This week marks a year since the brutal killing of P Jayaraj and J Bennix in police custody. On 19 June 2020, in Sathankulam, Tamil Nadu, the police arrested the pair for violating lockdown regulations. Following the arrest, the father and son were allegedly sexually assaulted and tortured in police custody. Jayaraj and Bennix succumbed to their injuries on 23 and 22 June 2020, respectively. The case is currently under trial at a district court at Madurai. On 22 March 2021, the Madurai bench of Madras High Court denied bail to the four police officers accused of the crime.
Police excesses and misuse of power have been an infamous feature of India’s response to COVID-19. During the pandemic, the administration relied heavily on police to impose lockdown, restrict the movement of individuals, and thereby restrict the spread of infection. However, in the absence of accountability and check on police actions, this additional power and responsibility have led to instances of police brutality, many of which have resulted in civilian deaths.
This year, as the state governments reintroduced lockdown measures to address the second wave of the pandemic, similar instances of police excess were reported from across the country. Responding to these events, the judiciary condemned the use of excessive force to impose lockdown. However, similar to last year, their response remained mostly muted and inadequate. Instead of taking an active role in preventing police excesses and brutality through inquiries and expedited prosecution, the judiciary placed the onus on the executive and police leadership to prevent these occurrences. In a situation where police brutality was expected to escalate due to prolonged restrictions on movement, a more proactive approach was required from the courts.
In the absence of active monitoring by the judiciary, the existing system is woefully inadequate to hold police accountable for their actions. Most cases of brutality by police officers go unnoticed and unreported. The lack of trust in the police system and the accountability process dissuades many from filing cases against them. Further, the few cases in which complaints are filed against police officers are seldom fast-tracked and the process to ensure accountability often results in years-long legal battles.
As per National Crimes Record Bureau, in 2019, out of 4068 cases filed against police personnel, only 1210 cases (29.7%) were charge-sheeted and other 67 complaints were quashed by the courts. The remaining 68.6% of cases against police officers remained at the investigation stage. Further, out of 49 cases related to human rights violations registered against police officers, only 7 (14.3%) were charge-sheeted.
While the criminal justice system is riddled with inefficiency, the special forums to prevent human rights violations lack teeth to enforce its orders. The Prevention of Human Rights Act, 1993 empowers individuals to file complaints related to human rights violations before the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). If the inquiry of such complaints reveals a violation of human rights, the commission can recommend the concerned government to pay monetary compensation, initiate prosecution, or take any other actions as it may deem fit. However, this dependence on the concerned government to initiate actions often results in delays in delivering justice. As per NHRC Annual Report, as on 20 August 2018, out of 757 recommendations of monetary reliefs by the NHRC in 2017-18, the state governments have complied with only 151 (19.9%).
In 2006, the Supreme Court in Prakash Singh v Union of India issued seven directions to ensure police accountability and effectuate police reforms in India. One of these directions includes the establishment of a Police Complaint Authority at the state and district levels to address the complaints against police officers. However, even after 14 years of this judgment, most states are yet to enforce these directions.
A study by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative found that while 22 states have established State Police Complaint Authority and 17 states have established District Police Complaint Authority on paper, only Andhra Pradesh fully complies with the court directives. In most states, these authorities do not hold the power to appoint independent investigators and their recommendations hold no binding value. Without the essential powers, Police Complaint Authorities remain helpless to enforce accountability. Some states like Uttar Pradesh have even resisted the establishment of the Police Complaint Authority stating that it “may jeopardize the functioning of the police system.”
The instances of police brutality and excessive use of power at the time of the pandemic have caused distress to many, especially street vendors, gig economy workers, and those belonging to the marginalised communities. Immediate measures are required to address these allegations of excessive use of power. NHRC should step forward and initiate an extensive investigation of all the cases of human rights violations during the lockdown.
Further, the judiciary should initiate court-monitored investigations into the allegations of police excess during the lockdown. It should also take measures to expedite prosecution in cases where police are accused of excessive use of force.
To effect police reforms and change this culture of impunity, it is important for the state governments to implement the directions of the Supreme Court in Prakash Singh v Union of India in letter and in spirit. A strong Police Complaint Authority with investigative powers is crucial to monitor the actions of police officers and address cases of police excesses.
Aditya Ranjan is a Research Fellow for the Judicial Reforms Initiative at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.