The recent NCRB report suggests that autopsies were conducted on all 35 people who died in police custody in 2013. Magisterial inquiries were set up in five instances and cases registered in two. But no policemen have so far been charge-sheeted or convicted in this connection.
297 cases in 10 years
As per the report, second in this ignominious category are Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh with 15 custodial deaths each followed by Gujarat with 13 deaths. This is not the first time Maharashtra tops the notorious list. But, past NCRB reports clearly mentioned that the State had the most custodial deaths of all Indian States in 10 of the 13 years since 2001. Of the 1,242 custodial deaths recorded from 2000 to 2011, 297 was reported from Maharashtra. In 2010, the figure was 23. The tally rose to 35 in 2011 and dropped to 24 the year after. Number of custodial deaths in the State in 2007, 2008 and 2009 are 21, 25 and 23, respectively.
The issue of custodial deaths has, in the recent past, cast a dark cloud on the law enforcers in the State. Agnelo Valdaris, was picked up along with three others by the Wadala railway police on April 15, 2014, from the Reay Road area, for allegedly stealing a gold chain. Three days later, the 25-year-old died and the police said he was run over by a local train while trying to escape. Akash, an accused in a murder case which took place on April 17 this year, surrendered to the Samta Nagar police station in Kandivali on April 19. But he died on the 22nd. Families in both the cases are crying foul and demanding inquiry. These are few instances in the long list of custodial deaths in the State.
What are the reasons?
Experts blame strict or harsher ways of police investigation for the increase in custodial deaths in Maharashtra. They say police officers depend more on the use of third-degree methods instead of scientific procedures to extract confessions.
The conviction rate over the years has remained zero.
Almost zero conviction rate in custodial death cases in the past decade has also been responsible for the custodial deaths in the State. In the past decade, only four cases of judicial inquiry have been ordered into custody deaths in the State, while just 41 FIRs and 19 charge sheets have been filed. This further encourage the policemen to practice illegal ways during interrogation of accused.
Concerned by the rising number of custodial deaths in Maharashtra, Bombay High Court last week directed the State police to form a panel to probe custodial deaths in the State. The committee has been ordered to submit a preliminary report within two weeks.
What State Government has to say:
Maharashtra Government has sought changes in the parameters that classify an incident as death in custody, so as to bring down the figures. The home department believes the State has the maximum number of custodial deaths due to ambiguity in the law. Earlier speaking on the issue, State Home Minister R R Patil said, "We are going to ask the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) to relook at the parameters and allow modifications. There should be a uniform definition of custody death. It cannot vary from State to State."
Is discrepancy in parameters really responsible?
The State Government has called for uniformity of definition of custodial deaths across the country. State Home Minister said that NCRB report only pointed to discrepancies in the laws among States. In Maharashtra, the number appears higher as there is no segregation. Even the deaths in prison due to natural causes are counted as custodial deaths, thus taking the tally up. However, in several other States, the cause of death is clearly defined and those due to illness or accidents are not taken into account. As per the NCRB reports, there were 24 custodial deaths in Maharashtra in 2012. Of these, four were suicides, 13 due to illness, six died in hospitals and one in an accident.
Certain provisions might be the reason for increase in custodial deaths in the State but at the same time lapses on part of the Government cannot be ignored. Only 14 FIRs and 19 charge sheets in 297 custodial death cases in over the decade, clearly shows the State is blatantly involved in protecting its officers. Rather than blaming the lapses in definition and pushing the cases inside carpet, the State Government should punish the real culprits.