In joco veritas (in jest there is truth), they say. So, Justice Teerath Thakur’s supposed attempt at levity — that installing CCTV cameras in prisons would spoil the inmates so much that they would feign torture and blackmail the guards into getting them chapati and chicken, provides a peek into the judiciary’s mindset regarding custodial violence and torture. Justice Thakur’s comments came in course of a November 7 hearing in which the Supreme Court was adjudicating a PIL which demanded mandatory CCTV cameras in all prison cells and police lockups.
This statement, made in an apparently jocular vein, makes one wonder — what exactly is the approach of the judiciary to torture — be it by the police, paramilitary forces, or any state agency?
Undoubtedly, judges, overall, have been vocal in expressing their shock and indignation at the cruel and degrading treatment meted out by the law enforcement agencies. For example, right from the case of Nilabati Behera (1993), in which the court mandated that victims must be compensated, to, of course, D K Basu (1997), in which comprehensive guidelines to rein in brutal and unscrupulous cops were laid down, judges have been striving to ensure that custodial torture and violence are wiped off the lexicon. However, occasional bursts of indignation (which further the cause of justice, nevertheless), are never a substitute for sound policy, and it is here where not only the judiciary, but the Indian state and its law enforcement agencies, collectively falter by strutting out denials.
In 2001, criminologist and law professor Stanley Cohen contended that denial of torture by state agencies is common to all democracies, but he was careful to draw a distinction between literal (or straitjacket, blunt) denials and interpretative ones. The former, trotted out regularly by the police — that all allegations of custodial torture are only malicious canards spread by “those human rights-wallahs” are ubiquitous, but the latter are more insidious. They take the form of euphemisms, such as the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques”, or are issued by pointing out that there are laws and policies in place which supposedly provide adequate safeguards. Another form of such denials consists of treating inmates as inherently mendacious, malevolent, and, hence, unworthy of the judiciary’s consideration. Consider, for instance, the Supreme Court’s judgement in Sube Singh vs State of Haryana (2006) in which the judges accepted that despite the presence of telltale signs of custodial torture, “it may not be prudent to accept claims of human rights violations by persons having criminal records in a routine manner for awarding compensation.”
Coming back to CCTV cameras, how can they act as a mitigating force against such infractions of people’s inalienable rights? Especially in Maharashtra, where 15 years’ National Crime Research Bureau data — from 1999 to 2013 — shows 333 instances of custodial violence, but only 43 FIRs, 19 chargesheets and not a single conviction? And more so in Mumbai, where the police’s infamous satyashodhak patta — that 2-feet rubber belt attached to a wooden handle, whose effects leave no fractures, blood, peeled skin, or marks for a post-mortem, still rules the roost? The Law Commission’s 113th and 239th Reports demanded CCTVs in police stations, and so did the Bombay High Court, but to no avail. On August 14 this year, while hearing the anguished pleas for justice for Agnelo Valdaris (murdered by the men in khaki in Wadala police station) and Akash Karade (who met a similar fate at the hands of the personnel of Samta Nagar police station), the judges unequivocally stated that these cameras are a
must for all 93 of Mumbai’s police stations. But, the government continues to defiantly express cavalier disregard for accountability.
There is overwhelming evidence to support this claim. In February, 2012, a study done by the police department in Rialto, California, showed that the usage of cameras in cells and on the uniforms and gear used by cops resulted in citizens’ complaints against police plunging by 88 per cent, and officers’ use of force decreasing by 60 per cent in one year. Even the police of a dictatorial state like Bahrain, which faced international condemnation for brutally crushing pro-democracy protests in 2012, has all prison and police station cells under round-the-clock camera surveillance. Only the rooms in which inmates meet their lawyers are excluded, so that they can converse and discuss without being snooped upon. The head honchos of Mumbai Police and privacy advocates would do well to look at a policy paper released by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2013. With remarkable precision, it sets out why cameras are inalienable to police accountability for torture and other gruesome acts of violence, and also proffers a slew of measures to prevent misuse and breaches of both privacy and the police’s power to carry out law enforcement in a legitimate and legal manner without any fear.
But, when judges pour scorn over custodial rights, even in jest, one cannot help but accept the police’s wink-and-nudge attitude to judges’ pronouncements and orders.
Saurav Datta is associated with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Delhi, which works towards better policing. You can follow him on Twitter @SauravDatta29