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Inmates being beaten to death in beggars' home in Mumbai?

Picked off the streets like criminals, beggars become victims of neglect, abuse and even fatal violence at beggars’ homes, as allegedly happened to a 52-year-old on August 29; beaten up by a former caretaker of the Chembur home, Mohammed Ansari was found dead the next day, triggering a cover-up and exposing the carelessness of the centre’s staff, as well as the police

In a country that criminalises beggars, and most of us pass them by without even looking in their direction, the custodial death of one such beggar does not raise too many eyebrows. Not even when he is one of the more than 60 people who have died at the Chembur beggars' home in three months.

The sprawling exterior of the Chembur home hides problems like the non-availability of a permanent doctor for months, medicines for years, and the fact that paramedical personnel don’t even want to examine the inmates physically. File pic
The sprawling exterior of the Chembur home hides problems like the non-availability of a permanent doctor for months, medicines for years, and the fact that paramedical personnel don’t even want to examine the inmates physically. File pic

By the time you read this, the body bearing token number 8(R) in the mortuary at Rajawadi Hospital may have been laid to rest as ‘unclaimed’ by the police. 8(R) was the number assigned to the body of a beggar identified as Mohammed Bashir Abdul Hassan Ansari (52), who died after allegedly being beaten up by the mukadam (caretaker) at the beggars’ home in Chembur.

Mohammed Tarique from Koshish, who filed a complaint in Ansari’s case, says there have been several incidents of inmates troubling those with disabilities or mental illnesses. He added that the possibility of sexual abuse also cannot be negated
Mohammed Tarique from Koshish, who filed a complaint in Ansari’s case, says there have been several incidents of inmates troubling those with disabilities or mental illnesses. He added that the possibility of sexual abuse also cannot be negated

Staff at the home may have tried covering up the real cause of the death, but the postmortem of the deceased has hinted at various possibilities, which have now become the testimony of the body 8(R). The abrasion marks from the ropes used to tie up Ansari’s hand and the eyewitnesses who saw Ansari being beaten up are also proof of the torture he went through before his death.

File pic of an inmate at the beggars’ home in Chembur
File pic of an inmate at the beggars’ home in Chembur

Investigations by mid-day have revealed that Ansari was picked up by the Mahim police on August 26, along with 11 others, under the Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, and was produced before the 45th Metropolitan Magistrate Court, Kurla, who remanded all of them to judicial custody until September 2. On the court’s orders, Ansari was taken to the beggars’ home in Chembur the same day.

Senior advocate Majeed Memon
Senior advocate Majeed Memon

Ansari, who was allegedly drunk at the time of this arrest, hails from Aminabad in UP, and had been living in Mumbai for three years. He was frequently seen begging for alms near the Mahim Dargah, Sai Baba temple or a church in the vicinity.

Fact vs Fiction
The documents at the beggars’ home state that, on the evening of August 26, Ansari was received at the home vide receiving centre no 2,482 and was kept in the remand section. On August 28, Ansari visited the dispensary within the home and was given a few medicines and a bandage for a minor wound on the optical region of the head. They state that his blood pressure was 130/90 and pulse 80.

Inquiries by mid-day, however, reveal that neither does the beggars’ home have a full-time doctor, nor medicines. As per law, a medical examination of each inmate must be done before his/her admission and stay at the centre. These rules are blatantly ignored.

Those who stay and work in the home informed mid-day that none of the inmates are medically examined and, in case of health problems, the paramedical staff at the home, including a temporary doctor, maintain a safe distance from the patients. They do not even bother to examine the inmate physically, so taking their pulse and blood pressure, like they claim to have done for Ansari, is out of the question.

On condition of anonymity, a beggars’ home staff told mid-day the real story of what had happened when Ansari visited the dispensary on August 28 he was given a band-aid, which he was asked to apply to his wound. Asked if his blood pressure was taken, the staffer said no, adding that the blood pressure machine was safely locked in a cupboard.

Cover-up?
On the afternoon of August 30, Ansari was found dead and was declared as such by a doctor on temporary duty who was called in. The on-duty staff at the beggars’ home informed the superintendent about the death, but he did not visit the centre or inform the 45th Metropolitan Magistrate court about the custodial death until September 3.

The caretakers at the centre informed the Chembur police, who registered the case as an accidental death, without waiting for instructions from the local court. The law says that any death in the beggars’ home has to be brought to the notice of the court by the home’s officials. The court would then direct the police accordingly for an inquest to be conducted under section 176 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC).

The body was brought to the Rajawadi postmortem centre on August 30 and the autopsy was done the next day (August 31), because the police were keen to get it performed under Section 174 of CrPC as it empowers them to begin a probe without magisterial inquest. The forensic surgeons insisted that since it was a case of custodial death, the body should be sent to the Department of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, Grant Medical College, after a magistrate inquest was done u/s 176 CrPC.

However, after the investigating officer gave a justification in the case, and after the police gave in writing that the autopsy was performed and surgeons had found abrasion marks on the wrist and recorded other injures on the body, the final cause of death was recorded as ‘pulmonary cox with fatty liver’ (natural).
Criminal in their midst

Mohammed Tarique, founder of Koshish, a project working for the rehabilitation of the persons caught under the Prevention of Begging Act, in his letter to the Chembur police station dated September 2, 2014 (copy with this paper), states that the NGO spoke to a few other people at the home, who informed them that Ansari was allegedly beaten up by one Anil Tandel, who was working as the mukadam (caretaker) while he was an inmate of the home. Tandel allegedly beat up Ansari and tied up his hands and he was found dead the next morning when other inmates went to free him.

Tarique’s letter goes on the state that soon after the matter was brought to the notice of the officials, the inmates who narrated the episode to him repeated the same thing to the probation officer on duty and, after that, Tandel ‘escaped’ from the institution.

mid-day’s probe revealed that Tandel was a habitual offender who would regularly be brought to the beggars’ home, where he was assigned the task of monitoring and disciplining the inmates. While Koshish staff at the home admit to the incident, almost all the beggars who witnessed the episode were produced before the court on their date of remand on September 2 and released, and they did not come before the police to testify to the incident.

However, it is still unclear how Tandel, who was not an inmate, nor the mukadam, when the incident happened, had free access to the home and was allowed to assault other inmates. Also, how could Tandel spend three nights at the home after the incident and why did the remand home staff, including the superintendent, conceal these facts from the court and the police?

Bigger picture
Speaking to mid-day, Tarique, who is a professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and whose NGO Koshish, works out of the Chembur beggars’ home said, “This death is not only unfortunate but was also completely avoidable. Investigations might find one person responsible for this incident, but there are bigger issues that state needs to immediately look into. This is one incident, but several such incidents can happen because of the conditions that prevail in these institutions.”

According to Tarique, despite housing a large number of people, these institutions, across the state, are run without essential supporting staff and services. For example, medicines have not been supplied to the male beggars’ home in Chembur for more than 15 years and the institution's needs are met by raising donations. Also, the male beggars’ home had not had a doctor since several months. The female home’s condition is even worse and it has had no doctor for a much longer period.

Tarique added that a large number of persons with mental illness are brought to the beggars’ homes. “This, in itself, is a violation of patients’ rights under the Mental Health Act. The homes are not equipped to deal with these patients and the beggary law actually criminalises the mental patients too,” he said. “There is no rehabilitative programme in these homes. In the name of rehabilitation, people are asked to work in farms in various homes across the state and they are paid Rs 5 a month for that. Is this not state-sponsored bonded labour?” he asked.

Tarique said that the caretaking staff at these institutions function under tremendous pressure as the homes are severely under staffed. This often results in the staff turning aggressive and resorting to violence to control the inmates. Mixing mentally ill patients with other inmates also increases the possibility of beatings and other aggressive reactions.

“There have been several incidents of inmates troubling those with disabilities or mental illnesses. The possibility of sexual abuse also cannot be negated under such circumstances. All these issues have been repeatedly brought to the notice of the department, without much use. Ansari’s death could be the result of one particular person’s action or one situation, but there are several other tragedies of this nature that are waiting to happen at these institutions,” Tarique said.

“At the core of most of these violations lies the current law, which is completely punitive. The state government had, in principle, agreed to repeal the Prevention of Begging Act. The final draft of the alternative legislation was submitted to the state and the department of women and child development in mid- May, and there has been no movement since then,” he added.

“With the current law existing in 25 states, the problems in these institutions and deaths like Ansari’s are issues plaguing the whole nation. However, the facts will never come out as these people do not matter for most of us. That, unfortunately, is the truth.”

Beggars’ home officials react
Vilas Pardhe, superintendent of the male section of the Chembur beggars’ home said, “I have just taken the additional charge of the beggar home recently and have no clue about this. I have another 25 days to go before I retire.” Gautam Arwel, superintendent of the female section of the beggars’ home, admitted to mid-day that they have not had a full-time doctor for months and no medicines have been available for over seven years.

Asked about the manner in which the doctors examine inmates, Arwel was tight-lipped. When it was pointed out that Tandel had practically intruded into the premises when he had no business being there, Arwel said, “He might have visited the beggars’ home for Ganpati and not left the premises.”

Arwel did not have a satisfactory response on queries regarding how an outsider could be allowed to enter the premises for Ganpati, stay there for three nights allegedly thrashing other inmates, and also why Tandel was not handed over to the police. He confirmed to mid-day that the beggars’ home had seen 60 deaths in five years.

Police surgeon calls for another postmortem
After he was told about mid-day’s investigation and Tarique’s complaint, police surgeon Dr S M Patil has already instructed Rajawadi postmortem center officials to ensure that Ansari’s body is not disposed of, as per routine practice, without obtaining the required NOC from the local police and the superintendent of the beggar’s home.

“I have already instructed the investigating police officer from Chembur Police Station to get the complaint probed into and that, if needed, a second postmortem should be conducted to ascertain the facts after a proper inquest is carried out under Section 176 of CrPC,” said Dr Patil. He added that he has “instructed my staff that custodial deaths, including deaths in beggar homes, should be only dealt under 176 of CrPC and such autopsies should be done at Grant Medical College.”

Speaking to mid-day, investigating officer Kuldeep Vatkar said, “Tarique Mohammed of Koshish has made a complaint about Ansari’s demise of at a Beggar’s Home. We are yet to record his statement. Once that is done, we will complete the formalities to conduct a second postmortem and record the statement of the witnesses and gather evidence accordingly.”

Asked about Tandel, Varkar said, “We learnt about this name in the complaint made by Tarqiue and are yet to gather information about the same. We will probe the case from all possible angles and even track down the beggars who had witnessed the incident.”

Lawyerspeak
Special Public Prosecutor for State and NIA, Rohini Salian, said, “The deceased was in judicial custody under the care of the beggars’ home.

The officials at the home should have intimated the magistrate court about the death in their custody and the court would have directed the police to inquire into the same. Also a proper inquiry needs to be conducted on the circumstances that led to the demise of the man. Prima facie, it seems they did not follow the basic procedure.”

Senior advocate Majeed Memon (right) said, “The deceased in this case was deemed to be in judicial custody and the norms applicable in such custodial deaths need to apply in this case too. The aggrieved party can approach the local magisterial court or file a public interest litigation in the Bombay High Court and the concerned warden and the local police will have a legal duty to explain the circumstances in which the death of an inmate occurred in custody.”

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