015, which awaits the President’s assent, makes confessions secured in police custody admissible as evidence before a court of law. This is tantamount to providing state sanction to custodial torture.  It will encourage police to extract confessions under duress and torture.

 Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues

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