An Indian woman hugs a crying child to her in the shadow of a doorway, outside a man is being threatened by a police officer in front of his vehicle.

Women struggle while men die in custody in India’s Uttar Pradesh

Amid government claims of a decline in crime, human rights violations have become rife in India’s most populous state.

The reporting for this project was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

When 33-year-old Shahiba Bano is not busy trying to piece her life back together, her mind strays to the late-evening driving lessons with her husband. Learning how to ride a three-wheeler for a living was never on her agenda. Bringing up four children was a full-time job in itself. But her husband, Ibrahim, who eked out a humble living as a driver, was adamant, so she played along. Soon she started looking forward to the lessons, and most importantly, to the opportunity to step out of their home in Uttar Pradesh’s Banaura village to spend time with him. It lasted for a year before abruptly coming to an end in February 2021.

In the state records, Ibrahim is a custodial death statistic. Shahiba, meanwhile, is taking each day in her stride: grieving her husband’s death, fighting for justice and compensation, providing for her children, and convincing herself that she can fill in the emotional void that Ibrahim’s death has left in their lives.

India recorded over 4,400 custodial deaths between 2020 and 2022. Uttar Pradesh alone accounted for over 21 percent of the deaths, raising questions about the prevalence of gross human rights violations in the country’s most populous state.  

Death by Law

Unbias the News interviewed seven families who lost their family members to custodial deaths in Uttar Pradesh. Of these, five deaths were recorded between 2020 and 2022. The ground reportage, and interviews with over a dozen experts, showed how women bore the brunt of the deaths and were pushed further into poverty, floundering without any resources to support their families.

Mangla, a lawyer, who has been examining cases of state violence in UP, points out the urgent need to see state violence through a gendered lens. “In events of custodial deaths, the situation becomes drastically poor for the families, especially for the wife who faces the economic brunt. The wife has to typically face patriarchy inside the house and pressure from the police from outside. Often, she becomes a burden for her in-laws and maternal family. In some cases, they are pushed into marriage again. In other cases, she is forced to cave into not giving a statement.” 

Data obtained by Unbias the News from the rights body National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) for the corresponding period (1 April 2020 – 31 March 2022) shows 4,206 judicial custody deaths, and 278 police custody deaths across the country. Of these, Uttar Pradesh recorded 935 judicial custody deaths – the highest in the country – and 17 police custody deaths, the third highest in the country after Maharashtra and Gujarat.  

Compensations were ordered for 252 deaths in judicial custody, and 58 deaths in police custody — both of which include cases carried forward from past years — across the country during this period. The total compensation amount for deaths in judicial custody amounted to over 77 million INR, and over 21 million INR for police custody deaths.

Trial and Error

Arrested on charges of allegedly being in possession of 25 grams of heroin, Ibrahim died by suicide in jail, according to prison authorities — a version vehemently contested by the family, who refused to bury Ibrahim’s body. What followed was furore in the local media, and heavy police deployment till the burial took place at their village in Sonbhadra district.

Glancing through photographs taken in their youth, Shahiba asks if the family’s condition would be so dismal if they were smuggling drugs for a living. According to Shahiba, the auto-rickshaw was intercepted by the police when her husband was on the day’s first trip to ferry passengers. “The police tried to coax my husband to vacate the auto and run errands for them in the auto [a term called begaari, or work without pay, in the local parlance], and he refused.”

“They said they would teach him a lesson. He was taken to a police station where I eventually met him. I signed documents, paid a fine, and drove the auto-rickshaw back home. On 8 February, I again met him at the court where he was produced. On 12 February, we got the news that he was dead.”

Ibrahim, 39, was dead within five days of his arrest.

In the wake of the storm

The repercussions of Ibrahim’s death on his family were immediate — his father’s health rapidly deteriorated and he died within a few months. His eldest daughter, 18, who wanted to study further, was married off. Three children, aged 16, 14 and 11, were pulled out of private school.

“If they are attending [a private] school, they would have to go a certain way [need better clothes, better food, etc]. It is different when they go to a government school. I do not have much … Should I feed them or educate them?”

Not finding the confidence to drive the auto-rickshaw for a living after seeing Ibrahim’s fate, Shahiba has rented it out. While financial struggles became a part of her everyday life, negotiating family dynamics and societal expectations have also added a layer of burden.

“There is a certain way society perceives you when your husband is no more. It is not easy,” says Shahiba as she rearranges her husband’s documents in a suitcase.

Suhas Chakma from the National Campaign Against Torture says once a person is produced before a magistrate it is expected that the judiciary will be the protector. Despite the existence of jail manuals, which legally ensure the physical integrity and liberty of prisoners, the reality is starkly different, adds Chakma.

On paper, the government upholds the law

In the recent past, the UP government has been vocal about its intolerance to crime. The state’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said in an interview that if ‘criminals’ did not mend their ways, the police would ‘knock them down’. Such deliberations from senior party functionaries provide the police with impunity in committing excesses, say activists and lawyers.

India’s ruling party, BJP, was re-elected to power in Uttar Pradesh in 2022 after a high-pitched campaign for a drop in crime rates and improved law and order conditions.

Adityanath has been hailed by party functionaries, including home minister Amit Shah, for improving the law and order situation in the state. 

In 2021, there was outrage in the country when a 22-year-old Muslim boy died in police custody. Analysis pieces show Muslims remain vulnerable to being targeted by the police and judiciary, and that the law is misused to target minorities. Dalits also remain disproportionally at the receiving end of the law.  

Lenin Raghuvanshi, a UP-based social activist, remarks the BJP has been using a feudal tool to control crime by creating a climate of fear among people: “This is against the modern criminal justice system.”

In 2010, the United Progressive Alliance government brought in anti-torture legislation to the lower house of India’s Parliament. It was eventually put in cold storage.

India still remains without the legislation, exposing the lack of political commitment in clamping down on torture, despite the country being a signatory to the UN Convention against Torture since 1997.

In 2017, the Law Commission pointed out the obligation of states to take action to prevent violence, and, in 2019, the Supreme Court directed all states to send their responses to the Prevention of Torture Bill, 2017.

Though a need of the hour, an anti-torture legislation alone cannot change the culture of violence embedded in the criminal justice system, says Venkatesh Nayak of the non-profit Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative: “The vision of the Preamble of the Constitution is to secure equality, justice, liberty and fraternity. The executive’s actions must be founded on the principle of rule of law because there is no room for arbitrariness.”

"How can one tolerate a situation where law enforcement agencies are able to torture citizens? There is rampant abuse of power that leads to suffering, loss of lives and untold agony of families of victims of torture.”

Reports show the implementation of the guidelines of the D.K. Basu v. West Bengal  judgment remains poor, despite being incorporated into the country’s Code of Criminal Procedure. In the case, the Supreme Court of India, India’s highest court, developed a set of guidelines to clamp down on torture in custody. The NHRC was established in 1993 to put checks and balances in place, and hold the state accountable. But its role has failed to achieve full potential, according to rights activists.

Senior advocate Anand Grover points out there is sovereign immunity granted to the state when it comes to custodial deaths and the jurisprudence remains deficient. “In India, you cannot file a lawsuit against the police for misconduct. We overcome that by allowing writ petitions in the High Court.”

The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment is a United Nations human rights treaty from 1984 that prohibits state governments from enacting torture on any person in its jurisdiction – including criminals and people suspected of crimes. India became a signatory in 1997.

Article one of the Convention defines torture as, “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. “

The UN Human Rights Council has called on states to ensure that police officers and other state officials ensure the human rights of people in detention and protect them from all forms of torture. Among other things, states are required to ensure “that any individual arrested or detained by police or law enforcement officials is brought promptly before a judge or other independent judicial official, and at any stage of detention enjoys, without undue delay, access to a lawyer and a doctor.” In addition, states are called upon to address overcrowding in detention. 

Wives and children struggle with finances, stigma a dominant part of lives

When Shahiba asked Ibrahim why he insisted on her learning how to drive, he told her he wanted to ensure that she is ‘no less’ in any sphere of life. “But I liked driving the auto-rickshaw because it was something I used to do with him.”

On the last day when she met him in court, she thought it was only a matter of days before Ibrahim would be out of prison. After all, the charges were fabricated, she told him. “I am being sent away [to prison]. How will you manage?” Shahiba quotes Ibrahim’s last words to her, breaking into tears. “I told him not to worry and that I would get him released soon.”

She pauses as her son gestures that he is leaving for school. They kiss each other’s hands and promise to remain strong before he zooms away on his bicycle.

Shahiba is resolute now to fight the legal battle.

The father, the son, and the ghost of a life past

But Reena, aged 22, in Newari village, and Manju Devi, around 40, in Ahraura village, who both lost their husbands to custodial deaths in Sonbhadra district, are wary of the legal recourse for different reasons.

As her three-year-old daughter vies for attention demanding to be fed a biscuit and a piece of a chikki (peanut candy), Reena recounts how she got duped into paying 20,000 INR (roughly 250 euros) to a person who promised her compensation for her husband’s death. Unacquainted with the legal system, Reena easily believed she would receive state compensation if she deposited this amount. The fraud cost them deeply. The family depends on the income of Reena’s father who works as a labourer, and the lean produce from hardly an acre of land that the family owns. 

Accused of rape, Reena’s 26-year-old husband Krish Murari was in jail for around six months till his death in May 2021. The police claimed he died by suicide.

As a truck driver, Krish earned 15,000-20,000 INR a month. Having studied till class 10, Reena wonders aloud if she can manage to find a job.  

“My life would be different if he had been alive. He was innocent. The rape charge was false and lodged to settle score between families. I have even spoken to the woman who had accused him of the crime,” says Reena. What she worries about the most is whether she will be able to educate her child.

While Reena feels despair thinking about the future, Krish’s parents can barely afford the medicines their son used to take care of. 

An inconsolable Janti Devi, Krish’s mother, recalls how her son would assure her that someday soon financial struggle would be out of their way, and that they would have a ‘good house’ to stay in.

His father Mahendar Prasad wants accountability: “Show us the spot where this happened. Show the CCTV footage.”  

"When something wrong happens, the police can come and lock us up. But I want to ask who will lock them up when something goes wrong at their end? Who do we fight with?” asks Prasad.

Death and its domino effect

The India Justice Report by Tata Trusts shows UP ranked last among bigger states at 18 out of 18 states when it came to its ranking across police, prison, judiciary and legal aid. Uttar Pradesh’s police ranked 15 in 2020, as compared to 2019’s 18. 

Uttar Pradesh also has a high vacancy rate of constables and officers, and a poor representation of women officials.

Uttar Pradesh does not fare well when it comes to its prisons either – 3.24 second from bottom among the large states, second from bottom at 3.16 when it comes to the rank of the judiciary, and last in legal aid at 2.54.

Manju Devi is bogged down by the stigma of the crime her husband, Badri Morja, allegedly committed. He was accused of having murdered his brother-in-law when a verbal fight over a business feud escalated. He died in judicial custody in July 2021, within a few days of being imprisoned. His business, and the financial security it provided his family, shut shop too.   

“How will I go and fight for justice? I have four kids – two daughters – 24, and 22, and two sons – 19 and 17. I have never stepped outside my home. Where do I run around?”

The eldest daughter, who is hearing and speaking impaired, is still processing her father’s death. The second daughter is now clueless about how to pursue her education. Of the sons, one is pursuing his graduation while working part-time, and the youngest has started to earn money assisting at his uncle’s shop, which sells fritters.

Neeranjan Morja, the deceased’s brother, says the need of the hour is to focus on those left behind: “There were black marks all over his body… But we were just told that he fell ill and then was found dead. We do not want to pursue any case.”  

When the old bury the young

In Devkali village in Azamgarh district, 40-year-old Neerja Singh is trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy in her life — between reconciling herself with the grief of losing her youngest son and getting on with her familial duties. As she talks about her son’s brief life, she vacillates between stoicism and being inconsolable. 

The last time she went to visit her son at the jail she carried 5 kilograms of roasted chana (black gram), and mango pickles. Her face breaks into a faint smile as she talks about his liking. “He liked mango pickles – the sweet kind.”

The school marksheet documents his age as 17. But his post-mortem report records his age as 22 – a claim vehemently contested by the family.    

Accused of theft, he was imprisoned for a year before the family bailed him out.

In December 2020, he was jailed again. He died on August 8, 2021  — four days after his birthday. His mother laments having believed that if her son was in the wrong, the system would course correct him. She last spoke to him a day before his birthday.   

Her son had respiratory distress, which would resurface intermittently. According to the jail administration, his health rapidly deteriorated and he died in the hospital.

Overcrowding in prisons and lack of health facilities

Vijay Raghavan, professor at the Centre for Criminology and Justice at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, points out how overcrowding in jails is linked with human rights violations of prisoners, and the urgent need for an overhaul of the criminal justice system.

“There is supposed to be a minimum amount of space allotted for each prisoner as per the prison manuals. But due to overcrowding, the authorities are not able to maintain the standard. When it comes to medical care, while the actual capacity is sometimes thrice the designated capacity or even more, the strength of the medical staff is based on the sanctioned capacity. So while the data shows natural deaths, some of the reasons for deaths may be because of their health conditions, which may have exacerbated inside the prison due to lack of proper health facilities. Doctors’ posts lying vacant also typically increases the stress on the prison system.”

He explains how the absence of facilities and human resources, including police to escort patients to hospitals, may be linked to deaths because patients were not attended to in a time-bound manner.  

Scores of complaints, zero convictions

In Sajaur in Sonbhadra district, another mother, Malti Shukla, has barely managed to pick up the pieces of her life since her son died in police custody within a day of having been detained in August 2019. Shivam Shukla, 26, was accused of stealing mustard seeds. “And people are murdering people and roaming around on the streets. Isn’t it?” asks a distraught Malti. 

At the local police station, where Malti went to meet her son, he had urged her to save him. His father Umapati Shukla barely looks up as he sieves through the son’s documents. The police claimed he died by suicide by hanging himself with the drawstring of his bottomwear

“When we asked for the CCTV footage, the police said the cameras were not in working condition. He killed himself by using a drawstring — is that really possible?”

Between 2000 and 2020, 26 police officials were convicted, though there were complaints against over 890 people in the force. During 2021, there were zero convictions of police officials, pointing to how the police enjoy impunity despite committing atrocities.

As the rights group Peoples Union for Democratic Rights noted in its findings on custodial deaths in Delhi, “There are rarely if ever any independent non-police witnesses in cases of custodial deaths, nor is there any independent mechanism of investigation.”

There is a need to analyse torture or third-degree treatment in police custody from two angles –the police believing it is the best way to extract evidence, and that violence is used under bias, says Raghavan.

“This line of treatment shows that there is a lack of scientific method of investigation, especially outside metropolitan cities and in non-high-profile cases. There is also an agenda to teach the person a lesson and then it can go overboard. In a lot of cases, you may find the person was beaten up and then it became a serious injury and then it led to the death. At the time of beating, the constable is not doing it wanting to kill the person but the outcome is death."

The medical documents, including the post-mortem report, are crucial in assessing the injuries present in the body. In fact, the autopsy report is crucial in giving a holistic picture of the status of the body. But it may miss a few circumstances that may have contributed to the cause of death, including the psychological impact of torture, points out Dr Jagadeesh Narayanreddy, Bengaluru-based medico-legal consultant.    

But it cannot be discounted that one of the consequences of torture is psychological.

“A person is often susceptible to self-harm following torture. Also, the post-mortem report would not capture how a person was disturbed since the torture. Despite videography of the process of autopsies, police interference cannot be ruled out as due to lack of infrastructure it is often the police which is recording the event,” Dr Narayanreddy adds.

India has an obligation to the Minnesota Protocol on the Investigation of Potentially Unlawful Death. Currently, there is an absence of uniform protocol for autopsies in India. There is a need that due process is followed while conducting the autopsy independent of external pressures in order to document the possibility of torture, says Sangeeta Rege, coordinator at the Mumbai-based Centre for Enquiry Into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT).

“The right to life is contrary to the deprivation of life and the state is accountable when it fails to protect, preserve or respect the right to life and must investigate such unlawful deaths."

Unbias the News reached out to the Uttar Pradesh Police on e-mail, phone and WhatsApp multiple times for their comment on the story. The Uttar Pradesh Police has not responded so far. The story will be updated if they do.

About the author

Ritwika Mitra is an independent journalist based in India.

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