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November 25, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Dilip D'Souza

It's Routine And It Feeds On Itself

Appearing some years ago in a railway court to pay a fine, I was witness to a thoroughly unsettling scene. As I sat there waiting for my turn to be admonished for not "warming" various hands instead of naively showing up in court, a few dozen scruffy-looking youths shuffled into the room. Nothing particularly unusual about that. Except that several looked no more than 13 or 14 years old. Except too, that they were all tied together with ropes in long lines, each line shepherded by a cop. As each roped gang finished snaking in, the cops made the youths squat on the floor.

After a while, I understood what was going on. These were people in police custody, brought to this magistrate for hearings in their cases. Here's how these hearings went. The magistrate called out a name. A cop sprang up and hauled one of the roped youths to his feet. The cop rattled off something or the other about him and his case. The judge looked at his calendar, shouted "January 16" or some other suitably distant date -- chosen, as far as I could tell, at random. The cop pushed the hapless fellow back onto his haunches. The magistrate called another name.

Without spending more than half a minute each, the cases of these miserable youths, whatever they were, were simply being adjourned for several weeks. With that, they were simply being sent back into custody. None of them managed to get a word in for himself, though I did hear a few forlorn, dejected voices trying ("Sir, please hear me now," one asked futilely). After all had bobbed up and down, the cops hauled them to their feet once more and the sorry lot shuffled out. Next to be seen in that room, I'm sure, on January 16. On which day, I'm sure, the same charade was going to be repeated.

I'll admit: I have no idea what these fellows were in police clutches for. I suppose it is conceivable that they were all dastardly criminals who just had to stay behind bars indefinitely. Conceivable. But their pathetic condition, their extreme youth, made that thesis extremely hard to believe.

In Maharashtra, there are rumours flying around about a new law the government wants to put in place to tackle crime. The news so far is that a draft of the legislation has made its way to the state home department for approval. A "mini-TADA", it's being called. That, of course, is in homage to the law that lapsed some years ago and, in doing so, drove its many admirers to a flood of tears that is yet to abate.

Tears for TADA, yes. Still, if the name is any indication of the kind of law the new one will be, there are definite reasons to be concerned. Now let's be frank: those reasons are easily listed, easily read, easily forgotten. How can they come to mean something to you and me?

For me, one answer lay in remembering the sight of those dejected young men shuffling in and out of the railway court.

You see, under TADA the police could keep you in custody without trial for up to six months (one year when TADA was first introduced, reduced to six months later). That -- custody without trial -- was the disease the men in the railway court had caught. Without TADA, the enforcers of our laws find it easy enough to deprive people -- and especially the people least able to protest -- of their freedom. What happened when we handed them the powers of TADA? What can we expect of this "mini-TADA"?

Questions to ask, because police custody is no picnic for those who suffer it. People arrested by the police, nearly anywhere in the country, can expect to be beaten up and tortured. While we may know so in an abstract way, somewhere at the back of our minds, some digging I did on the subject a few months ago proved quite revealing. Here's a sampling of what I found.

Dr Amar Jesani, of the NGO CEHAT (Centre for Enquiry Into Health and Allied Themes) spoke to an Indian Medical Association Workshop on Torture a couple of years ago about a young man accused of a petty theft. The police brought him from jail to hospital in a serious condition. Dr Jesani quoted hospital records that mentioned "injuries on his wrists and thighs, bloody vomiting, pain in the region around the kidney." The doctor gave him some routine treatment and sent him back to his cell. There, he died.

On December 21, 1997, a man called Shekhar Mayawan Harijan died in the custody of the Andheri (a Bombay suburb) police. Twelve days earlier, he had vanished after leaving his home in the nearby slums. It wasn't till December 19 that his family heard something about him: the press reported that the police had rounded him up for questioning in the murder, a few months previously, of Jitendra Dabholkar. Three days later, the police changed their minds: he had been picked up, they said, in connection with a theft. Whichever it was, Shekhar's dead body carried a number of signs of torture. A petition his wife has filed describes them: "The tips of his fingers were black as if they were burnt by an electric current. The skin had been forcibly removed from his legs just above the ankle. His bottom and hip area had swollen tremendously and was red in colour."

A student at Pune's Karve Institute of Social Work did a study of deaths in police custody in Maharashtra during the 1980s, based on police records. He found there had been 155 such deaths then. And how, according to police records, had these 155 people died? "Police action" accounted for 15. "Hanging" killed 45. 21 more were "natural" deaths. The rest were attributed to an astonishing total of 28 other causes. Among them were: "beaten by people" (9 deaths), "jumped in well" (3), "jaundice" (1), "strangled" (1), "jumped under autorickshaw" (3), "fell from bed" (1) and "fell on others" (1).

I will leave you to speculate on the implications and the fatal consequences, while in police custody, of falling from beds and falling on others.

Quoting home ministry data, The Times of India reported (February 14 1998) a steep rise in custodial deaths across the country between 1996 and 1997. Maharashtra was by far the worst offender: custodial deaths in the glory of Shivshahi rose by 506 per cent, from 33 deaths in 1995-1996 to 200 in 1996-97. Writing in The Statesman (July 24 1997), the ex-director general (investigation) of the National Human Rights Commission, Sankar Sen, confirmed this nationwide trend: "[T]he number of deaths in police custody reported to the NHRC has shot up."

But Sen also wrote: "Victims mostly belong to poor and marginalised sections of the people." The true face, the shameful face, of police custody is that overwhelmingly, the victims of torture and violence are those least aware of their rights, least able to defend themselves.

Some of these issues will be discussed this weekend at a CEHAT conference in Bombay -- Preventing Violence, Caring for Survivors: Role of Health Profession and Services in Violence. Even a quick scan through the programme reveals enough about the concerns of people working in the field. These are some of the papers that will be heard:

* Violence by state agencies on women.
* Violence by state agencies (police) in Maharashtra state.
* Who cares for torture victims: West Bengal experience.
* Everday life in a female ward of a prison.
* Custodial violence: Legal and medical perspectives.
* Slum demolition: Effect on children.
* Mental health concerns of families affected by terrorism.
* Judiciary and state coming to perpetuate and condone violence.

That last one may put a finger on a disturbing trend: that violence by the police is increasingly seen as acceptable, even normal. The few who raise a fuss are dismissed contemptuously, yet petulantly, as "human rights wallahs" who "lower the morale of the police" and "care more for the rights of criminals than of victims."

Foolish ignorance like that apart, the fuss must be raised, because there are two truths about such violence.

One: that today it happens almost by default. A retired deputy commissioner of police, A G Patwardhan, told me during my digging that many superior officers routinely encourage torture by their subordinates. They have the idea that this is the only way to get results. "The police have been given great powers," Patwardhan said, "but those powers are to be used with discretion. They do not understand this."

Two: that violence will only produce more violence. This is what the eminent jurist, Fali Nariman, told an International Colloquium on How To Combat Torture as long ago as 1981: "[O]ne must carry the public. To do that they must be convinced that the established system will work, that law and order can be enforced and maintained without torture. There must be an awareness, an awakening to the psychological imperative that violence begets more violence; that systematic brutality debases a people. It is important that people know -- and knowing, feel -- what is happening around them."

Yes, I don't know for sure that those youths in the railway court were innocent babes-in-the-wood wrongly jailed. Yes, I cannot say they were actually beaten up by the police.

But yes too, I could see how utterly helpless and pathetic they were, how unable to argue in court for their rights, for themselves. The memory of that sight frightens me no end.

Dilip D'Souza

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