At a recent seminar on human rights and modern policing here, Kerala Law Secretary B.G. Harindranath quoted a 19th century British Judge to throw light on why Indian law enforcers have often resorted to the third degree to elicit confessions.

“It is pleasanter to sit comfortably in the shade, rubbing red pepper in a poor devil’s eyes than to go about in the sun hunting up evidence,” he said. The top bureaucrat was quoting Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, the English Judge who had authored the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. Mr. Harindranath mused that it could be one reason why Sir James was sceptical about the admissibility of custodial confessions.

Nearly 146 years later, the colonial judge’s acerbic observation about the questionable investigative practices of Indian law enforcers seems all the more relevant, if recent and past cases of police abuse are any indication. It was perhaps just happenstance that a Special Court of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) here sentenced to death two Kerala police officers for custodial murder the same day Mr. Harindranath made his presentation at the seminar inaugurated by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

The seminar hall wasfilled to the seams with police officers. Mr. Vijayan avoided referring to the judgment directly. However, he used the moment to warn police officers that he would not brook authoritarianism, corruption and third degree in the force, an issue that he has had to return to more than once during the past two years of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) rule. An uncompromising stance against the third degree has been the central theme of speeches delivered by Mr. Vijayan, himself a victim of police torture as a political detainee during the Emergency, on many occasions during the period.

The CBI Court had found that the accused had tortured the victim, Udayakumar (26), at the Fort police station in 2005 to force a confession that Rs. 4,200 found on him was the proceeds from the sale of loot. It turned out that the money was Onam festival bonus paid by his employer. Human rights activists hailed the momentous judgment as a watershed in the history of cases of police abuse, many of them hoping that it would serve as a template for scores of other police abuse cases pending adjudication.

However, questions remain whether the Udayakumar case judgment and Mr. Vijayan’s words of warning would bring about a perceptible change in police conduct at the grassroots: one that would make the public, chiefly the poor and marginalised sections, less wary of the law enforcement. J.B. Koshy, former chairman of the State Human Rights Commission and retired judge of the Kerala High Court, said a change in police functioning, if any, would be incremental and not sudden.

Institutionalised bias

It is not that successive administrations have not taken constructive steps in that direction, but there seems to be an institutionalised bias in the police against Dalits, slum dwellers, the poor, persons who lack political patronage, guest workers, pavement dwellers, sexual minorities and transgenders. Udayakumar’s plight typified that inbuilt prejudice. The scrapyard worker lived in a slum with his mother and possessed no influence or money to speak of. For law enforcers, hard-pressed for time and under duress to ratchet up detections, the innocent man, whom they picked up from a public park, appeared to be the stereotype of a petty thief.

Mr. Koshy said in his five years as SHRC chief, he had adjudicated scores of cases relating to custodial police abuse. However, the violators rarely faced any harsh punishment. Given the culture of protectionism prevailing in the force, it was almost incumbent upon an officer to shield his or her colleague. It is a kind of trade unionism. The police should have the courage to investigate themselves when they break the law, Mr. Koshy said.

P.K. Raju, human rights activist and member of the Communist Party of India (CPI), who had championed the cause of Udayakumar along with his ageing mother Prabhavati Amma, had filed scores of petitions at various forums, including the Kerala State Police Complaints Authority, highlighting police abuse. Police torture, he said, is a sad reality in Kerala. Officers would beat accused persons to extract testimonials to suit their narrative of the crime. Many officers would also use the third degree to recover loot in theft and chain-snatching cases, crimes that degrade the quality of life of ordinary citizens and render them insecure.

Use of chilli paste and cloth-bound coconuts, often used as a cosh to inflict blunt injuries, are still part of the police tool kit. In many cases, law enforcers have threatened to arrest the relatives of detainees to extract confessions. Midnight arrests are still a norm as seen in Sreejith’s case in Kochi. Families often have no clue where the police have taken their kin. Officers, as a rule, would produce suspects beaten in custody before the magistrate only after court hours. The tactic would deprive the magistrate a chance to examine the suspect and record custodial torture, if any. Some magistrates go through the motions hurriedly and remand the suspects merely on the word of the police personnel and without due vetting.

Accountability

Mr. Raju said the force has to shed its deep-seated antipathy towards writers, thinkers and social activists who fight human rights abuse and bat for better police accountability. It has been a fashion to cast such persons as proxies for felons and anti-nationals. In a democracy, policing is by consensus and paid for by the taxpayer. A senior lawyer said citizens who are detained by law almost immediately lose their right to privacy. Their photographs and details of their private lives are directly in the open. They are presumed guilty before a court decides so.

News of acquittals rarely get any news coverage while reports and images of arrests live on seemingly forever on the Internet. “Perpetual disgrace is just a Google search away for many innocent people,” he said. The media are to blame for such ethical indiscretions. So are their police sources who casually pass on personally devastating information that has no bearing on the offence or trial. Errant officers have often used such information gathered during a probe as a tool to wrench confessions or threaten blackmail.

The State government has moved to bifurcate law enforcement and crime investigation. The aim is to allow a set of trained and skilled officials to doggedly investigate crimes without being distracted by daily law and order and traffic duties. Top officials hope that this would mitigate harsh questioning and third degree at stations. In 2011, Kerala had amended the Kerala Police Act to usher in an ethos of accountability in police functioning. A committee headed by former State Police Chief Jacob Punnoose had revised the law in consonance with the spirit of Supreme Court directives.

The Act expounds on the rights of the public at a police station and states that the police need to inform relatives or citizens about the status of persons in their custody.Importantly, the Act bats for the privacy of citizens who face investigation or are drawn into it for various reasons. The jury is still out on whether the Act is merely on paper or whether letter and spirit of law dictate the actions of the Kerala Police in keeping with the demands of a modern, literate and politically conscious democracy.

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