• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

India’s Awful Prisons

India has strong claims to being the world’s largest democracy. It has genuinely free elections and these have twice turned the once-dominant Congress party out of office. Its press is exceptionally outspoken and its judiciary, especially in the higher courts, is aggressively independent. Moreover, a variety of private and government agencies promote social welfare not only through traditional relief activities but by bringing lawsuits on behalf of the poor.

Nevertheless, if one believes that a democracy should include a system of checks and balances, formal or informal, that would prevent the government from acting lawlessly, India fails. This failure has become apparent in the government’s response to the separatist agitation in the Punjab and Kashmir. By official count, 3,212 civilians—apart from armed militants and the troops fighting them—were killed in 1990 during the government’s campaign to crush these movements. Many believe the totals are much higher and that at least in Kashmir most of the victims died at the hands of the armed forces and the police. In Punjab, the militant Sikhs and government forces opposing them were probably equally responsible for the killing that took place. But the government’s behavior in Kashmir and Punjab is not so much a departure from a general rule of law as a highly dramatic demonstration of how the government fails to exercise restraint in enforcing the law. In a recent investigation of the Indian criminal justice system on behalf of Asia Watch we found that abuses by officials are flagrant and commonplace.

In the major cities anyone unlucky enough to be arrested and jailed faces a far greater likelihood of torture and physical abuse than in many other countries that lack India’s democratic institutions. We expected to find that detainees and prisoners would be badly treated to some degree, if only because life is harsh for many law-abiding Indians. What surprised us, however, was the extent of the brutality and corruption to which most prisoners were subjected.

In India an official commitment to egalitarianism is taken for granted, and the intense and often violent debate over civil rights mainly concerns the extent to which special benefits should be given to untouchables and other “backward castes.” But the criminal justice system itself is explicitly biased in favor of the more prosperous classes. Prisons, for example, give special privileges to virtually all upper-and middle-class inmates, even if they have committed extremely violent crimes. In some respects, moreover, prisoners who are guilty of violent political offenses are treated as an elite group; they have a more varied and ample diet than other prisoners and they can read books and articles that are denied to the others.

What accounts for such extensive police lawlessness in a working democracy? According to Indian law, every person who is arrested and held in custody must be brought before a magistrate within twenty-four hours of arrest. If the magistrate does not issue an order authorizing a prisoner to be held for up to fourteen days, he or she must be set free, and under no circumstances can the police hold a suspect without trial for more than ninety days.

In practice, however, except for the fortunate few who can afford to hire a lawyer and put up bail, prisoners often are kept in jail without trial for weeks or months. In some cases, the police evade the twenty-four-hour rule by not immediately recording an arrest. In many more cases, judges sign orders that prisoners continue to be held in custody without even requiring that they appear in court and without setting any time limits, even after weeks and months have passed.

People arrested are in the greatest physical danger when they are held in local police jails, where they are usually kept in crowded cells with only the most rudimentary sanitation facilities. Torture is commonplace. Experienced lawyers told us that more than half the people arrested in Bombay and an even higher proportion of those arrested in New Delhi were subjected to the “third degree”—a term commonly used in India to describe heavy beatings and other practices that can be described as torture.

One of India’s civil liberties groups, the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) in New Delhi, recently published a report on people who died while in police custody: almost all of them had came to its attention through newspaper accounts. (India has a number of local civil liberties organizations but their budgets are tiny, their staffs are all volunteers, and their impact on criminal justice issues is limited.) During the 1980s, five to six people a year, most of them under thirty, were reported to have died in police custody in Delhi. “Most of these people,” the PUDR said,

died due to severe beating and prolonged torture. Practically every person taken to a police station in connection with some or the other offense in our country is subjected to severe beating and torture…. Sticks, boots and belts and wooden rollers are the most common instruments of beating. Sexual abuse, designed not only to hurt but also to humiliate is part of the torture. Naked or seminaked men are a common sight in police lock-ups. It is this process of torture, regular and systematic, whose end product is sometimes death, as in the case of these unfortunate 48 people in Delhi [who died in police lock-ups from 1980 to 1989].

Other Indian civil liberties groups have reported that in 1988, twenty people died in police custody in Andhra Pradesh; fifteen in Bihar; eight in Kerala; twenty-two in Uttar Pradesh; and nineteen in West Bengal. The claims by officials that some of the prisoners had been drunk or ill, or had committed suicide, can’t be supported by medical evidence since it is almost unheard-of for medical representatives of the family or of independent agencies to be allowed to participate in an autopsy. To complicate matters further, the Hindu practice of cremation often makes independent autopsies impossible when doubts are raised about the causes of death. Under these circumstances, the evidence cannot be conclusive, but it appears that each year throughout India at least several hundred people die after being tortured. A deputy inspector-general of police, Shailendra Misra, concluded:

The brutal behavior of our police is established beyond doubt…[in the] police commissions, surveys of public opinion and reports on specific instances of brutality.1

For women the greatest danger of police detention is rape. The National Expert Committee on Women Prisoners, whose chairman was the retired Supreme Court judge Krishna Iyer, has reported that only six institutions throughout the country are exclusively for women, and their inmates are serving long-term sentences; fewer than 20 percent of women in pretrial detention are in a separate prison. Everywhere else women prisoners are in mixed prisons, mainly in separate wings or cells but as the Iyer commission found, always under the authority of male guards.

How many of the guards, we asked, sexually exploit the women, most of whom are migrants from rural areas and lack the protection that family or community connections can provide? The answers are particularly difficult to obtain, for in India, to an even greater extent than in Western countries, victims risk punishment or ostracism if it becomes known that they have been raped. If they are married, they are likely to be abandoned by their husbands and families, and if they are single, their chances of marriage are virtually lost. Thus rape is seldom reported, and when it happens to women in police custody, the silence is all the greater. Even if the victim were able to accuse her assailants, it is almost certain that she would suffer more than they would. The only clues to what happens come from incidents uncovered more or less by chance. The Delhi police themselves recently acknowledged that between 1988 and 1990 fourteen rapes took place of women in custody, and twenty-four police officers were named as responsible. Suspensions and dismissals have followed, but, so far as we could find, none of the twenty-four officers has as yet been convicted of a crime.

No doubt some police mistreat the people in their custody in order to force them to confess and plead guilty, thereby making their work easier and improving their reputation for efficiency. But these motives should not be given much weight. According to Indian law, confessions made before a judge are inadmissible at trial; in that respect, Indian defendants are better protected than they would be in the United States, where the Miranda rules only entitle suspects to be warned about their rights and not to be questioned without a lawyer present if they so choose. The Indian rule is less protective than it seems, because evidence obtained as a result of a confession to the police, such as stolen property, can be used in court. Still, if the crime does not involve property, the value of a confession diminishes.

Moreover, if the police simply wanted a conviction they would have little reason to beat up petty criminals, since in many cases a simple statement by the arresting officer before a magistrate is enough to obtain a guilty verdict. People familiar with police lockups told us, for example, that typical victims of police abuse were poor rural migrants who took trains to the city without paying the fare. In most cases, the person arrested has no ticket and there is no need to coerce a confession. The police are also frequently called to deal with cases of assault involving people who know each other; here too, beatings to obtain a confession are unnecessary—the victim and neighbors would testify to what happened—but they occur anyway.

Police torture in India has a long history. In 1854, when the British governor of Madras established a commission “for the Investigation of Alleged Cases of Torture,” it received almost two thousand complaints. The commission concluded that torture was a standard practice and gave gruesome details:

Among the principal tortures in vogue in police cases we find the following: twisting a rope tightly around the entire arm or leg so as to impede circulation; lifting up by the moustache; suspending by arms while tied behind the back; searing with hot irons; placing scratching insects, such as the carpenter beetle, on the navel, scrotum and other sensitive parts; dipping in wells and rivers, till the party is half suffocated; squeezing the testicles; beating with sticks; prevention of sleep; nipping the flesh with pincers; putting pepper or red chilies in the eyes or introducing them into the private parts of men or women; these cruelties occasionally persevered until death sooner or later ensues.2

In the 136 years since this report was issued many other commissions—some national, others sponsored by state governments—have made similar findings. The report of Inspector Misra, who served as director of a national police commission between 1977 and 1980, concluded that “the current methodology of third degree does not show any remarkable refinement over the methods described by the Torture Commission of 1854.3

  1. 1

    Shailendra Misra, Police Brutality: Analysis of Police Behavior, (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1986), p. 44. The book is a revised version of a dissertation by Mr. Misra, a longtime professional police officer, written for the Indian Institute of Public Administration.

  2. 2

    Torture Commission Report, April 16, 1855, paragraph 67.

  3. 3

    Misra, Police Brutality: Analysis of Police Behavior, p. 32.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print