The State sees country’s second-highest, 42, police custody deaths in 3 years
Just around sundown on July 21, two frail teenagers, Sunil Pawar and Ravi Jadav, from the tribal hinterlands of Dangs in South Gujarat were picked up by police reportedly from Navsari district on a suspicion that they were vehicle thieves.
By the crack of dawn, police claimed that the two had strangled themselves to death with wires in the computer room of Chikhli police station, some 25 km from Valsad. They were yet to be produced in a court within the mandatory 24 hours to technically arrest them.
What is more, they were recorded as “accidental death” and a magisterial inquiry, as procedures would require in custodial deaths, was ordered. Four policemen, including the Police Inspector of Chikhli, were only booked for negligence and suspended. It took one full week, July 28, before charges of murder and sections of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (commonly known as atrocities act) were invoked against Ajitsinh Jhala (police inspector), MB Kokni (police sub-inspector), Shantisinh Jhala (head constable) and Ramji Yadav.
This belated action was not the result of an official reaction of concern. On July 28, Navsari DSP Rushikesh Upadhyay told reporters that the police had registered an offence in the incident after meeting the boys’ family members, accompanied by the local elected representatives of both the BJP and the Congress. And after a call was given for bandh in the Dangs district. Now, a Deputy Superintendent of Police of Navsari SC/ST Cell RD Faldu is investigating it.
The sequence of events in Chikhli establishing the reluctance of the State Home Department to take immediate action against the police officials goes to explain the big picture behind the 42 such police custodial deaths in Gujarat since 2019. And Gujarat is only second to Madhya Pradesh with the highest, 44 deaths in police custody, in the last three years in the country. These numbers were provided by the Central Government in replies to questions in the Parliament during the ongoing monsoon session.
Eminent Supreme Court lawyer Vrinda Grover explains why Chikhli, and the way it was handled, is a trend in Gujarat.
She says, “I think we need to understand the high figures of police custodial deaths in continuum of the alleged extra-judicial killings which took place in Gujarat and were termed as police encounters — although all police officials, who were accused in the cases were later on discharged or acquitted, often because the Gujarat state declined to grant sanction for the prosecution of the cops.”
Grover, who has also been tracking the Chikhli deaths case, elaborates, “As the state has been reluctant to hold the police accountable for these cold-blooded killings, it’s not surprising that some police officials then become the arbiter of the right to life of a common man as hostage.” She cited a 2020 Supreme Court directions that there should be CCTV cameras in every part of a police station.
Very significantly, Vrinda Grover sees in the Chikhli episode more evidence of a police state at work. She says, “If we take into account the deaths of the two boys in Chikhli police station, the question which arises is that even if we assume that both were to be convicted for vehicle theft, what would be the punishment? Why would anybody commit suicide when the punishment is not so severe? Such impunity for the police turns the country into a police state which is dangerous for every citizen.”
Concurs Vibhuti Narain Rai, former Uttar Pradesh DGP and an acclaimed Hindi writer on these issues.
Former Uttar Pradesh director-general of police (DGP) V N Rai said that Madhya Pradesh accounting for 44 police custodial deaths was understandable as most such deaths happen in rural areas and people don’t come forward to lodge police complaints.
He says 42 police custody deaths in three years in Gujarat, although being portrayed as a progressive and model state, is worrying and serious. “In Gujarat most victims at the receiving end are from the lower castes. The state should look into such deaths seriously and book whoever is responsible,” he says.
Rai’s book on the 1987 Hashimpura (near Ghaziabad) police custodial killings brings out the chilling facts behind such deaths, especially of the backward classes and minorities.
Retired Gujarat DGP RB Sreekumar says there are specific regulations and procedures the police have to adhere to in case of deaths in police and judicial custody. “However, unfortunately, the system had failed to take action against the erring officers. One cannot forget the mass killings of minorities in 2002 and how action was taken against the police officers,” he added.
Another former IPS officer Rahul Sharma, who had taken voluntary retirement and is now a lawyer in Gujarat High Court, said the number of police custodial deaths in Gujarat should be taken seriously.
In all, there have been 348 police custodial deaths across the country during the last three years.
Meanwhile, in the same period, 5,221 deaths were recorded in jails across the country. Uttar Pradesh stood first with 1,295 deaths in jails.
Gujarat recorded 202 such deaths during the same period, the last of which was of Jaimin Patel, 36, an under-trial prisoner in a gang-rape case. Patel committed suicide in the Ahmedabad Central Jail as he could not get bail. Earlier, on January 2 this year, another under-trial prisoner died by suicide in Sabarmati Central Jail. Shehzad Pathan was an accused in a murder case.
On June 10, 2019, Pratap Thakor, 34, convicted by a court for murder, killed himself by stealthily crawling under a van transporting groceries to Sabarmati Central Jail.
Gujarat’s DGP (Jails) KLN Rao says most judicial custody deaths were either suicides or prisoners dying due to old age or illness. Referring to 82 deaths in judicial custody in 2020-21, he says this could be due to co-morbidities during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Rai says most deaths in judicial custody — in jails — are by either suicide or due to old age. Referring to 1,295 judicial custody deaths in Uttar Pradesh in the last three years, he said, “In Uttar Pradesh, jails are badly administered. Well-off prisoners pay hefty amounts as bribes to jail officials and get all the facilities while poor under-trials and convicts face the music.”