The largest democracy in the world empathically witnessed the custodial death of father-son duo, Jayraj and Bennix in the state of Tamil Nadu during the first wave of the covid-19 virus. This appalling tragedy in times of a global surge for enforcement of human rights has raised several eyebrows, causing an apparent sinkhole in the confidence of the populous over the rule of law in the country. Staggeringly, the cases of custodial deaths are condemnably escalating in the oldest democracy, The United States of America, as well as in India, the well-known politician-cum-author, Arun Shourie[1]had fleshed out 45 incidents of deaths in police custody in seven different states across India during the1980s period. According to Shourie, the victims of custodial mayhem were mostly poor, underprivileged or poor and underprivileged, drawing a legitimate conclusion that the marginalized were more prone to custodial violence culminating in torturous deaths.

The poor and underprivileged are indiscriminately booked for petty offences by principally flying blind over the procedural safeguards against biased and whimsical executive abuse of power.  Often, they are coerced, surreptitiously introduced as perpetrators into pending crime investigations for fulfilling political agendas or otherwise, whereof, they are inhumanely subjected to psychological and physical third-grade tortures. These poor, innocent turned scapegoats are said to have succumbed to death during their police custody period due to  ‘snake bite’, cardiac arrest, ‘sudden illness’, etc., in the dusty racks of records and a few were found to be dead for causes unknown, whereas, others have committed suicide. Shockingly, the custodial death tolls across the country flag the prevalent outrageous crushing of the vulnerable, the underprivileged and marginalized, thereby clamours for an effective accountable bureaucratic mechanism.


The definitions of underprivileged and marginalized are contextual, accordingly, in contrast to custodial torture, it refers to that sect of the society who are wallowing in despair to keep them alive, due to historical, financial, racial, sexual or caste-based backwardness or discriminations. These clusters mostly lack awareness requisite for understanding the law, their rights and privileges, moreover, even on being vigilant and informed, they are yet confronted by deficiency of resources necessary for encompassing their rights. The equation is simple, the groups burdened to grapple with the routine odds, irrespective of rights and privileges are helpless and hapless when chocked by the red-faced executive abuse, i.e., the police raj.


Over the ages, the streamlined, struggling to find their daily bread and other necessities remains vulnerable to custodial violence. The constitutional and ancillary human rights are still alien to them and it is merrily denied to them without an ounce of repentance. The law and order and crime investigative limb of the executive mercilessly fall hard over these hapless destitute in their diabolic attempt to materialize the desire to abuse the power for meeting their respective individual gratifications.  Police being well aware of the helplessness of these groups entraps these underprivileged to experiment with different shades of custodial violence. The lack of resources and awareness among these groups, which includes women, poor and landless labourers, children etc., to take legal recourse against erring police officials are the underscoring reasons for getting targeted.

These hapless are maliciously framed in criminal offences, sometimes to achieve political motives or otherwise for protecting the real perpetrators. Close scrutiny of custodial deaths helps to flesh out the modus operandi of violence used by the police, inter-alia, staging an encounter is one among them, to portray an invented threat from the suspect to justify his killing which is an otherwise a gruesome murder. Almost every time these victims are from a poor background and the answer lies in their historical or otherwise, discrimination and backwardness, which is continuing for decades. A deeper look into these aspects would show that most of these underprivileged persons are coming from a background where the doors of financial and educational justice are latched. Due to the shrunken literacy rates and education, this class of people has been totally unaware of the proper means to address the issue of bureaucratic harassment.


Custodial deaths are a much-debated matter around the world, the causes and cures for the phenomenon of custodial deaths are still being mooted. In India, the killing of an accused or person under suspicion through police encounters under the disguise of a counter-attack deems to be an inimical mutant of custodial deaths, the Vikas Dubey Encounter case of 2020, still remains as a distressful precedent of such executive arbitrariness and abuse. Custodial deaths are sad stretching repercussions of police brutality and are often cloaked by the law enforcement authorities since the violator of human rights and the investigating agency are one and the same. The derivatives of custodial violence intended for causing death or any other kind of injury are often used by the police upon rage and frustration on the suspect, who refuses to either give relevant information or accept that they have committed a particular crime, similarly, individuals with political clout and influence are also involved in using the law enforcement mechanism itself to neatly corner and crush their rivalries or enemies.


Prompt judicial intervention is indispensable for curbing the menace of violence in police custody and it is also the bounden duty of a benevolent state to take affirmative steps to safeguard the sacrosanct constitutional rights of every citizen irrespective of their caste, creed or social and financial background. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution recognizes and guarantees the right to life of every person, irrefragably custodial torture penetrates the constitutionally guaranteed right. On several occasions, the apex court had stood stern against condemnable custodial tortures, in Nilbati Behrav.the State of Odisha[2], the Supreme Court held that prisoners and detainees cannot be deprived of their basic fundamental rights and in D.K. Basu V. State of West Bengal[3]had issued a slew of guidelines to protect prisoners and detainees from ill-treatment by the police personnel and in its attempt to contour and wane the arbitrary power yielded by such police officers. Some of the major guidelines include the obligation to inform the arrestee about his legal rights, communication of arrest to his relatives or friends, medical examination of such arrestee within 48 hours etc.


Percetiably, it is not the lack of effective mechanisms to zealously fortress the primordial human rights but its condemnable implementation with efficacy.  Among the multifold confronting barriers, dearth of constructive dissemination of awareness among the peoples from the streamlined sector about their rights under Article 20(3) of the Indian constitution, accused’s right against self-incrimination coupled with free legal aid provided under the Legal Sevices Authorities Act, 1987 incidentally deter them from taking appropriate legal recourse against any culpable executive atrocities. Strict adherence to the guidelines laid down of the Apex Court including D.K. Basu’s case[4] and stringent coercion action against negligent law enforcement officers who violate such safeguards are indispensable for ensuring the rule of law. The prevailing looming circumstances flag the need to espouse the recommendations of law commissions regarding amendments in the Criminal Procedure Code[5] so to make erring police officers accountable for the abuse of law.


In India, custodial deaths are harrowingly rampant and it assumes more concern as those are offences not committed by a mere layman lawbreaker; instead by law enforcement officers. The need for ratifications of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and simultaneous law-making and effective implementation are indispensable obligations of a welfare state. That apart, periodic conduct of legal awareness programmes by the State and District legal services authorities’ established under the concerned Act with the objective to alert the citizens about their rights against abuse of law would also help in equipping people with legal information. Moreover, a synergy between the journalistic media and NGO’s plays a crucial role in bringing these pathetic incidents of custodial violence into the limelight so as to expose the ill acts of erring bureaucrat who mercilessly snatches the constitutional rights of these underprivileged.



[1] Arun Shourie(1980) in K.G. Kannabriam, Creeping Decay in Institutions of Democracy, 27 Eco. & Pol. Weekly, Aug. 1992.

[2]NilbatiBehra v. State of Odisha, AIR 1993 SC 1960 (India).

[3]D.K. Basu v. State of West Bengal, (1997) 1 SC 416 (India).


[5]The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, No. 2, Acts of Parliament, 1974 (India).

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Khyati Deshmukh
Student, National Law Institute University, Bhopal | + posts

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