Police custodial torture caused this Bengaluru man to lose his arm

Three police officers who tortured Salman in custody for five days have been suspended.
Salman Khan, a custodial torture victim in Bengaluru
Salman Khan, a custodial torture victim in Bengaluru
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October 27 began like any other day for Salman Khan, a resident of Varthur in Bengaluru, who works at a meat shop to eke out a meagre living for his family. However, the events that happened towards the end of the day have changed the youth’s life forever. That night, the Varthur police allegedly detained Salman, without spelling out the charges against him, and allegedly subjected him to custodial violence. The alleged torture was so grave that over the following five days, his right arm got infected. Ultimately, it came down to choosing between his life and keeping his arm. Salman, who is in his early twenties, subsequently had to get his arm amputated. 

According to a fact-finding committee, Salman was kept in police custody at the Varthur Police Station from October 27 to 31, in violation of several protocols — no FIR was registered against him; his family was not informed; he was not produced before the Magistrate with 24 hours of detention. He was also allegedly not provided food and water through the detention. A month after the incident, the three police officers who allegedly tortured Salman were suspended. Nagabhushan Gowda HC, Nagaraj BN and Shivaraj H — two of them are constables — were suspended on Thursday, December 2 — a procedure that has only become blithely customary in cases of custodial violence. 

The fact-finding committee — comprising human rights organisations and activists from the National Confederation of Human Rights Organizations, the All India Lawyers’ Association for Justice, the Campaign Against Hate Speech and independent advocates — visited the Varthur police station, Salman’s family as well as the hospitals where he was treated after his release. In the report, the committee submitted that Salman was illegally detained and many of his rights, including the right to life and right to legal aid, were violated.

The frantic search for Salman

The fact-finding committee’s report stated that Salman had been living in Varthur for one to two years after moving there from the Dommasandra area in Bengaluru. In Varthur, a man is said to have attempted to involve Salman in the business of selling batteries stolen by them.

On October 27, around 10.30 pm, a boy in the neighbourhood reached Salman’s house and took him to a place where police vehicles had arrived near his house. The vehicles, however, were not police vehicles, and the policemen were dressed in civilian clothes. When Salman reached the vehicle, the police nabbed him, physically assaulted him and pushed him into one of the vehicles. His family was not informed about his detention or arrest, the report said.

After Salman’s mother got to know that her son had been taken away by the police later that night, she began searching for him. When she reached the Varthur police station, the officials allegedly told her that her son wasn’t there, and she should check the Sarjapur police station. 

“Salman’s mother frantically went from pillar to post looking for her son, fearing for her son’s life and safety, without any information regarding his whereabouts,” the report said. 

It was only on his third day in custody that Salman’s mother heard him cry out “Amma” when she was at the Varthur Police station, which confirmed he was there. The report said that Salman was “brutally beaten for having shouted for his mother.”

The police then allegedly demanded a sum of Rs 50,000 for Salman’s release, which he could not produce. Salman was held back in police custody.

The five days of torture

The committee’s report revealed disturbing details of the torture and assault that Salman was allegedly subjected to during his five-day custody, at the hands of three police officers. They allegedly tried to make Salman confess to a crime he did not commit.

“Per Salman’s accounts, three “crime police” beat him up with lathis and their hands, suspended him by his toes, and brutally thrashed him. The police tied a rod on Salman’s back and legs and placed him in an upward position to stretch his body and torture him. The police repeatedly stood on Salman’s right hand with their boots, and kicked him,” the fact-finding committee found.

“Salman was punched, beaten, slapped, and tortured in many ways, and each police person took turns in beating him. Salman was subjected to such an extent of brutality, that he was taken by the police themselves to the hospital, which is corroborated by the accounts of the hospital,” the report added.

On October 31, the police called Salman’s mother and asked her to take her son without paying any amount. They allegedly told her that there was no case against her son.

‘Should I save my son’s life or his arm?’

Salman’s mother noted that her son’s hand was swollen twice its normal size, and his body bore marks of torture and beatings. On November 1, Salman complained of severe pain and was taken to the Suraksha hospital, and then, to Vydehi Hospital, where the family was informed that the nerves in his right arm had suffered severe injuries, which has completely affected Salman’s right arm. His hand was placed in a cast. Thereafter, it was recommended that his hand be amputated due to the severity of the infection.

Salman with his hand in a cast. Photo: Fact-finding committee report

In a video taken by a friend of the family, Salman’s mother could be seen recounting the ordeal as Salman lies on the bed near her, with heavy dressing on his right side where his arm used to be. “The bills have mounted to Rs 3.5 lakh,” the mother said. “I kept asking [the police], let me see my child, let me see my child, but they did not let me,” she said, referring to the three days when she was not allowed to see her son in police custody. She also alleged that the police called her multiple times, demanding money for Salman’s release. “I kept telling them I don’t have money,” she said in the video.

“They (doctors) told me, do you want to keep his arm or [save] his life? They said if they amputate his arm, his life will be saved. What could I do, I needed to save his life,” she said, breaking down. “It is ok his hand is not there, his life should be saved. What could I do?”

Salman was then taken to the third hospital since the incident, the Hosmat Hospital, where his arm was amputated, and where he still is, receiving treatment.

The police justification

The fact-finding committee also learnt that during the time Salman was at Vydehi Hospital, unknown police officials visited him and forcibly took his thumb impression on a blank paper, and seized his medical records.

The Inspector of Varthur police station, Somashekkar, allegedly said that the CCTV cameras in the station were not working. He also denied keeping Salman in custody for five days. He claimed that the police took Salman into custody on October 31, based on an informant’s tip that Salman was involved in a break-in and theft case, and was released on the same day. He claimed that Salman cut his hand while working at the chicken shop and that Salman had injected chemicals or drugs into his arm, which caused the infection.

While the Inspector said they detained Salman, he also admitted to not registering an FIR against him. He said that after an alleged inquiry, they found that Salman wasn’t involved in the break-in and theft case, and released him.

Incidentally, the hospital where Salman was first taken to by the police gave a contradictory timeline. A receptionist at the Suraksha Multispeciality Hospital told the fact-finding team that the police had brought Salman to the hospital on October 31, when he complained of abdominal pain and vomited blood. He was given painkillers and started on IV. After this, his mother brought him to Hosmat Hospital on November 4.

When asked about the incident, the Bengaluru Commissioner of Police, Kamal Pant, said, “The Deputy Commissioner of Police Whitefield is handling the matter. We will follow the law.”

Minorities, marginalised communities often targeted

The police also allegedly compelled his parents to sign a paper, which said that the mishap with Salman was due to a “self-fall,” for which a medico-legal case was registered at the police’s insistence. His parents signed the statements out of fear that their son would be taken back to the police station and tortured again. “As they are all illiterate, they were unable to read and understand the statement that they were being coerced into signing,” the fact-finding committee’s report said.

Syeda Saba, an advocate with the Alternative Law Forum as well as a member of the fact-finding team, told TNM that it is usually people from socio-economically backward communities who are targeted in such cases where police pick up an individual, take them into custody on the pretext of a tip or suspicion, and try to pin a false charge on them or ask for a bribe to let them go.

“It happens in a manner that the victim does not get time to think through and consider their options. Further, because they are afraid of getting detained by the police and foisted with another false case, they are compelled to comply with the police’s demands,” Saba said.

According to the State of Policing in India Report 2019, 49% of police personnel in Karnataka said that Muslims are ‘very much’ (26%) or ‘somewhat’ (23%) prone to committing crimes. Forty-six percent of the state police personnel surveyed for the report also said the same for Dalits.

This was the highest prejudice the survey found towards these two groups among the Indian states surveyed. Karnataka also had the highest number of respondents who believed that non-literate people are naturally prone to committing crimes (31% ‘very much’, and 36% ‘somewhat’).

Overall, in India, the disparity was lesser across caste groups when compared to attitudes towards Muslims. “About one-third police personnel reported that people from all these caste-groups were likely to be naturally prone towards committing violence (‘very much’ and ‘somewhat’ combined). Moreover, police personnel belonging to upper-castes, OBCs, SCs and STs responded quite similarly to this question,” the report said. 

On the other hand, one in five police personnel said that complaints under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act are “very much” false and motivated.

Lax redressal mechanisms

While prejudices towards caste and communities are at play in cases like Salman’s and their socio-economic vulnerability making them easy targets, the desultory action against police excesses adds to the problem by not creating a deterrent. “Cases enter inquiry stage, and at most, the police officials are suspended, or transferred. Cases drag on and compensation takes years to come through. This neither deters police officials nor does it encourage people to take up cases of custodial torture to court,” Saba pointed out.

Further, while the Supreme Court had mandated that a Police Complaints Authority should be established at state and district levels to look into complaints of accountability and custodial violence, only 22 states have established it at the state level as per a report by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. Saba, however, pointed out that even these authorities have former police officials as heads, which runs the risk of compromising the independence of investigations into complaints. Further, the Police Complaints Authority doesn’t have punitive powers.

With inputs from Soumya Chatterjee

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