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A tale of torture

Published : Aug 15, 2003 00:00 IST

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A case of serious police torture comes before the Human Rights Commission in Tamil Nadu.

During the discussions which took place on the Indian Code of Criminal Procedure in 1872, some observations were made on the reasons which occasionally led native police officers to apply torture to prisoners. An experienced civil officer observed, `There is a great deal of laziness in it. It is far pleasanter to sit comfortably in the shade rubbing red pepper into a poor devil's eyes than to go about in the sun hunting up evidence.' This was a new view to me, but I have no doubt of its truth.

- Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, quoted by Ed Denson in his article "Pepper Spray, Pain and Justice", The Civil Libertarian, 1998.

POLICE torture of prisoners is a colonial legacy and red pepper spray was one of the tools the police in British India used to extract confessions from prisoners. Hence the debate over the inhuman practice is over 125-years-old, though the colonial police resorted to it only "occasionally". Is laziness, as seen by the senior civil officer and endorsed by Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, Member, Viceregal Council for India, an English legal luminary and the architect of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, the major factor responsible for torture or is there something more to it? The debate continues.

The police in independent India resort to torture more frequently and have added more weapons to their armoury. The Supreme Court, in the D.K. Basu case (1997), drafted guidelines to be followed by the police for arrest and interrogation, with a view to giving little scope for illegal detention or improper interrogation. Later, the court directed the State human rights commissions (HRCs) to ensure that the guidelines were adhered to. Yet, complaints about the violation of norms are increasing by the day. In Tamil Nadu alone, according to a study conducted by the Campaign for Custodial Justice and Abolition of Torture, 36 complaints were investigated and proved correct between May and October 2002. Notable among these cases was the one relating to the police brutality against 10 persons, seven of them belonging to a tribal family, under the pretext of investigating a theft case (Frontline, June 21, 2002). The State Human Rights Commission is going into the numerous complaints it receives, and recommending action against erring police personnel and awarding payment of compensation to victims.

One of the complaints the Commission received recently relates to an alleged incident at Vittukkatti near Thiruthuraippoondi in Tiruvarur district. On May 23, People's Watch - Tamil Nadu, a Madurai-based human rights organisation, produced before the Commission a group of persons, most of them Dalits, who complained that they had been tortured at Thiruthuraippoondi and Thirukkalar police stations between May 10 and 16. Statements signed by 15 persons were also filed.

Trouble started for these persons after three decomposed bodies were removed in May from a house that was found locked. The bodies were those of Padmavathi (56), her second daughter Jeeva, and Brahadeeswaran, the two-year-old son of Padmavathi's first daughter. While Padmavathi's body was removed on May 9 after neighbours intimated the police of foul smell emanating from her house, the other two bodies were removed only the next day. This angered the local people, who staged a road roko in protest against police indifference. The police registered a case of murder and started the investigation. Between May 10 and 16, more than 40 persons, including three women, from the village were reportedly taken to the Thiruthuraippoondi and Thirukkalar police stations for interrogation. Some of them were detained for up to two days without being presented before a magistrate. The statements of the persons gave detailed accounts of the torture by the police, including senior officers. The people alleged that they were beaten up and humiliated. A woman complained that nasty questions were put to her. The police used abusive language against the complainants, called them by their caste name, beat them with lathis, and kicked them, they said. When one of them asked for water, a police offiicer asked for a bucket of water, dipped his shoes in it and asked the person to drink it, a statement said. Another victim complained that when he asked for water, a police officer urinated into his mouth. Strangely, even after one person, Senthil, was arrested and the police filed a charge-sheet against him, those who were brought in for interrogation were reportedly kept at the police stations for two days. They were also asked to report at the police stations for some more days.

The State Human Rights Commission deputed an investigating officer to the village. The officer, L. Purushothaman, recorded the statements of a few of the arrested persons. They also identified the officials against whom they had complained to the Commission. Deputy Superintendents of Police N. Moorthy and M. Abdul Razak, several inspectors, sub-inspectors and constables appeared before the investigating official.

DEMONSTRATIONS, mass fasts, processions and public meetings were organised by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) at several places in Tiruvarur district to condemn the police torture. State CPI(M) secretary N. Varadarajan, in a letter to Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, demanded stern action against the police officials and the payment of compensation to the victims.

People's Watch - Tamil Nadu executive director Henri Tiphagne told Frontline that the Tiruvarur District Collector should have taken suo motu action and ordered an inquiry by a Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO). He demanded action against the Collector and the police officers involved in the incident, under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

G. Ramakrishnan, CPI(M) State secretariat member, said: "There has been gross violation of almost all the guidelines of the Supreme Court on the subject and the government should initiate not only departmental action but also legal proceedings against the erring officers." Ramakrishnan said that the Tiruvarur police had been emboldened to indulge in such inhuman and perverse activities not only by the government's failure to take prompt action against such human rights violations in the past, but also by its action in even defending erring officials.

Ramakrishnan pointed out that though the murders had occurred within the limits of the Thiruthuraippoondi police station, the police had taken the Dalits of Vittukkatti to the Thirukkalar police station located in an isolated place. That was perhaps a strategy to avoid publicity for the torture designed by the police, he said.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Aug 15, 2003.)

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