The recent death in custody of a man from a remote village in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh has sparked suspicion among human rights groups. It's been estimated that each year, more than 1,500 Indian prisoners die within less than a day of being arrested.
Presenter: Alana Rosenbaum
Speakers: Bateshi Bai, Saikheda Village resident; Tsering Samphal, Commission for Scheduled Tribes; Sankar Sen, former director, National Police Academy, Suhas Chakma, director, Asian Centre for Human Rights
ROSENBAUM: The residents of Saikheda village celebrate the birth of Bal Ram, the brother of the god Krishna. The festival offers a brief reprieve from the anger and frustration that's been mounting in Saikheda for weeks.
Late last month, a 19-year-old villager, Poppu Thakur, was arrested for stealing a coil of wire. Less than 12 hours later, he was found dead in the bathroom of the police station. When news of his death reached Saikheda, villagers blockaded the highway, demanding justice. Thakur was landless and earned his living as an agricultural labourer for high-caste Hindus. He belonged to the Gond tribe, a group indigenous to Madhya Pradesh. His mother, Bateshi Bai, lives off a narrow dirt road in a section of the village reserved for the Gond. She crouches beside her son's teenage widow in the family's one-room mud-brick house. Bateshi Bai says that several hours after her son's arrest, police brought her to the station in the town of Silvani, 10 minutes drive from the village.
BAI: Blood was coming from his nose, ears and eyes. He didn't hang himself, the police killed him. I want justice; the whole village is with me.
ROSENBAUM: She says she was left waiting for nine-hour without explanation and only knew her son was dead when she was finally taken to see his body.
An autopsy conducted near the police station concluded that Thakur died of asphyxiation due to hanging. A second post-mortem in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, reached the same conclusion.
Four police officers from the Silvani have been suspended pending a judicial inquiry. India's Commission for Scheduled Tribes, suspects foul play. Tsering Samphel is a member of the government-run organisation.
SAMPHEL: It is quite suspicious; his death was caused under police custody within the police station before
ROSENBAUM: Samphel says this was the third death in custody at the Silvani police station in four years. What's more, Thakur and one of the police officers are thought to have had a history of bad blood.
SAMPHEL: They had some enmity, some grudge against each other.
ROSENBAUM: Human rights groups estimate that more than one and a half thousand people die in custody each year. They say most of the victims perish during torture sessions to extract quick confessions. Sankar Sen, a former director of the National Police Academy, says that custodial violence is a serious problem in India.
SEN: Sometimes if you kick a man on the wrong side of the stomach he may die. I know of cases where the head was banged against the wall, not with the idea of killing him, but punishing him. As a result he died. Other ways, if a man is kept without sleep, without water, that kind of thing is there. There may be other devices also; sometimes he is wrapped with a blanket and then beaten so there's no sign on the body.
ROSENBAUM: He says that India's police force lacks a human rights culture, and many cops believe it's their role to punish criminals. Some states even have official encounter squads, called on to assassinate suspects.
SEN: This criminal justice system, cases carry on very long for a long time, so there's pressure on the police that you take justice in your hands and deal with it quickly.
ROSENBAUM: Suhas Chakma, director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights says most of the victims of custodial brutality belong to tribes and low castes.
CHAKMA: I think there is societal acceptance of torture, the fact that we have a caste system where the upper caste people perpetrate the most inhuman atrocities on the lower castes and the adivarsis, the indigenous people.
ROSENBAUM: Police officers face imprisonment if they're found guilty of torture, but bureaucratic red tape and long judicial delays make it difficult to enforce the law. Recently, India's Supreme Court criticised the "dehumanising torture, assault and death in custody which have assumed alarming proportions." More than a decade ago, the government signed the international convention against torture, but the document is yet to be ratified.
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