The lathi has become a symbol synonymous with the police force in India, where everyday discourse has normalised and accepted the state-sanctioned use of violence. Ved Marwah writes for the Journal of Indian Law Institute that ‘the entire police force is painted with the same black brush.’ (1999, p. 138). Lathis made of bamboo sticks while brown in colour are indeed toned with the black brush of police brutality and torture that Marwah is referencing. This comment from over two decades ago maintains its relevance today, with Indian police brutality considered to be a ‘pandemic among minions of law all over the country’ (Banarjee, 2011, p. 723).
Torture legislation in tune with India’s cultural specificities
This piece hence attempts to explore this phenomenon in greater detail, focusing on the history and context of Indian police torture before investigating approaches to reform the legislation and culture underpinning this. Human rights have developed into an important consideration for all states, but India should be cautioned on blindly implementing Western frameworks of these. There is more merit in organising reform on torture legislation in a manner which is in tune with India’s cultural specificities (Chan, 1996, p. 10) and does not rely entirely on top-down communication (Dagar, 2014, p.66). As a result, I would argue that addressing torture by Indian police requires more than legal ratification of international torture conventions but will most likely be successful with a holistic, community-based policing approach (Aston, 2020, p.181).
The UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment defines torture as ‘any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person’ for various purposes such as obtaining a confession, punishment for an act, intimidation, or discrimination (Arora, 1999, p. 513). Historically, torture in India by authority figures has existed during British colonial rule, much of which is colonially inherited in India’s current judicial system today (Marwah, 1999, p. 139). Prior to this, torture was practiced during the Mughal period (ibid.) and even the Vedic period of Indian history with fire, water, and poison ordeals (Arora, 1999, p. 516).
A lack of convictions for torture
Currently, India has approximately 2.4 million people in official policing (Marwah, 2012, p. 1). A Ministry of Home Affairs reported nearly five people died in judicial custody in India daily from 2018-2021, with a surge in 2020 despite Covid-19 related deaths (The Hindu, 2020). NCAT Torture found that 60% of those who died in police custody in 2019 were from poor and marginalised communities (Rao, 2020).
India’s National Crime Records Bureau reported that not a single officer has been convicted for custodial deaths since 2011, while over 860 cases were recorded in this period
Furthermore, India’s National Crime Records Bureau reported that not a single officer has been convicted for custodial deaths since 2011, while over 860 cases were recorded in this period (ibid). 35% of complaints to India’s National Human Rights Commission in 2011 were against the police (Marwah, 2012, p.6). Aside from the statistics, horrifying cases have gained media attention. Vice reported a 17-year-old describing violent torture including grinding a stone against his teeth, while three other men accused the same police officer in question (IPS Balveer Singh) of crushing their testicles with his bare hands (Pundir, 2023). Dr N.C Asthana, former DGP of Kerala reported seeing shock torture and unnatural joint stretching as a trainee officer (Asthana, 2021).
An absence of torture and torture legislation debate
As Amrit Dhillon writes for The Guardian, the Delhi police slogan “For you, with you, always’’ has become colloquially rephrased by residents as ‘”never for you, never with you and never will be for you’’ (Dhillon, 2021). This characterisation is perhaps reflective of the experiences of many, with 80% of 12,000 police interviewed agreeing that there is nothing wrong to beat up criminals for confessions in a study by Common Cause (Common Cause, 2019, p. 180).
Yet despite this, there remains ‘an absence of a torture debate in the public in India’ where state discourse deems torture an effect of individual actions rather than systemic legal inadequacy (Lokaneeta, 2014). In 2023, Prime Minister Modi suggested penal and police reform addressing data exchange, emerging technologies, and jail management but not police brutality (The Hindu, 2023). Amit Shah’s recent criminal justice reform replaced three colonial Indian bills but did not reform the police force within these (Bridge India, 2023) despite the original context of these bills being British Police Raj for a subject nation (Arora, 1999, p. 527). Instead, a policy report by Bridge India reports how Shah’s expansion of sedition gives law enforcement more power to monitor electronic communication and financial means (Bridge India, 2023). The prevalence of torture in the actions of the Indian police force is undeniable, and this blog attempts to identify meaningful points of policy reform to address this.
India remains one of the only major democracies in the world that has still not ratified the UN Convention Against Torture
Ratifying international torture legislation
For one, India remains one of the only major democracies in the world that has still not ratified the UN Convention Against Torture, while becoming a signatory of this Convention in October 1997. A Prevention of Torture Bill introduced in the Lok Sabha attempted to ratify this international agreement but did not pass (PRSIndia, 2010). No independent authority exists under India to investigate incidents of torture unlike other countries. However, human rights have been regarded as essential to Indian philosophy and preserved in our constitution (Marwah, 1999, p. 138). In the case of Singh v. State of Rajasthan, the Apex Court presented third-degree methods by police such as torture as violative of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution (Arora, 1999, p. 524). The foundation of the Indian legal system is able to accommodate comprehensive legislation against torture, but no meaningful attempts to do so have been made.
No independent authority exists under India to investigate incidents of torture unlike other countries.
A meaningful attempt to reform India’s police force with regard to torture points to ratifying the UN Convention on Torture, helping keep India accountable to the UN and have UN guidance in tackling cases of torture (Arora, 1999. P. 528). Legal reform needs to additionally address police training, where most institutions lack basic requirements of amenities, instructors, and detailed training (Marwah, 2012, p.5). Police officers sometimes must work 14-hour days (Common Cause, 2019, p. 151), while only 6% have been given in-service training from 2014-2019 (ibid, p. 13). It is undeniably necessary to adopt measures to reform the Indian police force, but these measures alone fall short of successfully reforming the force. Top-down reform such as these helps produce stronger law enforcement institutions, that are not necessarily more in tune with cultural sensibilities and marginalised groups (Dagar, 2014, p. 65).
Serving the public, in the Indian context
Furthermore, India’s torture issue is not just a legal one, but a cultural one. The Indian police force is socialised to serve the state, over serving the people (Marwah, 2012, p. 5). Consequently, ‘police personnel continue to live in isolation from civilian communities’ (ibid.). As a result, police officers feel comfortable to adopt violent attitudes to criminals with 74% agreeing that doing so is justified for society’s greater good (Common Cause, 2019, p. 143). When police officers believe there is a moral basis to torture, then both the moral beliefs and institutional environment need to change to adapt this (Wahl, 2014, p. 832).
A dual approach that simultaneously connects with local communities on a grassroots level alongside legal protections and training can ensure this change (Dagar, 2014, p. 75).
Legislation and improving training are limited in their effectiveness unless met with changes in culture that police officers can actively interpret (O’Neill, 2016, p. 3-4). Janet Chan’s pioneering work on Changing Police Culture describes how distance between police and the people is the main reason behind the fragmented relationship between the two bodies, which can be improved through community policing (1996, p. 9-10). Community policing involves stakeholders and members of society critically engaging with the police and have autonomy over their actions. This framework pays homage to the deliberative, decentralised practices already enshrined in Indian democratic tradition such as the panchayat system.
When implemented in Trichy (Tamil Nadu), email, internet and complaint box mechanisms brought local communities closer to the police creating responsive and accountable channels of communication (Aston, 2020, p. 181-2). These policing approaches improved citizen trust in the police, improved their relationship and maintained law and order (ibid.) These models were also implemented in Andhra Pradesh and Ludhiana (ibid.) Joshua Aston argues that this is the only model that proves ‘beneficial for both the police and the public’ (ibid, p. 189). The police force’s perception hence moves from law enforcement to service-delivery (Dagar, 2014, p. 74), helping pioneer a culture that empowers the police to serve citizens, rather than the state apparatus.
Balancing local community needs
Henceforth, reforming the Indian police force’s malicious and deep-rooted attachment to brutality and torture is perhaps best achieved through a holistic approach. Combining formal legal approaches such as ratifying torture conventions and addressing training and infrastructure disparities in policy alone fall short. Pairing these with informal justice mechanisms like community policing ensure law enforcement remains both in tune with the local needs of the community (especially marginalised groups) and committed to serving the people (Dagar, 2014, p. 75). Changing police culture requires an approach that manages the complex balance of a systemic response that is simultaneously in tune with local community needs (Chan, 1996, p. 15). Establishing channels of communication in this manner creates a bona fide civic appreciation for human rights in both parties.
This is not to say that upon implementing reform within this framework that torture will cease to exist in India. It may take many generations for the lathi to become a forgotten symbol of the past for the Indian collective consciousness and for citizens to finally become ‘masters’ in the words of Justice Ramachandran (Jiji, 2022).
However, it is only through recognising the value of bottom-up reform that this vision may become a reality.
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Image used: A lathi-charge in New Delhi in 1993; (top) policewomen use canes to prop a shield from the rain.(From Hindustan Times Archive). Source.