Custodial Deaths: A Cold-blooded Power Play

Custodial deaths have become a major concern under human rights and also one of the worst enemies of human development in contemporary societies. ‘Custodial violence’ means inflicting physical and mental torture on a person in custody and is a naked violation of human rights! It takes place in numerous countries but the problem is rather prevalent and complex here in India. Here, custodial deaths happen mostly due to systematic compulsions.

This torture can be inflicted upon people in any type of custody. It has gone unnoticed since the days of the British rule but has come into the limelight very recently. It now draws the attention of all pillars of our democracy, especially the fourth one. Along with those, it has also grasped the attention of activists as well as the Human Rights Commission. This topic has now spread like wildfire due to the brutal torture inflicted on people and demeaning them, which in turn strips them of their human dignity.

Jerome H. Skolnik in his book, ‘Justice without Trial’, posed the following few questions to the police with regards to the rule of law:

  1. For what social purpose do police exist?

  2. What value do the police preserve in a democratic society?

  3. Are the police to be principally an agency of social control with their chief value the efficient enforcement of the prohibitive norms of substantive criminal law?

The answer to these questions should be:

  1. As a constituted body empowered by the state, the police work to enforce the law, ensure the safety of the citizens, prevent crimes and ensure peace and harmony in the area.

  2. The four main responsibilities of the police are to enforce laws, prevent crimes, respond to emergencies, and provide support services. They aspire to and motivate people to develop faith in society.

  3. Not really. The role of the police as an agency of social control should not only be the prevention of crime but also to create a strong system and win the trust of people so that there is no crime in that area in the first place. They should make society safe and free of crime for the citizens.

Are these answers correct? Do they tell us what the police exactly do? Do you think that these answers are a true reflection of the Indian police? Power is granted to the police to ensure law and order but the desire to solve the case as early as possible and/or greed leads to malpractice. Article 21 of the Constitution clearly states that a person shall not be deprived of his life and personal liberty but the torture and assaults have now become a part of the police way. Police now treat people as guilty until proven innocent and try to get an answer from them by hook or by crook.

According to the National Campaign Against Torture, 1731 people died in custody in 2019 alone, which means an average of 5 deaths every day, 1606 of which took place in judicial custody! If this is the case then how can we say that the police ensure safety when they actually beat people so much that they lie just to end the torture inflicted on them? 25% of these people were poor or belonged to marginalized communities and were women from the weaker sections of the society. This proves that poor people are more vulnerable to custodial deaths.

The IPC 1861 , Criminal Procedural Code 1973, Protection of Human Rights Act 1993, the Universal Declaration of Human Right, International convention on the elimination of all forms of Discrimination of women and Convention against Torture and other cruel, inhuman or Degrading treatment and Punishment—the list of declarations and treaties is long but what is their purpose when there is still a high rate of custodial deaths which continually rises every year? They are laws and treaties on paper but fail to protect people in reality.

#justiceforjayramandfenix, I’m sure you must be aware of this hashtag. This is a recent case where a father-son duo was taken into custody because they kept their shop open. The police beat them up brutally and even inserted metal objects into one of the victim’s rectum. Both victims then succumbed to their injuries. This sparked an outrage throughout India and now everyone wants the perpetrators to be hanged. Where is the existence of human rights and dignity here? Nowhere. This is proof that these laws exist on paper but are not actually implemented in real life. This shows the brutal reality of action is taken by the police in India.

Mathura, Rameeza Bee, and Maya Tyagi, these are the names of women who were not killed but fell victim to one of the most brutal forms of custodial violence—rape. These three women were the first few victims of custodial rape. Theirs is a case which involves abuse of power by a public servant, where the police acted with extreme brutality and without any fear of the law. This incident sparked a nationwide campaign against rape.


Custodial violence is not only limited to assault, rape and beatings. It has much more depth to it. It includes horrendous acts such as drugging the individual arrested, depriving them of basic necessities, causing disfiguration, making children stay naked in cold weather, cuts using sharp objects made on the body, sodomy, electronic shock, mock amputations and even burning the person alive.

Vetrimaaran’s movie, Visaranai, throws light on this brutal culture of India. The movie shows four Tamil migrant workers who are picked up, beaten and tortured by the police for a crime they didn’t commit. This was done just to close a high-profile case and get the money. Isn’t this how most of the cases are closed in our country? Am I right or am I right? The powerful depiction of the brutality and the harsh but true take on the discrimination by the police on the basis of caste, creed, and color is evident in the film. Based on a true story of a man, who did not survive to tell this tale, it was India’s official entry to the Oscars in 2016.

 Amnesty International’s 10 Point Program

Amnesty International feels that viewing criminal prosecutions are an important means of demonstrating the human rights abuse done by police. Hence, they came up with the following 10 point guidelines to eradicate custodial violence from India. Unfortunately, they have not been followed to the T. Rather, the Indian police have blatantly ignored the guidelines. Incidents of custodial violence continue to rise and the police manipulate evidence against themselves so that victims can’t even protest against such heinous violence.

  1. Adopting an official policy to protect human right

  2. Investigate impartially all allegations of torture

  3. Bringing the perpetrators to justice

  4. Strengthen safeguard against torture

  5. Inform detainees of their rights

  6. Train the police and security forces to uphold human rights and reform the police.

  7. Compensate the victims

  8. Provide torture victims with medical treatment with medical treatment and rehabilitation

  9. Investigate the causes and patterns of torture

  10. Strengthen India’s International human rights commitment

Deaths in custody do not show up on police records and the police make every effort to dispose of the body or prove that the person died after they were released from jail.Efforts are directed towards covering up maltreatment rather than actually investigating the (innocent) victims they arrest. No complaint against custodial violence is paid attention to and no evidence is ever found since these lock-ups and holding cells are away from the media gaze. Police manipulate the cases of custodial violence in the worst way possible and no one can prove that since the only witnesses are other police officers and other victims. This gives the police a great opportunity to cover up for their brutality and then get away with it. Custodial deaths can’t and must not be viewed in isolation! When the ones who ensure our safety become perpetrators of violence, it becomes a heinous case of abuse of power which in turn is backed by the silent state.

It has now become a routine procedure and an active part of police investigations to manipulate the truth. There have been years where over 100 people die in custody but no action was taken against police. The deaths were blamed on suicides, illness, and natural causes.

When the case of George Floyd came into the limelight, there were protests around the world against brutality. Even Indians took part in numerous protests but what happens when something like this happens in India itself? The powerful voices spoke up on what happened in the States but not when something similar happens here and this problematic and hypocritical attitude of people has encouraged a culture of impunity. Arrests of police personnel is a very rare happening here in India. The increasing rate of custodial violence but decreasing number of arrests is something to introspect on because all this creates a culture of corruption, impunity, and degrading justice system. If this remains the case, we will have to question the authorities itself.

Some structural reforms need to be made, the media that brings everything to the limelight needs to be protected rather than crushed, people and especially journalists who stand up against the police and the state are killed. This needs to be stopped. The hate inside the minds of the people needs to be removed.

“India has witnessed the mayhem of the legal as well as human rights at the callousness of the police authorities. in spite of the fact that the judiciary has asked prison authorities to change their attitudes towards prison inmates and protect their human rights for the sake of humanity.”

 “The police's job is to apprehend citizens that are suspected of a crime. It is the judge's job, and ONLY the judge's job to determine whether an individual is innocent or guilty. Unfortunately, it's very common for the police force to think they are the judge, jury, and unsurprisingly, also the executioner.

The officer in charge should be punished to the full extent of the law in case of custodial death and, at the very least, have their badge taken away since they've proven that they're too irresponsible to have the public's safety in their hands.”

 “According to 2018 statistics, around 50 cases of custodial killings came up against the Mumbai Police alone. Our Constitution grants everyone, literally 'everyone', the right to fight for his innocence.  The Constitution commands the motto 'innocent until proven guilty'. The police, on the other hand, believes in ' guilty until proven innocent'”

“Custodial deaths are unethical and inhumane but sometimes necessary, for example. in the case of Vikas Dubey, he has murdered dozens of people and gets away every time, police and legal negligence and incompetence only gives them the edge and confidence to commit more crimes, so in some cases, it is necessary to look for a permanent fix.”

“When the entire BLM movement was occurring in the USA during the pandemic, a lot of our peers posted on social media about it and so did Indian celebs. They faced a lot of backlash for double standards because the same people have been oblivious towards the police brutality towards the lower caste in India.

So there's definitely a caste hierarchy and many people belonging to the lower castes are abused and mistreated by the police for minor reasons. That's obviously wrong but the reason I feel this isn't brought to light is that the media really mitigates their issues and our systems think giving an SC/ST seat is enough but it clearly isn't.

There needs to be a more rigid change in policies and education systems to fight this at a grassroots level.”

“Custodial deaths simply glorify the extent of power the so called protectors use against us. The excruciating thing is that people from the low-income class are usually the ones who face this. Again, power and money play a big role and I am totally against this.”

“Although extrajudicial killings and custodial deaths have become an important topic of debate in India today, for a much longer time these activities have been glorified within the Indian society to such an extent that they are openly portrayed in mediums such as movies. These deaths have been normalised,leaving statistics that are alarming. In fact, a recent statistic published by the Hindu noted 74.4% deaths due to alleged foul play and 19.2% under suspicious circumstances. Thus, making the issue one of great concern and furthermore warranting increased accountability of civil servants.”

All this is what the youth of our country has to say! And in the world’s biggest democracy, seeing protectors of law become the perpetrators is quite ironic. They murder many and have the state as their accomplice. The state is a silent partner in all of this is a testimony to the ‘thick as thieves’ partnership between the justice and the law.

The essential question that now comes up is, will the outrage and attention these custodial death cases receive today finally make the police accountable? Or will they continue their silent partnership with the state alive, like they always have?


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Comment by Kalin | Aug. 17, 2020, 6:39 p.m.

Thank you for sharing this. We are suffering from the same injustices in America, and it's eye-opening that this is an issue across the globe in places like India too. It's so important to spread awareness about this and hope that one day it will come to an end

Comment by Shivani | Aug. 25, 2020, 12:52 p.m.

An eye opener article. It’s high time that people are made aware and educated on this serious issue.

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