Brutal interrogation system in Kerala: Modern force, medieval methods
On July 4, the families of the victims of custodial torture marched to the Kerala Assembly.
Their protest was a poignant reminder of the disagreeable reality that third degree, though long outlawed, thrived in the twilight world of police lockups in the State.
Kasturi, the 70-year-old mother of Rajkumar, a remand prisoner who died of brutal police interrogation in Idukki on June 21, led the march.
Remani, 60, whose son had met a similar fate at the hands of the Neyyattinkara police in Thiruvananthapuram in 2014, flanked her.
The harrowing picture of the two aged mothers grieving the loss of their sons to police brutality resonated strongly among the public.
The grim image, amplified by television news, was a front-page splash on most newspapers the next day. Thousands shared the picture across social media platforms.
On July 5, the government conceded to the increasingly shrill demand for a judicial inquiry into Rajkumar’s murder.
V. Aja Kumar, a senior High Court lawyer, said successive governments had, without exception, ordered judicial inquiries into custodial murders to stave off public criticism.
However, the government reserved the right to accept or reject any fact-finding commission’s recommendations. An inquiry commission’s report was not legally binding, he said.
Moreover, government prosecutors or police investigators cannot draw upon the statements recorded by a judicial commission or use its findings as evidence in their case.
“History shows us that most judicial commissions are a waste of public money. There have been 22 judicial inquiries in the past two decades, and the damning reports generated by most commissions are still gathering dust ,” Mr. Aja Kumar said.
According to the police, there have been eight “verified” custodial deaths in the State since the Pinarayi Vijayan government assumed power in May 2016.
However, Leader of the Opposition Ramesh Chennithala told the Assembly recently that the government had suppressed the actual number of deaths caused due to police torture. He put the number at 32.
Mr. Chennithala said the number of cases of abuse of power by the police and use of torture to extract false confessions were much higher, and most went unreported.
Victims of police violence, the majority of them from the lower stratum of society, were loath to come forward and complain due to fear of retribution.
The Kerala Police reckon itself a modernised force. However, its methods appear to be increasingly medieval. The law enforcement’s cyber policing initiatives such as the Kerala Police Cyberdome has won global acclaim.
The force has a storied history of detecting difficult cases and effecting speedy arrests, even across international borders.
It boasts using artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain technology, machine learning, big data analysis and facial recognition technologies to detect and curb crime.
The State police have raised a potent Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT), Kerala Thunderbolts, as a credible deterrent against armed attacks.
They plan to introduce automated police stations to help insulate the public from the ignominy of having to queue up in front of station houses to have their complaints heard.
However, the rapid march to modernisation notwithstanding, recent events show that brutal interrogation remained the most employed instrument in the State law enforcement’s tool kit for investigation.
Poor most tortured
Invariably, as in the case of Rajkumar in Idukki and Sreejith in Varapuzha in 2018, those from the poorest and marginalised sections of society bore the brunt of coercive methods employed by the police the most.
A senior official pointed out that the victims of midnight arrests and custodial torture hailed mostly from the lowest echelons of society with zero influence and no political patronage to speak off. He said wealth and influence moderated police behaviour, and well-heeled persons were rarely victims of brutish behaviour in custody.
Human rights activist P.K. Raju painted a grim picture of the human rights situation in police stations.
Mr. Raju had championed the cause of Udayakumar who was killed in Fort police station custody in 2011. His lone battle for justice alongside the victim’s aged mother had resulted in two police officers getting capital punishment in the case in 2018.
He said the police rarely used third degree to detect crime cases or recover stolen property.
Corruption and greed
The police mainly employed the threat of physical violence to settle civil disputes involving money and wealth in favour of the person, which paid the officers most. Corruption and greed fuelled third-degree in police stations. Supervisors also benefited from the graft, he said.
Mr. Raju said the allegation that the Idukki police had tortured Rajkumar to retrieve the money the financier had allegedly cheated from depositors fit the pattern.
Mr Raju said new torture methods involved spot running, coerced squats, using iron rods to mash the thigh muscle, forcing persons to hold stressful positions for long, using coconuts swathed in clothes to inflict crush injuries without leaving body marks, and sleep deprivation.
Politicization of force
A top police officer said the rank and file of the force had become overtly political over the years. Many law enforcers felt that they owed their postings and transfers to politicians and not to the department.
In recent times, police officers have openly displayed their political affiliations at association meetings and elections to service cooperative societies.
One such election in Thiruvananthapuram last week led to fisticuffs between police officers divided starkly into political lines.
The hierarchical control over the force seemed to slip away incrementally. A set of inverse values appeared to dominate the department. “The corrupt and compliant get feted while the honest feel sidelined,” he said.
Several officers, human rights activists, lawyers, and social workers felt that the judiciary had a clearly defined role in blowing the whistle on torturers in the Police Department.
Section 50 of the Kerala Police Act says that a magistrate should examine carefully whether the police have tortured a detainee and not remand the person in judicial custody callously as had allegedly happened in Rajkumar’s case in Idukki.
There are several police oversight bodies in Kerala but they appear to have largely failed in their job to curb third-degree.
The amendments made to the Criminal Procedure Code in the wake of the Supreme Court judgments in 2005 and 2009 on the procedure of arrest have largely remained on paper.