CJI says 'highest threat to bodily integrity in police custody': What is 'third degree', why preventing custodial deaths is a challenge

Chief Justice of India CV Ramana's remarks that the threat to human rights and bodily integrity is "highest in police stations"...

Chief Justice of India CV Ramana's remarks that the threat to human rights and bodily integrity is "highest in police stations" should be an eye-opener for every single Indian citizen.

Ramana, making the remarks at the launch of a legal service mobile application at Vigyan Bhawan on Sunday, further added that even the "privileged are not spared third-degree treatment" and requested the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) to carry out “nationwide sensitisation of police officers”.

From Jeyaraj and Bennix last June in Thoothukudi to the death of a Mumbai teenager in police custody in a mobile theft case three years ago, India has witnessed many high-profile custody deaths hitting the headlines.

But what is the 'third degree' torture?  And why is preventing custodial deaths become a big challenge in India?

Let's take a look at these as well as what rights groups as well as influential individuals say about the actions of the police:

What is 'third degree' torture?

The fourth edition Encyclopaedia Britannica (1929) described the method thus: "Third degree, originally an American slang or cant term, but now in common use in the United States and coming into such use in Great Britain, to designate the employment of brutal methods by police or prosecuting authorities to extort information or confessions from persons in custody. The phrase is believed to have been suggested by the third masonic degree, that of master mason, which is conferred with considerable ceremony."

It added: "The phrase as often employed includes not only the use of physical violence, but also such forms of torture as depriving a prisoner of food, drink, sleep and toilet facilities and the prolonged and uninterrupted interrogation of him when exhausted, suffering and broken down by such deprivations. It is more commonly applied however to those forms of physical as- sault (such as beating with a rubber hose) which produce pain but leave no traces."

In India, the while 'third degree' torture was made infamous and indeed even into something of a punchline by countless Bollywood movies, one can plainly see that it is no laughing matter.

Indian police and 'third degree' connection

On Tuesday, the government told the Lok Sabha that as many as 348 people died in police custody in different parts of the country in the last three years, while 1,189 others were found to be tortured during detention.

Union Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai said based on the information received from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), 136 people died in police custody in 2018, 112 in 2019 and 100 in 2020. Moreover, 542 people were tortured in police custody in 2018, 411 in 2019 and 236 in 2020, he said replying to a written question.

It is important to note here that India is just of only five countries to have not ratified the United Nations Convention against Torture.

But one might ask: Why does police even resort to the third degree? One explanation is that a perennially understaffed and harried police force, working long hours and under constant pressure from higher-ups, use such methods as 'shortcuts'.

Of course, the obvious pitfall here is that any evidence gathered through such methods is highly suspect and can result in wrongful convictions of the innocent. Making things worse, it is often the most vulnerable in society, the poor and the disenfranchised, that bear the brunt of it.

Worse, statistics reveal that errant police officers across India rarely face consequences for their actions. As per CNNbetween 2005 and 2010 just 21 officers were convicted for custody deaths even as nearly 600 cases were registered.

Suhas Chakma, of the National Campaign Against Torture (NCAT), told CNN official figures on these fatalities may be a "gross underestimation."

The NGO, which uses local media reports to research and tally custodial deaths, says 76 percent of deaths it recorded in police custody last year were due to alleged torture or foul play, and 19 percent were under suspicious circumstances in which police cited other causes including suicide and sudden illness. Five children and four women were among the victims.

"The police do not record these deaths if there is no outcry and often try to hide it by saying it was a natural death," Chakma told CNN.

Former Uttar Pradesh DGP Vikram Singh, in a 2019 Times Now piece entitled 'The curse of third degree' attempted to explain why the police resort to such foul methods: "It is said that third-degree has almost become a part of the DNA of the police in India because of the feudal legacy from the British, who gave us the archaic Police Act of 186... The British had a purpose in creating an oppressive police force: they could subjugate the Indian masses. But after decades of independence, the nation deserves much better."

"There is a very long history of police brutality. Many police stations in northern India are reported to have devised devious measures of torture and third-degree during the course of interrogation to extract confessions illegally. Very often this is done with the self-righteous stand than in the interest of working out the case. The police leadership, by and large, is a mute spectator to this gross violation of human rights and the rule of law. The implements of torture and their ugly presence in police stations were conveniently ignored in the line of expediency," he added.

From all of the above, it seems the maxim that it is better 100 guilty persons should go free than that one innocent person suffer seemingly does not translate to the Indian context.

What can be done about it?

Sensitising police officers, as CJI Ramana suggested, is key.  This brings us to police training. Or lack of thereof.

As per the 2019 Status of Policing in India report, which surveyed around 12,000 police personnel across 21 states, among those with more than five years of experience with the police, more than half of the police personnel either received their training in human rights at the time of joining or never received it.

Bihar was found to have the highest proportion of police personnel who never received training on human rights (about two in every five). Overall, seven of the states surveyed,–Bihar, Assam, Gujarat, Nagaland, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Telangana, had at least one in every five police personnel who never received training in human rights.

The report also shed some light on some troubling views held by the police:

  1. Four out of five personnel believe that there is nothing wrong in the police beating up criminals to extract confessions
  2. Three out of four personnel feel that it is justified for the police to be violent towards criminals
  3. Thirty seven percent personnel feel that for minor offences, a small punishment should be handed out by the police rather than a legal
    trial
  4. One out of five police personnel feel that killing dangerous criminals is better than a legal trial.

All that having been said, a change for the better might be on the horizon.

What they said

In July, home minister Amit Shah himself seemed to signal as much in a speech at the National Forensic Science University (NFSU) in Gandhinagar declared “the days of third-degree torture over” and proposed that forensic investigation be made compulsory for any crime that entails a punishment of six or more years.

“Even a hard-hearted person can be broken down and convicted if forensic work is carried out properly,” Shah added.

In February, the Supreme Court, refusing to compound the offence of two policemen, accused of assaulting a man who later succumbed to injuries in 1988 in Odisha, called custodial violence “abhorrent” and not acceptable in civilised society.

The top court said that the offence committed by the accused is a crime not against the deceased alone but against humanity and a clear violation of rights guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. A bench of justices Ashok Bhushan and Ajay Rastogi, while refusing to compound the offence under section 324 of IPC (voluntary causing hurt), enhanced the compensation to be given to the family members of the deceased.

The bench said, the beating of a person in the police station is a concern for all and causes a sense of fear in the entire society.

One can only hope better days are ahead.

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India World News: CJI says 'highest threat to bodily integrity in police custody': What is 'third degree', why preventing custodial deaths is a challenge
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